The IT industry has experienced three main eras of computing: the centralized, client/server and network eras. Each is distinguishable by the flagship technologies, products and applications that made them prominent: mainframes and transaction processing for the centralized era; microprocessors, PCs and personal productivity for client/server; and the Internet, World Wide Web, e-mail and e-business for the networked era.
While it may be still too early to tell, I am beginning to sense the shape of the next major era of computing. It feels much more ubiquitous and collaborative. It also feels much more "intelligent," realistic and human. I almost get the sense that we are creating a very rich virtual world that complements our physical world, with all kinds of capabilities to help us in our life and in our work. Let me discuss a few of the key factors that are coming together and that may herald this next era of computing.
First is the increasingly ubiquitous nature of computing. Ten years ago, the PC was pretty much the only way of connecting to the Internet and accessing information and applications on the Web. Now IT is increasingly embedded in the physical world around us, in consumer electronics of all kinds, medical equipment, automobiles, appliances, and so on. That’s because, more and more, different kinds of devices are becoming digital, connecting to the Internet and thus, instead of being isolated as in the past, are now the edges of an integrated, global IT infrastructure.
Next, we have the advances in the Internet and the World Wide Web. Beyond technical advances like increased bandwidth and wireless connectivity, the Internet is truly becoming a platform for collaboration at all levels of business and society. People are self-organizing into online communities for all kinds of activities in their everyday lives. Businesses increasingly realize that the Internet and the social networks around them are indispensable to productivity, sharing knowledge and innovation in general. These changes are influencing the very nature of work and the organization of companies and other institutions in society.
Third, huge amounts of computing power and storage are becoming part of the IT infrastructure and giving rise to all kinds of new, sophisticated applications. This is having a major impact on the way we deal with the vast amounts of information out there. Instead of just statically accessing some data or web page, we are making extensive use of search engines to figure out what is out there and find what we want. We are using data mining and sophisticated analytical techniques to help us find patterns and extract the insights latent in all that information. And as we continue to add semantic capabilities to the Web, search engines and analysis functions are being enhanced so that our computers can "understand" the meaning of all that information and exhibit far more "intelligence."
Finally, with IT all around us, it is very important that we leverage all that powerful and inexpensive computing power so that future applications will be much more human-like, realistic and "immersive." We see this future emerging most clearly with computer and video games, especially with the new generation of game consoles like the Xbox and PlayStation 3, as well as with massively multiplayer online environments like Second Life and World of Warcraft.
So, what are we going to do in this emerging ubiquitous, collaborative, intelligent, realistic, and human-like virtual world? Ten years ago or so, in the early days of the Internet's explosive growth, people where asking similar questions about the then young and relatively primitive Internet. Cynics at the time wondered how many people had sufficient time to surf the Web, and where the value and economic returns would come from. One can ask similar questions today and cynically assume that these virtual worlds are primarily for people who wish to spend their time playing computer games.
But I like the way former IBM Chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner answered these questions in a keynote speech at an Internet World conference in December 1996, an answer as relevant today as it was then:
"I'm often asked by IBM customers where the Net is headed. I tell them: Clearly, connectivity is important -- but it isn't the real issue. Let's say soon there will be 1 billion ways to get on the Net. Then what? What will these connected millions do? What will they want to do? What will they value? And what will they be willing to pay for?
"The answer is -- all the things they do today. Buy and sell; bank; follow legislation; work together; access entertainment, earn a college degree, renew a driver's license. In other words, they'll want applications. Not shrink-wrapped 'bloatware.' And certainly not static information posted on Web sites."
In the intervening ten years, we have seen that the way we communicate and collaborate, access content and conduct commerce has totally changed with the advances and success of the Internet. This became the essence of our e-business and On Demand Business initiatives in IBM. My expectation is that over the next ten years we will see changes at least as profound, as all kinds of innovative applications emerge to leverage these advances in technology for new business and societal benefits.