Future of IT Holds Flukes Aplenty

Opinion: History tells us to expect the unexpected.

What is the future of information technology? If you listen to many of the prominent voices speaking about IT today, the future doesnt seem too promising.

The way these people see it, there will be few, if any, big innovations or breakthroughs in technology—only steady and unimpressive enhancements to things we already have today. These pundits submit that it is impossible—or at least unlikely—that someone will invent a new product or technology that will force companies to massively change and adapt their business presence and processes.

There has been lots of contention lately—some of it here in the pages of eWEEK—that technology will become like electricity or phone service: IT will always be around, but it will become something that people dont think about very much.

These predictors of the uninspiring future of technology include some well-respected and intelligent voices, such as venture capitalists, technology CEOs and, most prominently, "Does IT Matter?" author Nicholas G. Carr. Many of these people are extremely intelligent and highly aware of the history of business. But whenever I listen to their arguments, I always come away thinking that they arent paying enough attention to the history that really matters—namely, the history of IT itself.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about intriguing developments predicted at the Future in Review conference.

Every industry contends that its different from others, but, in the case of the technology industry, its true. Once electricity left the inventor stage, it became impossible for one person to make a huge change in its direction. But in technology, and especially software, its very easy for one unknown, unfunded and noncorporate person to make a change that alters the course of the entire industry.

Imagine you could go back to the recent past—say, the heart of the early-90s recession. You start up a conversation with IT workers who are unhappy about layoffs and company shutdowns, not to mention the lack of promise in the current state of the PC and software industry. (Sound familiar?)

You say to them, "Dont worry. This thing called the Web will change everything. In fact, companies will have to invest a lot of time and money to keep up with the changes it will bring."

When these people from the past look at you quizzically, you tell them that the Web is a hypertext interface that runs on top of the Internet. ("The Internet. Is that like Prodigy?" they might ask.) And, oh, yeah, its being invented right now by basically one guy (who isnt a software developer) working on a NeXT system at a physics lab in Europe. (That would be Tim Berners-Lee.) Dont be too surprised if you arent able to get many people to buy in to your "prediction" of the future.

The thing is, the Web wasnt a fluke or a one-time occurrence. This kind of thing has happened many times in the history of technology: One person or a small group of people—working on their own time on their own systems—have changed the direction of IT and forced companies to make massive and pervasive changes.

The spread of the Web was aided in large part by the concurrent growth of a free, powerful and Internet-friendly operating system that was itself started by one guy. (That would be Linux and Linus Torvalds, respectively.) And you dont have to go too far back to find other examples of one guy or a small upstart company changing the way everyone else does business. From PC clones to home computers to the start of hobbyist software itself, great technology change often has come from unlikely and unknown sources.

Of course, my argument can be tough to take for academic types who believe only in something they can measure. The history of software is relatively short, and it takes a lot of faith to believe that someone is out there doing something totally unpredictable that will change everything we do in technology.

Its not really a mystical argument to me. Its simply the nature of software. One person sitting at one computer can do things that the biggest companies in the world would never conceive of doing.

And I want to thank in advance the future Torvaldses and Berners-Lees. Youre the ones who make our jobs interesting, challenging and fulfilling. And youre anything but a commodity or utility.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis.com.