Allocating Your R&D Dollars Wisely

Opinion: Target smart buildings, security and application development.

Do you remember Apples Newton? It was going to be everything you wanted a PDA to be. It could recognize your handwriting. In fact, the term PDA was coined by then-Apple CEO John Sculley (at least according to Wikipedia). The Newton would help you organize your life.

But, alas, the Newton was too big, too buggy and too unconnected to be a useful assistant of any kind. Despite all the promise, the Newtons life span from 1993 to 1998 was marked more by promise than product. I remember a (probably) apocryphal story about a secret warehouse sitting full of unsold Newtons.

I dont know if the recent introduction of the iPhone by Apple CEO Steve Jobs will be a wild success or will suffer the same fate as the Newton, but no one else knows that answer, either. No one knows the answer because there are no iPhone users out there, and there will not be until the product is widely available and has suffered all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that a real-world environment and group of users can concoct.

I bring up the Newton and iPhone because these big product introductions have a way of drawing attention away from business users concerns about technologies that they should be developing and funding right now. Big products create a lot of excitement and, especially in this era of intense blogging, a lot of interest. But excitement and interest do not necessarily drive good business decisions. Here are three areas where you should be spending your R&D and funding efforts right now.

Smart buildings. In the past, Ive talked about systems that provide measurement and control of your heating, electricity and air conditioning. And while there is still a lot of money to be gained from controlling systems that have been traditionally out of the IT infrastructure, I may have been taking too narrow a view. Ive heard from readers regarding the enormous number of paper-based security, expenditure and financial systems that continue to exist in even the largest corporations. Making your buildings smart while your business processes stay dumb will never yield the returns on investment you desire. This should be the year when your building, your business processes and you get smart about creating a seamless technology infrastructure for your company.

Basic security. There is no magic bullet or final endpoint for creating a secure computing environment. The best secure network is almost worthless if administrators are still using "admin" for a password and users are using their last names for their system password access. If users are still opening e-mail attachments and if you are allowing Web-based e-mail systems to be accessed from your corporate network, then your computer security efforts will fail. Pretend that your security budget is suddenly frozen, and you cant buy one more piece of equipment or one more hour of consultant time. What procedures and system administrative privileges would you put in place to tighten up your current network? You would probably find lots of places where you could tighten up your network. You should enforce those procedures right now.

Application development. Where do your applications reside, and who does your development? Have you looked at funding a skill upgrade for your in-house developers? What about using hosted applications as part of your computing environment? What are the pros and cons of using contract developers, whether in the United States or overseas? These types of investigations are time-consuming, costly and sure to draw the suspicion of those employees whose expertise and job security are being questioned. But if you dont look closely at how your business applications are developed and deployed, you will never be able to build a business infrastructure that is truly flexible, capable of quick expansion and conforms to the open yet secure requirements of a modern business operation.

None of those three activities will be as much fun as speculating on whether the iPhone will be a success, but all of them are more important to your business today.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at