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A technologist looks back, looks ahead

Notes inventor Ray Ozzie considers how the nature of work is being changed by inexpensive communications and IT.

Twenty years ago tomorrow, on Dec. 7, 1984, Mitch Kapor and I signed an agreement that began the development of a product code-named Notes.

Over the course of the next five years, a small team at Iris Associates, led by co-founders Tim Halvorsen, Len Kawell and me, overcame immense technical challenges to realize our shared vision of an easy-to-use environment for network-based communications and collaborative work.

Fifteen years ago tomorrow, on Dec. 7, 1989, at an event at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., Lotus Notes Release 1.0 was born. Thanks to IBM and thousands of its partners, a well-evolved Notes is still actively in use by more than 100 million people worldwide.

By good fortune, Notes was introduced in an era when corporate re-engineering was in vogue. Within major enterprises around the world, internal barriers were bridged or eliminated as horizontal information sharing and process coordination became the mandate. The fundamental nature of the corporation was changing--catalyzed by a change in doctrine and deftly enabled by cheap commodity communications and information technology.

By the late 1990s, the decentralization trend began to spread. The fundamental nature of business was changing--from vertically integrated powerhouses to a mesh of interdependent partners. The winners were companies that used information technology to create the most efficient and effective network of partners and suppliers.

Orwell's "1984" overshot in some ways and undershot in others.

Today, the "jointness imperative" is shaking up the public sector. The 9-11 Commission made it clear that information sharing, joint processes and structural changes must be considered and mandated, and the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age has eloquently articulated the key role of decentralized technologies.

In a 2001 article he wrote for The Economist called "The next society," Peter Drucker projects the future of the corporation to be an extreme confederation of businesses--from the large to small to very small. These loosely knit confederations are held together by a common strategy--local economics--and a web of fine-grain alliances.

In October, The Wall Street Journal observed that the current economic expansion is markedly different from those in the past. New jobs are being created, but they're in different organizational forms than the ones we're measuring. The newspaper suggested that the U.S. economy is undergoing a structural change as more people, by choice or necessity, "become self-employed or form partnerships, rather than working for large corporations."

We're only at the very beginning of exploring what can be done in the realm of using technology to enable joint work.

Indeed, for many of us, the fundamental nature of work itself is changing--enabled by cheap, ubiquitous networking, communications, coordination and information-sharing technologies. The "virtual office" is more the norm than the exception.

Consider Marion Weinreb & Associates, a consulting services company with two full-time employees in Mill Valley, Calif., and 150 independent contract consultants scattered around the world.

Also consider iTranslate, a home-based language translation service of BTCS with two full-time employees in Paris and a network of 30 project managers, translators and desktop publishing specialists located in 15 countries around the world.

The virtual office will shape our concept of the workplace. The new concept: a world of pervasive knowledge work, riding on the foundations of fiber laid by the ghosts of an Internet bubble past and enabled by cheap, self-service communications tools and technologies.

We're only at the very beginning of exploring what can be done in the realm of using technology to enable joint work. How will Verizon's fiber-to-the-home change the nature of how we work? As terabyte disks appear in our PCs and gadgets, how will we use the storage?

New concepts appear almost daily, emerging from both the distant parallel universes of paper-bound corporate or academic research and the "just try it and see what sticks" petri dish that is today's Internet ecosystem. Those universes have brought us the likes of ICQ, Skype, Blogger, Wikipedia and Flickr.

In the 20 years since the beginning of this journey, I've been fortunate enough to have seen and to have played a small role in some incredible transformations. The nature of the corporation, of business, government, work, society and our own interpersonal relationships has changed--fueled by technology that's still so very clearly in its infancy.

Orwell's "1984" overshot and undershot in others. But when we began Notes on Dec. 7 of that year, I could only faintly imagine how technology would shape the world of today. And so I wonder about 2024.