The tech industry's most baffling buzzwords: A brief guide

'A disruptively robust cloud-based paradigm shift'... slow down!


As tech journalists, we get a lot of pitches from companies' public relations teams. Some of these pitches, unfortunately, are written in a language that bears little resemblance to English.

Indeed, many of these pitches are so indecipherable that even the most hardened veteran tech reporters will find their eyes glazing over after reading 50 press releases informing them that TechnoCorp, the leading provider of cloud-based Web 3.0 solutions, has announced the availability of a disruptively robust new solution that will create an industry paradigm shift.

For those normal people out there who have no idea what any of these words mean, Network World has produced this handy guide to the tech industry's most impenetrable buzzwords, slogans and catch phrases that will hopefully help you tell your blended threats apart from your paradigm shifts.

Buzzword #1: Disruptive

What's strange about the word "disruptive" is that it normally has a rather negative connotation. For example: "When my drunken Uncle Jimmy passed out on my coffee table, it was disruptive to my Sunday afternoon."

In the topsy-turvy world of the tech industry, however, it means that a technology is so innovative that it disrupts the current market and forces companies to change their business models to stay competitive. The phrase was initially coined by a 1995 Harvard Business School article co-authored by Joseph Bower and Clayton Christensen called "Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave."

Buzzword #2: Paradigm shift

This is what happens when a disruptive technology hits the market. Basically, it means that people and businesses are doing stuff differently than they did before.

The Internet, for example, created a paradigm shift in the way people purchased music, because they're more likely to download songs directly onto their computers than to purchase CDs.

Marketers, of course, are eager to describe product releases as creating a "paradigm shift" that will change the way the world works forever.

A quick glance through PR News wire reveals that the following products have been described as marking paradigm shifts at one point or another: a cylinder gas delivery system, a piece of fraud-prevention software, a prenatal genetic testing program, a peer-to-peer music sharing service and a marketing venture founded by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

You'll notice that paradigm shifts are often offered by companies that describe themselves as "the leading providers" in their field, which is actually how every single company in every single industry describes itself.

Buzzword #3: Cloud computing

When companies offer cloud computing services, it's their way of saying, "Let us do your IT stuff for you over the Web." Or to put it in slightly more technical terms, cloud computing services use Internet technologies to deliver IT-related capabilities directly to users.

As a recent Network World FAQ noted, cloud computing is "an approach to building IT services that harnesses the rapidly increasing horsepower of servers as well as virtualisation technologies that combine many servers into large computing pools and divide single servers into multiple virtual machines that can be spun up and powered down at will." In other words, cloud computing gives users the option of ramping up their capacity quickly without having to invest in physical infrastructure.

But while cloud computing is a real term used for a certain type of technology, it has also become an oft-abused buzzword. As Network World reporter Jon Brodkin recently documented, some companies have shown a pattern of slapping the "cloud computing" label on their old offerings in order to give them a fresh buzz.

Buzzword #4: Web 3.0

Does anybody have a clear understanding of what Web 3.0, aka "The Semantic Web," actually means?

European Telecommunications Commissioner Viviane Reding, for instance, said that Web 3.0 "means seamless 'anytime, anywhere' business, entertainment and social networking over fast reliable and secure networks. It means the end of the divide between mobile and fixed lines.

It signals a tenfold quantum leap in the scale of the digital universe by 2015." OK .... Internet guru Tim Berners-Lee, meanwhile has described it as "Web 2.0 without the silos."

As best we can tell, Web 3.0 will have the ability to not only understand keywords, but to understand full syntax - or as HowStuffWorks recently put it, you could type a full sentence such as "I want to see a funny movie and then eat at a good Mexican restaurant. What are my options?" into a Web browser and have it retrieve a direct answer to your question.

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