Technology Revolutions

Summer evening view of high speed commuter passenger train departing from railway station platform with motion blur effect

Every major technology has a period in which it is dominant. For example, the smartphone is currently the most universally dominant technology we have today. In In 2015, there were 2.6 billion smartphone subscribers and on the average they spend three hours and forty minutes using the device every day. This device is so powerful that people keep it within reach wherever they are. Prior to the iPhone was the Internet and prior to that was the PC. So every major technology has its time. And now it seems that the period of the smartphone as the most innovative and dominant technology is coming to an end.

Of course, we will not give up our smartphones just as we are still using the Internet and PCs. But the period where the smartphone keeps improving as fast has it has is coming to an slowing end. Every product goes through what is called an S-curve where the performance improvements are very slow in the beginning than improvement increase exponentially until the impact of improvements slows down and the product enters a sustaining period or a plateau. It may be replaced by other products or just continue to be used as is. Technology adoption also happens in a way similar to this. When the product is new it is often low performance and expensive. This was the case for the personal computer as it was the Internet and as it was the smartphone. The people that will buy the products at this stage are the early adopters people that believe in the idea and want to be part of it. For example, hobbyists where the early adopters of PCs, people that wanted their own computers. Early adopters of Internet were technical people mostly in education and research agencies.

World Economic Forum talks about the coming fourth industrial revolution, assuming that the third used computer and information technology to automate productions. True, but I think within the third there are many waves of revolution where each creates new opportunities. The first generation of the electronic programmable computers were built in 1947. Over the next eighteen or so years, these computes dominated in government and big corporations that could afford these big machines operated by people in while lab coats. The impact of these machine were dramatic change in work called automation, where thousands of clerks processing financial transactions were laid off as invoices, paychecks and other financial transactions become a record on a magnetic tape read into these machines.

However in about 1965 IBM released the System/360 which was a breakthrough in computer and software architectures. Machines like PDP-8 allowed smaller companies to have a computer and the automation continued. However, these machines were still so expensive that they were not affordable by individuals. The were also maintained by professionals. Writing programs for them was difficult and done my companies that sold or leased them.

About sixteen years later, the PC revolution starts. In 1981 IBM released the IBM PC, a generative computer that created the PC industry. It is very much remarkable that a company like IBM could pull this off. Xerox had built a PC in the 70s but the management decided to do nothing with in. Clayton Christensen’s Resources, Processes and Values can explain why Xerox failed. Their resources (among them people), their processes and their values were in the copying business, not the PC business. Remarkably, it also explains how IBM could build the PC. They created a separate unit, far from headquarters that did not go by the traditional IBM ways of doing things. For example they licensed MS-DOS from Microsoft instead of building their own operating system.

The PC dominated for fourteen years. In 1995, the Internet started to take off. There were several events that led to this. One was Tim Bernards-Lee’s World Wide Web. Other efforts were acts by the US government to allow use of the government funded Internet as the “Information Superhighway” as they walled it. Contrary to common believe, Al Gore actually was influential in getting this through. But perhaps the most important was the introduction of WinSock an API (Application Programming Interface) that allow computers to talk to other computers using TCP/IP. Mircosoft implemented this after several loud requests from corporate clients that had big Unix machines all connected using TCP/IP and then separate network of PCs. They wanted them all connected. After WinSock, a programmer in Tasmania, Australia called Peter Tattam released Trumpet WinSock. This allowed people with PCs to get to the Internet. Many ISPs used this program to allow their customers to connect, including my own company founded in 1993, Margmiðlun.

Then after twelve years, the iPhone is released. The iPhone was so revolutionary that it defined how smartphones should be. It was released just before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona giving existing smartphone makers no time to come up with an answer. Pictures of concept phones were dominant during the congress.

1947 Modern programmable computers
1965 IBM 360, PDP-8 mini computer
1981 IBM PC and the clones
1995 Internet becomes commercial
2007 iPhone and smartphones
2017 The next thing

There is pattern in this. The period of the programmable computers was 18 years. The next period was 16 year, and the PC period was 14 years. The Internet period was 12 years and now the smartphone period has lasted for 10 years. So the length of these periods is getting shorter. This suggests that the next period might be about to start.

Another interesting thing is the control of these revolutions, that is who controls them. In the computer revolution of the 50s and 60s, control was very much restricted to the builders of these machines. The mini computers were more open but with the PC the generative pattern emerges. Anybody can write a program to run on these machines. They were made by people that wanted to break the control of the big computer companies. In fact, many of the early PC machines did not come with so much software. The MS-DOS system came on a magnetic floppy disk and that was it. Similarly the Internet became the network of choice due to its generative nature. Vint Cerf, who wrote the original TCP/IP software, calls this permissionless innovation.

As we approach the end of the smartphone period, we see several potential technologies on the horizon. Virtual Reality is finally here with powerful headsets that are consumer affordable. Augmented reality headsets like the Microsoft Hololens is also coming to the market this year. The Internet of Things is also becoming more dominant with many new products, like doorlocks, thermostats, speakers and so on. Perhaps the most interesting though  is artificial intelligence. What is interesting with AI is that companies like Amazon and Google are offering their AI engines and vast data centers to developers of AI, placing this powerful technology in the hands of individuals. Whatever will be the next dominant technology it is likely to be smart, very visual, connected and social.

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