The day the IT industry changed (yet again..)

I wrote this piece on the rise of the smart phone and tablet for the Irish Times innovation magazine published today.  The main reason was to express my own excitement about how the IT industry seems to continually reinvent itself,  creating opportunities to disrupt the players established by the previous wave.

Where were you at 5.42pm on Tuesday January 9th 2007 ?

That day joins other key dates when the computer industry fundamentally changed.

On the 28th May 1936 Alan Turing submitted his seminal paper which formally proved that a machine could solve any conceivable mathematical computation. On June 21st 1948 the first-ever real implementation of Turing’s hypothetical machine, the University of Manchester SSEM, ran the first-ever stored program. On April 20th 1957 the software industry was born when the first-ever high level program was run. On 29th October 1969, the internet was born as the first ever ARPANET message was carried. On the 6th August 1991 the very first web site ever went live, and the world wide web was born.

We really are living in an incredible era. So what happened on January 9th 2007 ?

Three new products were launched that afternoon: a widescreen music player with touch screen controls; a revolutionary new mobile phone; and a breakthrough internet communications device. But were these really as significant as the first computer, the birth of the software industry, the creation of the internet, or the invention of the world wide web? In fact absolutely yes: the metamorphosis was their integration into a single device as Steve Jobs chose that moment to announce “Today we are going to reinvent the phone!”.

Apple had begun developing the iPhone in 2005 based on earlier work on what subsequently become the iPad tablet. Steve Ballmer, the CEO of Microsoft, infamously dismissed Apple’s new device as “the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard”. Microsoft’s business has of course been cultivated with the rise of the personal computer, making computing available in the home rather than just inside large corporations. But the personal computer – whether a desktop or laptop or notebook – is too large to be a practical tool to permanently carry around. It sits awkwardly hidden away in your home office or bedroom, slobbering cables and a keyboard and mouse. If you want to use it, it ponders its navel for an eternity before it is willing to respond to you. So: is a personal computer sufficiently personal ?

But the smart phone and tablet have jolted the entire computer industry to its core. You tap, point and pinch: no more awkward mouse or keyboard. You can carry one in your pocket, hand or man-bag. It has a great camera, including video. It obsoletes a sat-nav and can guide you down the street and tell you what is nearby. Now, with speech recognition, you can literally ask it anything, and it does a pretty good job in understanding you and helping out. Most of all it responds immediately: and therefore has become a catalyst for impulsive shopping, especially from home.

With the smart phone and tablet, many more people have been brought online, many – particularly seniors – for the first time. PCs brought computing to the committed, but smart phones and tablets have brought computing to the community. Further, even the committed PC guild are accepting that the smart phone and tablet are frequently more practical and useful devices.

Thus any technology companies which hitherto made a great business from the PC are now undergoing a shattering re-appraisal. Any new start-ups who are solely and unconditionally committed to the smart phone and tablet are potentially enormous threats to the established players. As a recent example, Facebook’s heritage in the web-based PC world led it to spend over US1B$ on Instagram, a 25 month old start-up with just thirteen employees, absolutely no revenues and a single software product targeted at the iPhone.

For the operators of telephone networks, the introduction of smart phones and tablets has dramatically increased the volume of data transmitted, making their traditional voice based telephone traffic a small percentage of their overall wireless services. In turn this has made operating a mobile phone network more complex, causing the operating costs of a network to rise at a faster rate than the revenues it generates. Web based advertising has had to be reconstructed to exploit a modest form factor but high quality colour touch screens. Marketing can now be segmented based on the actual locations of consumers. The publishing industry has been convulsed by e-books on tablets. Broadcast television is struggling to understand the implications of watch anytime videos and films onto tablets.

For software developers, the emergence of the web in the 1990s led to “write once, run anywhere” programming languages and toolsets. These same techniques can of course be used, and are being used, with smart phones and tablets but the issue has become one of aesthetics. Your software may indeed be written once and can run anywhere, but does it continue to look really good on each specific tablet and smart phone ? Does it behave well with a touch based input including in particular the various human interface widgets native on that device ?

For corporations, smart phones and tablets have led to frantic activity to build software applications and ensure their brands appear cool and accessible. The rise of community applications, social networking and gaming alongside corporate applications is leading to another problem: how do I quickly find the right “app” for what I want to do right now with my device ? This search problem is new and may challenge the established players in web search.

The excitement of the IT industry for all of us who work within it is its periodic immense changes. Each change creates substantial opportunities for innovation, and enables new companies to challenge established ones. Right now, app development tools, mobile enterprise integration, re-architecting of mobile operator networks, mobile search, mobile augmented reality, and many other areas are all prodigious opportunities to build new great global companies.


About chrisjhorn
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