When Computing Is Free as Air

In 1997 I spoke at an industry event in London, England, on the subject of what the Internet was doing for the enterprise.  The title of my talk was “The Internet as Global IT Department.” Yes, in those days we still talked about “IT managers.”

It’s easy to forget how long ago 1997 is. My talk was recorded on an analogue cassette tape. The first production-volume digital audio player was the Audible which went on sale in January 1998. It cost $200 and offered 4MB of flash memory. After that we saw the Diamond Rio, the HanGo Personal Jukebox, the Creative NOMAD and the Archos. Finally, in 2001 Apple unveiled the first-generation iPod. We had to wait another six years for the iPod Touch.

A lot happened to enterprise IT over those years. Yet many of the signs were there in 1997.

I study trends as a hobby. I combine trends to make predictions. This is called horizon scanning – sometimes called scenario planning and sometimes trend hybridization.

A trend is a series of well-defined innovative steps from one generation to another, along a specific aspect or dimension. Here are two examples:

1) Things tend to become portable: Fixed Immovable > Movable > Portable > Embedded

2) Things tend to become more automated: Human Only > Human+Tool > Human+Semi Automated Tool > Human+Automated Tool > Automated Tool > Autonomous Tool with Autopoeisis (a fancy word for self-repair)

There is a real predictive power to documenting such trends. And it is this:

By knowing where a “thing” is on a trend line one is able to predict the next step (evolution) of that “thing.”

The “thing” could be a product, a service, a process or even an idea. By combining relevant trends and trend steps together, one is able to make predictions about how innovation will play out among competitors. Right now, for example, computers are portable. Wearables will take us a step closer to being embedded. Cognitive computing is considered the next step in human-tool automation. Combine the two and what do you get? Cognitive implants? (I am trivialising only in order to avoid writing a novel on this.)

6110Back in 1997 (see image left) it was entirely obvious to me that one day IT managers would run their businesses entirely in what we now call the cloud. All the trends pointed to it. This is not to boast. Futurism is a discipline. The story of how oil giant BP used scenario planning to predict future energy markets and needs is a well-trodden business-school case study. Military leaders also use scenarios to plan campaigns. Innovation teams in many large businesses are adopting similar methods. Good books on the subject now exist. (My favourite is “Using Trends and Scenarios as Tools for Strategy Development” by Ulf Pillkahn of Siemens.)

A few years ago I used trend analysis to predict that data storage as a service (DSaaS) would evolve to offer unlimited capacity at near-zero cost. I was struck more recently by how start-ups were beginning to fulfill this prophesy. Bitcasa, for example. And just this week, Amazon Web Services announced an “unlimited” storage plan for $60/annum. And Google announced Nearline, a near-infinite storage solution for enterprise or public data that’s too important to throw away but not important enough to store in primary storage.

So what’s the future of enterprise IT?

With the click of a mouse, cloud services let us stand up new racks of compute, storage and network bandwidth on demand. They let us spin up hundreds or thousands or more virtual machines and application docks. It seems that IT is becoming as free and abundant as air. Where does that lead us? Looking at some of my trend lines I think I can make a semi-intelligent guess.

In 2004 I set out to do just that. I call it amenity computing. And that will be the subject of my next post.

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