At 86 years old, Japanese ICT and services giant Fujitsu is one of the oldest technology companies in the world, Japan's biggest services provider, and just outside the top five in that sector worldwide. At its ActivateNow virtual summit last week, the company set out its vision of sustainable and trusted technologies shaping a better world for all. A positive message from an event that was enterprise focused and slick.
Special guest Sir Tim Berners-Lee talked about trust, collaborative openness, personal privacy, and user control over personal data. High-end customers and academics picked up the themes, and all was right with the world. But as ever with such events, the critical dimension of being able to question technologists, strategists, users, and analysts at first hand was lost in the COVID-era world of cloud outreach. This is troubling for both the spirit and fact of journalistic enquiry.
Please note, this is not just a criticism of Fujitsu. It's an unfortunate side-effect of our sometimes locked-down, remote, cloud-connected world. Annual conferences have always been platforms for corporate messaging and customer success stories, and there's nothing wrong with that. But for many large corporations, virtual events have accentuated the messaging while stripping away opportunities for unscripted conversation and engagement.
Today, even one-to-one interviews often come with the caveat ‘There will be a slide presentation, then X will set out his vision, then you will have an opportunity to ask any questions you may still have', which is to regard journalists as clients and interviews as briefings.
So, when the opportunity arose to speak to Fujitsu's urbane CTO and managing executive officer, Vivek Mahajan, this week - a charming man who certainly knows his stuff - I first had to turn down the PowerPoint presentation. Even so, he was accompanied by a phalanx of PR executives, who fielded some of the questions I put to him. Mahajan then repeated much of his conference content in a 20-minute "brief introduction", with no opportunity for a humble scribe to interject.
In an industry that is as much about relationships and human interest as bits, bytes, and boxes, such an approach does little to counter the mainstream media's view that, while technology is connecting people in the COVID age - and doing a good job of it - within the enterprise it is often a force that must be accepted passively and without question, automating as it goes.
Yet being able to hold providers to account is as important as questioning our political leaders - particularly when a handful of Big Tech companies now have market caps bigger than most nations' GDPs. Fujitsu isn't quite in the FAMGA league, but it reported 2021 revenues of nearly ¥3.6 trillion (nearly $31.4 billion) and has a market capitalization of £30.5 billion: a significant player by any measure.
Got the message?
So how does Fujitsu see itself? What's the inside story? In Mahajan's view - and he's a technologist, not a marketer - it seems to be as much about ensuring that corporate messaging is understood within Fujitsu as it is appreciated by the wider market. Digitisation has been accelerated by Covid, he observed, but also within society. Fujitsu wants that message understood.
Traditionally, we've had a very strong system integration business. We've had a very long history on hardware, some in software, but we decided to look at a few key areas, which we call the business focus areas, which really unite the company into a very focused go-to-market, and internally as well.
It's about really bringing the whole Fujitsu brand together from a marketing perspective, but also from a resource perspective: How do we sell, how do we build our stuff? How do we research? Everything.
This is an unusual statement from a technology chief. But then he dived deeper into the business and technology breakdown:
For us, the key areas are sustainable manufacturing, consumer experience, healthy living, and prospect [sic?] society, those are the four vertical areas that we have. Underpinning them are three horizontal areas, which are digital shift - basically, data and workstyle reform - business applications, which is standard cloud integration applications, and hybrid IT cloud, which is cloud and security.
But with the four vertical areas, if you notice I didn't say, ‘that's manufacturing', or ‘that's retail', banking, airlines, or telcos. The goal is, if you look at a manufacturer, it's not just manufacturing anymore, it is how do you put your payment systems together? How do you look at the entire supply chain, and actually sell that as well?
Implicitly in Fujitsu's view, technologies are no longer in silos, but increasingly have cross-cutting applications - or sales opportunities, perhaps.
It's really a different perspective of cutting across industries and building business flows. That really underlines the interdependence that different industries have on each other today, right? So, I think that's one of the key differences in our process. But a lot of work needs to be done to make this a reality.
For Fujitsu, it's all about the ‘DX' - the digital ‘X', the digitization of different functions and processes. But there is a fifth area in what the company calls its verticals (using a different definition to most):
This is combining social sciences or human interaction with leveraging our technology, so human behaviour, societal behaviour, how do you predict that using AI? Expected human-to-human behaviour, if you will. So, computing and network data, AI data, security, and what we call converging technologies. [The latter is] the area where social sciences and technology come together.
Quantum computing is fast emerging as a focus, he noted. So as a technologist, could he put a timescale on when he believes reliable, enterprise-grade quantum services and applications will become viable? Once the challenges of system noise and error correction have been met, he explained:
This is a five-year-away thing, not 10 years. It will be faster than most people think. But I also think that big technology breakthroughs will not necessarily come from big companies. […] They could come from Israel, they could come from the new start-ups coming out of Cambridge and Oxford, or Japan - there's a healthy quantum start-up community here. But I would say a five-year timeframe.
But you've got to keep in mind that traditional computing will continue to come up with innovations. The nanometre chip, silicon photonics, vertical chiplet technology - layering chips on top of one another. Traditional computing technology will evolve too. We see that these technologies will coexist for years, and the customer will want access via a single platform. You would have to offer them as a cloud, as otherwise it will be too expensive to consume.
At this point I asked the CTO about AI and ethics - one of the focuses of the conference. He talked briefly about this, saying:
We have a pretty major effort going on in AI ethics, especially in predicting bias and how can AI prevent that, this is research work going on.
Great news, but he then wandered off topic into increasingly niche areas until the PR team intervened with an explanation of the company's stance, later followed by an emailed statement of policy.
I then wanted to ask about the UK, which Mahajan described as the company's second largest and most critical market after Japan. Does the company still face a trust problem in the wake of the Post Office scandal, in terms of addressing the fallout from that in buyers' minds? A reasonable question that a lot of people would like answers to.
At this point, the PR intervened yet again, this time ordering me to steer the conversation onto other topics. One of the team later emailed to say that the company had nothing to say about it - a version of PR that is neither interested in the public, nor in relations, it seems.
So, there you have it. Trust, openness, sustainability: great messaging and heartening to hear. But engage in conversation, reasonable debate, and fair enquiry in the public interest? It seems that does not compute.
I'd argue that this approach to the fourth estate attenuates messages, not amplifies them. Arguably, it undermines them. Do as we say, not do as we do? Sorry, Fujitsu: that's just not good enough.