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TechWatch: The Internet and Beyond

It was almost 20 years ago that I was asked by the management education people from The Boeing Company to talk with a middle-level management group about technology. There were a lot of questions about technology, particularly computing technology, and its impact on the company. I was asked to lead this discussion. After I agreed, however, the person asking me gave me a heads up. “This won’t be easy. They will be gunning for you. Everybody is concerned about the cost of computing.”

The first time I went to the class I took his warning to heart. I started the presentation by asking them to fill in the blank: “I say computing, and you say ….” The response was startling and immediate, “Cost.” So I asked the next question. “What does any good manager do with cost?” They responded, as I expected, with, “Drive it down.” So I made a bold suggestion. “Since computing is a cost and we want to reduce it, why don’t we unplug all of our computers and fire all of the computing people. What do you think?”

There was stunned silence. And then someone said, “We can’t do that. We need this computing capability to compete and do our work.” This was the opening I needed, and we proceeded to talk about how technology helps us compete, where it is going in the future, and what this will mean for the way we do our work. And then we talked about how to eliminate waste in computing expenditure to reduce its costs.

The Internet

That was the start of 11 years of presentations to this group until my retirement from Boeing in 2001. When the Internet broke through in a popular way in the mid-1990s, we talked about how this could be leveraged. In the early days of the Internet, however, it was difficult to define all of the value that could come from it. We had an Ethix Conversation with Vinton Cerf, one of the founders of the Internet, in 2005. Now on the 40th anniversary of the Internet (late fall 2009) we see how it has changed our lives. In a report from the Silicon Valley blog, we are told:

“For what it’s worth, researchers at UC-San Diego have taken a crack at calculating how much information Americans consumed from all non-work sources in 2008, including TV, radio, movies, the Net, cell phones, video games and reading material. Their conclusion: ‘Consumption totaled 3.6 zettabytes and 10,845 trillion words, corresponding to 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes for an average person on an average day. A zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power bytes, a million million gigabytes.’”

This is obviously both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is the access to so much information. The challenge, as the astute reader will notice, is that this is just the nonwork sources. What does this do to an employee who may be accessing this kind of nonwork information while on the job? For this reason, many employers restrict the access of their employees to the Internet while at work. More on this later.

But I remember trying to explain to the Boeing managers the role of Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the underlying technology will continue to develop at a relentless pace over the foreseeable future, leading to a factor of 10 in price performance improvement every five years. Incidentally, this trend will likely continue for at least another 10 years according the Pat Gelsinger, former Intel senior vice president in his Ethix Conversation (Issue 57).

What this means, I remember boldly predicting, is that there will be another breakthrough as big and impactful as the Internet, before 2010. And all of us need to be prepared to take advantage of these new capabilities as they came along. This means being willing to give up the way we do things now for new opportunities.

Spotting New Technologies

Looking at the calendar, I see it is now (as I write this) almost 2010. Is there anything from technology that has been as big as the Internet over the past decade? I believe there is, but before discussing this, I want to identify three reasons why these things are not easy to spot.

  1. Most technology goes through a long “incubation” period, when it is developed and used by specialists in the laboratories. When it appears in a popular way, word has already gotten out, and it is regarded by many as “old news.” The Internet happened this way. First used in the early 1970s, it became popularly available in the mid-1990s. It is this observation that gives rise to the popular statement, “The future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed.”
  2. Often, technology is quickly, though only partially, assimilated and is equally quickly taken for granted. Humorist Louis CK was on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and gave what may be the best explanation of this. I say only partially assimilated, because we often find a use of a new technology, but it may be a long time before the best uses are identified.
  3. A new technology can arrive “before its time.” Without supporting infrastructure, its use is limited and sometimes the technology is dismissed. The first telephone was not very useful, without roads and service stations the early automobiles were not very useful, etc. And so it is with each new technology.

What has been of significant importance in information technology since the Internet? My vote goes to two things: search and mobility. For many, these simply blur into yet another use of the Internet, but there is a great deal more to it than that.

Search

What we get from search goes beyond looking up ordinary information. It enables us to find information that might have taken months to research in the past. It is a capability that we sometimes take for granted and other times forget to use. Here is a recent personal example:

When I returned from travel recently, my wife told me the shower door had come off the track. I looked at it and it was obvious the screw holding the glider in place at the top of the door had come loose, and I would need to remove the door to fix it. But how to do that? Those naturally handy could simply find the way, but I don’t happen to be one of those people. I was stuck and would have called a local handyman to fix it. But then I remembered search capability.

I went to Google and entered “remove sliding shower glass door” and pressed enter. The first entry was a simple five-step procedure for removing the door, which even I could follow. The fix was completed in about five minutes. A friend recently asked me how to change the spacing on a Word document. I told him to simply enter “spacing for word documents” into Google and follow the steps. These examples are only the tip of the iceberg in productivity that comes from search capability.

While I have given some links to other sites in this article, I generally don’t record links. I simply use a few words and trust Google to retrieve what I am looking for. Incidentally, one of my sons (employed by Microsoft has made Bing the default search engine on my computer, so I use it regularly as well. My informal experience suggests it is not as capable for most difficult things as Google, but I would be interested in what others have concluded.

Search doesn’t simply speed the search process, however. It has opened the door to a whole new way of filing, exploiting the fact we can search quickly for items. I wrote on this several years ago in Issue 43.

The Internet itself depends fundamentally on this search capability, which is why many include it in the general category of Internet. But it is a remarkable achievement made possible by the advances in Moore’s Law (and many other innovations) that has truly changed our lives.

Mobility

My other candidate for remarkable changes from technology in the past decade is mobility. This offers many dimensions, and I will sketch a few of them here.

The USB flash drive was invented in the mid- to late-1990s and today enables us to carry movies, presentations, and documents in our pockets. Its universal connection through the USB allows us to easily pack all the presentation material we need for a meeting halfway around the world or across the city. A truly amazing and wonderful capability!

The mobile phone has become the ubiquitous device enabling communication anywhere in the world, even to those societies that hadn’t even used telephones. I recently had the experience of using my phone to talk with my wife from the Annapurna Wilderness in Nepal, two days away from the nearest road.

And of course these capabilities have also blurred with the Internet, providing mobile access to information from anywhere at any time. Here is what the Silicon Valley blog had to say recently:

Forty years ago, two computers on the ARPANET, forerunner of the Internet, communicated for the first time. Today, reports research outfit IDC, there are more than 450 million mobile devices connecting to the Net. Just mobile devices. And over the next four years, IDC figures, that number will be more than a billion. “The number of mobile devices with Internet access has simply exploded over the last several years,” said John Gantz, chief research officer at IDC. “With a wealth of information and services available from almost anywhere, Internet-connected mobile devices are reshaping the way we go about our personal and professional lives. With an explosion in applications for mobile devices under way, the next several years will witness another sea change in the way users interact with the Internet and further blur the lines between personal and professional.” The total number of devices hooked to the Net (phones, computers, game consoles, etc.) is now about 1.6 billion, says IDC, and will rise to 2.7 billion by 2013.

Ethics Questions

In the excitement of what these technologies have brought to us, we too often overlook the downsides. The challenges are many — workers wasting time surfing the Net at work, security issues when vital documents are take out the door, viruses downloaded by employees, to name just a few. I will devote more space to this in a future issue, but wanted to comment on just one area now: access to the Internet for employees. Many companies have recognized the distraction of the Internet and the time wasted, and have decided to ban access to the Internet for their employees from any device while at work.

Not surprisingly, a quick Internet search shows lots of companies prepared to offer assistance with tools and software to make sure employees don’t access the Internet from company computers. As they argue in their promotion materials, accessing the Internet slows down the company network, reduces productivity as workers waste time, etc. But as I have pointed out, these tools also increase worker productivity by extending the brains of each worker.

Blocking access is a simple solution to a hard problem. Companies wanting to tap into the extended brain power of their employees will not cut off this vital link but will find a better solution to deal with time wasters.

Conclusion

The foundation of Moore’s Law continues to push out new technologies that offer stunning new capabilities that we can both use and abuse. We must be honest about both sides of these new technologies, creating thoughtful, appropriate uses that deal with both the upsides and the downsides that come from these tools.

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