Looking back from the future

Looking back from the future

What will the world’s technology look like in 50 years? How far will IT have come since 2009?

There will be a lot about 2059 that will continue to surprise many of us in the communications equipment industry. However, rather than look forward to what these unexpected developments might entail, I thought there might be value in looking back to remember how far we have come since 2009. When you work in such a fast-paced industry as ours, it can be easy to take radical change for granted. Yet the last 50 years have been punctuated by many significant developments that have transformed our working and recreational lives. Perhaps the biggest cultural change is that we no longer refer to the information technology or IT industry. This name reflected the fact that the earliest computers sought to help organisations make more informed decisions. However, the evolution of communication technology since the advent of the Internet in the 1990’s has made distance irrelevant and has accelerated mobility. However, this functionality is only part of the reason we now work in the CE (communications equipment) industry. This name also recognises that this functionality has also dramatically enhanced corporate dialogue and communications everywhere.

Cumbersome 2009

Looking back, when I examine how users worked with communications equipment in 2009, the one word that stands out in my mind is cumbersome. People were saddled with different devices each of which largely served a single purpose. Firstly, everyone had what was called the mobile phone. While it could be used to send messages, and it did give rise to a whole new language called texting, by and large its primary purpose was to talk to someone. There was a device called Blackberry that, besides being a phone, could be used to send electronic messages or e-mails. However, for any intense written correspondence most people preferred to use a small portable machine known as a laptop computer. Outside work was a device known as the iPod made by a company named Apple. This could play songs and it was common to see people on the street with wires dangling from their ears as they used it.

We have probably forgotten the challenge scientists had in integrating all these machines in to one universal device. Each had different sized keyboards and screens which reflected the different user interface requirements of each piece of equipment. However, the first big break through came when scientists in Singapore made radical improvements to speech recognition software. No longer did most people need to type in their thoughts or instructions. Instead the user could converse with their machine and be assured that their wishes would be understood. Overnight this negated the need for keypads and keyboards. A standard input device was now common across all communications equipment.

Screens challenge

However, while this was a major advance there was still the challenge of overcoming the wide variety of screens that existed. We should of course be thankful for the efforts of those Japanese scientists who managed to create the fold out screen. Using the transformer toys of the 1980s as their inspiration they created a design that in one instance could be compact and in another could unravel to display an A4 sized screen. All of a sudden users had the screen versatility that had eluded the industry for almost 75 years. The result of course was the emergence of the compact multi-functional Won-One which has been embraced so enthusiastically across the world.

Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the Won-One would have been adopted so enthusiastically if the CE industry had not also made major changes to how users acquired the programmes to run on it. Back in 2009 if you wanted to use a programme you actually had to purchase it from the people who had developed it. It was even common to see such software on the shelves of major department stores. Unfortunately, every few years you had to repurchase the software again so you could ensure you had the latest version.

Unnecessarily complex

This whole licensing regimen became a huge administrative burden. It made moving to newer equipment unnecessarily complex, files became unreadable if a source programme was lost and many organisations needed to dedicate huge amounts of manpower to ensure they were not illegally utilising unlicensed or unauthorised versions of these programmes. In fact one vendor, called Microsoft, was renowned for undertaking spot checks to see if businesses were contravening its licensing arrangements. As such, there was strong user support when more and more of these software companies began to harness the cloud computing model as a way of distributing their software. Being able to pay for a programme on a per use basis, rather than via a permanent licence, seems pretty obvious today. However, back in 2009 the idea was seen as quite radical.

Yet this change has significantly opened up the CE industry. Suddenly organisations found it much easier to try new or alternative offerings. Files had previously been hard coded to the programme from which they originated. However, once vendors recognised that users could easily trial and get accustomed to new programmes, they realised it was to their advantage to incorporate the ability to read multiple file types in to their programmes. This is turn lead to the development of common file formats. This saved vendors time and effort in development but also soon became a sought after feature that helped boost the adoption of these applications.

Interoperability rules

The result has been the dramatic growth in interoperability which characterises the CE industry of the 2050s. Back at the start of this century such freedom was a dream. Instead organisations bemoaned the existence of islands of technology where whole rafts of corporate information were marooned on separate pieces of equipment. This change owes much to the emergence of service oriented architecture (SOA) in the early 2000s. While initially some cynics sneeringly dismissed it as Snake Oil Architecture, there was sufficient appreciation that in a fast-paced global business world it was folly not to provide a communications architecture that could easily adapt to the constant evolution of client organisations.

These changes are just a few examples of how much I think the communications equipment industry has progressed for the better in recent years. It is also interesting to reflect on the role we in the Asia Pacific region have played in this evolution. While there were some who doubted that the Asian Economic Community (ACC) could ever be a credible force, it is clear that the national cooperation it fostered has unleashed a spirit of creativity and innovation among people in this part of the world. The ACC bureaucrats in Bangkok have certainly had their share of critics but we in the CE industry are definitely indebted to their forward thinking. They have undoubtedly helped our industry move on from the Dickensian times that existed half a century ago in 2009.

Peter Hind is a consultant with many years of experience in the IT industry.

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