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Anticipating a post-Web, post-PC world

Technologists just can't stop thinking about tomorrow, but industry watcher Kevin Werbach writes that business leaders may either take the Web for granted or look at it as yesterday's revolution. But they cannot avoid the inescapable truth that the context has shifted--for everyone.

5 min read
To understand where the technology industry is going, don't focus on the future--look to yesterday.

Technologists just can't stop thinking about tomorrow. The future always looks bright; the question is who and what will help get us there. Even the grinding downturn of the past three years has hardly dampened this belief among entrepreneurs, technology executives and investors. Will broadband be the hot new development that lifts us out of the doldrums? Will it be Wi-Fi? Online gaming? Web services? Homeland security? Those are the wrong questions.

If you want to know where you are, you don't study a map to determine where you're going. You trace back the steps from where you've been. Over the past several years, "where we've been" in the technology world has changed. While we were all focused on the dot-com bubble and the subsequent bust, "yesterday" shifted. It used to be the PC revolution and client-server computing in the enterprise; now it's the Web.

Mosaic, the first commercial Web browser, was introduced a decade ago. The Web is yesterday's technology. That doesn't mean it's going away, any more than the graphical user interface, which was a decade old when Mosaic was introduced, or the PC itself, which dates to the 1970s. Yesterday's technology is pervasive and mature today. It's an indispensable part of our personal and business lives. But it is no longer the driver of growth and innovation it was in its heyday.

The basics of the new today are that powerful digital devices are becoming pervasive and inexpensive; they're becoming commodities. Services are available networked across the Internet and use common software. The world is heterogeneous, complex and decentralized.

Companies now worry less about how fast their computers run and more about how well they work together. People no longer wonder whether something is available online, but rather how to find and make use of it. Companies worry less about how to move large numbers of units, whether it is songs or laptops, and spend more time thinking about how to make money doing so. Those are today's challenges.

Sure, computers will become more powerful, data networks will become faster, and storage devices will become capable of holding infinitely more data. That's just the background story. Getting vast numbers of individuals and businesses online was an extraordinary achievement, but except for certain underserved communities, it's largely done.

What matters today is using all that connected power, and the standards-based software environment that rides on it, in productive ways. From enabling distributed work teams in companies to collaborate on projects to giving people rich interactive experiences that travel across different hardware and connections, these are tasks we could only think about tackling once the foundations were laid.

While we were all focused on the dot-com bubble and the subsequent bust, "yesterday" shifted.
Smart companies understand this change. IBM, you will notice, is no longer touting e-business, its code word for the Web. It has shifted its energy to next-generation developments such as Linux, grid computing and autonomic computing. Microsoft is pouring resources into post-PC and post-Web businesses, understanding that it must make significant long-term bets to prepare for the day when its traditional Windows cash cow disappears. Dell Computer is even going so far as to remove "Computer" from its name. Apple Computer is rapidly moving from an emphasis on easy Internet access to "digital lifestyle" offerings such as photo sharing and music downloads. And America Online, though struggling, knows that it needs to change from the company that gets you on the Web to the company that gets you beyond the Web.

A human generational shift goes along with the technological change. When the Internet burst on the scene, it confronted a technology industry whose reference point was the transition from mainframe to PC, symbolized by the ascendance of Microsoft and downfall of IBM.

A similar transition in the enterprise brought companies such as Sun Microsystems, Oracle and SAP to prominence. Some of the leaders of that revolution were able to adapt and embrace the new environment. Microsoft famously did so, but only after ceding the early advantage to companies such as Netscape Communications and AOL. The leaders of the Internet revolution were a mixture of newcomers--the garage entrepreneurs of lore--and executives seasoned in the PC and client-server revolutions.

It's time for a similar rotation, in which leaders either take the Web for granted or look at it as yesterday's revolution. The context has shifted for everyone. Not only executives, but also investors, analysts and event planners must turn over a new leaf or risk obsolescence. I started a new technology conference last year, called Supernova for this very reason. Even Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Web, has moved on. He is pitching one "version of today" called the semantic Web, which actually has little to do with the Web as we know it.

All of this doesn't mean that innovation or growth opportunities have ceased. Far from it. A new environment creates new challenges: from information overload to spam to managing global networks of unprecedented scale. It also provides new tools to address stubborn old problems, such as how to make computers behave in ways humans find more familiar, or how to deliver media profitably over digital networks.

Change is no longer measurable by one variable.

There's an even more enticing consequence of the shift to a post-Web, and post-PC, world. Linear progressions, such as the consistent improvement in processing power heralded by Moore's Law, are fundamentally boring. They are like driving for hours on a straight, featureless highway: You know you'll eventually get to where you want to go, but the trip itself becomes a blur. If instead the path forward involves stair-step transitions, through which the entire ecosystem reconfigures itself, life is far more exciting. Change is no longer measurable by one variable. It arrives in waves of interconnected developments whose relationship we only dimly discern.

That's what's happening today. The technologies and concepts generating buzz at industry gatherings like PC Forum, O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, and Supernova include social software, the semantic Web, Web logs, rich Internet applications, Web services, unlicensed wireless, grid computing, digital identity, broadband media. The more one looks at these developments, the more hidden connections appear. They are pieces of a larger whole, which we don't yet have words to describe.

I'm excited about the future because I believe in yesterday.