Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Technology Revolution Is Just Beginning

I have been involved in Information Technology long before it was called IT.

It used to be called Computer Science. Then Data Processing. Then it was called MIS, and then simply IS, and now it’s IT.

In the day … all those years ago … a student first learned COBOL on main frame computers and then BASIC for personal computers. PCs then evolved year after year to become as powerful as mainframe computers – and slowly but steadily the personal computers stepped up to become servers – filling the roles that mainframes filled in the backend of most IT departments.

Then came handheld devices – and the Internet.

I remember very clearly sitting in a meeting with my development team in the early 1990s discussing what we could do with these little handheld PDAs that were showing up. They could connect to the new Wi-Fi technology of the day – and they had very simple web browsers that could display simplified web pages laid out using a scaled down version of HTML referred to as WEP.

At that time, we – like most any IT shop in the world did – had tons of useful information on our back end mainframe – and these new PDAs combined with Wi-Fi and the ability to retrieve data from the simple web services we would have to invent on the mainframes and send it to such devices to open up a whole new world of opportunities for us.

What exactly do you want this PDA to do?” asked one young programmer on my staff.

I want this thing to be as valuable as Mr. Spock’s Tricorder”, I replied to my team of geeks who immediately understood what I meant. “I want the business person using this PDA to simply retrieve data while they are standing anywhere on the company grounds – not just at their desk. I want them to search their customer databases and their inventory and their shipping logs while talking with a customer on a showroom floor – or at a service desk in a shop – or a shipping dock at the back of the property – without having to run to their desk and print a report”.

And so we set forth creating simple web applications for this tiny PDA browsers to retrieve customer purchasing history and inventory status lookups. And they worked great to prove the concept.

Just wait until they hook a cell phone up to these things”, I prophesized. “It will change everything”.

Two decades later we have smart phones. And we have tablets.

But we haven’t quite gotten as far yet as I wanted us to twenty years ago.

After I finished my diatribe … I continued my rant to describe the rest of my wants from those primitive PDAs …

I want a guy to be able to walk into a meeting with only one of these things – no pads of paper – and record what he needs to know in that meeting and store it on the back end of the company’s data systems so that he can reuse those notes without having to type them all back in when he returns to his desk. And I want that guy to look up answers to questions while sitting in that meeting so that the meeting could move forward acting on those answers instead of being stymied by replies like “I’ll find out and get back to you with that …

I took a breath at the whiteboard where my boxes with arrows described in my own personal hieroglyphics scribed in the same black and red dry erase ink that stained my finger tips as I rethought where those arrows pointed.

I want a sales person sitting at a bar, or a table in a restaurant to not have to write on a bar napkin – writing down the specs of a customer’s needs – or writing down prices on the back of a business card – I want this person to be able to close the deal while dessert is being served ... or the third pint is being poured at the bar”.

We aren’t there yet.

These tablet and PDAs are great for looking at data that already exists – but they are not that great yet at allowing a person to enter content. It can be done – but it’s still clumsy – little keys on a phone – or little virtual keyboards that are still clumsy for typing … the input still requires a keyboard.

The question is where the limitation lies … in the smart phone or tablet? Or is the deficiency in the applications that we use on those little devices?

I contend that both are to blame. We need better input methods – and applications that more smartly interpret your intentions and needs.

These are the avenues that we have to continue to explore looking to make these tasks I describe to be even simpler to use – as easy as writing on a bar napkin.

But time will bear out the solutions to these needs, and both the applications and the devices they run on will of course continue to evolve to get simpler – more efficient – and more natural.

It’s inevitable.

But one thing is clear … given the tremendous response and acceptance of the iPad and the clones that look and work like it … the tablet will replace the common person’s personal computer or laptop in the next five years ... Not simply compliment it like it does today.

Why would the common person buy a PC or a Laptop when a tablet is cheaper and does everything the common person needs?

And still we must recognize that we are still in the primitive infancy of the information age. We are still in the steam engine days.

Even simpler devices and interfaces will come – embedded in the glasses or clothing that we wear with a projected version of a LCD screen displayed on the surfaces we interact with every day – like the desk you sit at or the wall , or even the back or front of your hand.

And the application designers will get smarter – deriving better means to allow you to enter data rather than typing – maybe by simply taking pictures or translating speech – images and sound translated to data that can be stored and reused later – like how Google returns you a list of answers to the question you type into a box.

The customer will be as empowered as the employee who is trying to service them.

Imagine standing in a car dealership and wondering what other cars are comparable to the model you are looking at on the showroom floor – and being presented immediately with pictures or video of other models by other manufacturers with the options available for each … and the prices … so you can compare quietly without the salesperson’s knowledge you are doing so.

It’s all coming. You can see positive signs in the gaming s systems like the Wii motion controllers and the xBox U-Kinnect interfaces that use body movements as input.

It’s all very exciting to this old computer geek who wished for this to happen twenty years ago.

We are getting so much closer.

But we aren’t quite there yet.

Maybe in another twenty years.

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