Monday, May 23, 2011

Arise, free your machines!

This is an article about a fundamental change in the way we think about technology. I say it's time to apply the network effects of social communities to the design of the machines we use.  

Furthermore, based on the idea of technology triggers and inflections, I believe this is part of a bigger picture shaping the future, and represents a logical, perhaps inevitable shift.  It will have a profound impact on our daily lives.  It will mean the end of some business models and the birth of many others. 

These triggers are present:

  • Processing power and memory: better, faster, smaller, cheaper
  • Displays: flatter, brighter, touch interactive...and cheaper
  • Networks: faster, nearly ubiquitous in wired and wireless forms...and cheaper
  • Cloud-based computing, storage, services: expanding at near- exponential levels; prices falling, capabilities growing
  • Ways to interact with machines: moving from keyboard/mouse to touchscreen, haptic surfaces, voice, gesture, recognition of objects and faces
But these things are true as well:

  • Hardware and software:  proprietary and inflexible.  
  • Access to documents, presentations, data, music, video, ebooks: for the most part, tied to a specific device where it is stored, and frequently to a piece of software that needs to be present.
  • And all those important parts of our lives are at risk if backups are not done, if machines malfunction, or are damaged, lost, or stolen.  In many cases, we have to pay to replace not just hardware, but software and data as well.  We pay for actual bytes that are in our possession, not the rights to them that represent real intellectual property.  The market for those bytes is a jumbled mess of confused and failing business models.
  • Companies using technology for business spend untold fortunes managing these devices and the information they hold within, money that could be better put to use on business value.  To perpetuate the old model, the machines themselves are far more expensive than they need to be.

A central point I’ve been making on is that the engines of the future are driven by the abilities of several core technologies, like networks, applications, interfaces, and machines.  I believe that the triggers represented by the abilities in the first list now show us a clear path to help us get rid of the limitations in the second list.

There is a supreme irony at work in technology now.  It was the same systems listed above--and their associated pain points--that made online communities possible. But we have reached a point where the social networks, our communities of interest-instead-of-place, are a more fully realized version of the future than are the machines that got us here.  

Where our phones and our computers have blown apart the limitations of “I have to be in a certain place to have this community,” we’re still anchored by the ties that bind machines, data, and software to each other. The world of our machines needs to catch up, so that we can get everything, everywhere, on whatever machine is handy. Free your machines, and the rest will follow. 

My point is:

It’s time to decouple the devices we use from the data they handle, and the programs they use.   Devices should be user interfaces, and little more.  They should be stateless.

Are stateless devices fully realized right now?  Not yet. Are they inevitable? Maybe. Let’s look at what stateless would mean in practice:

  1. The storage and delivery of data and applications is cloud-based.  Protocols like AJAX and rich internet applications tools from companies like Adobe and Microsoft use local caching to improve the web-based experience.
  2. Resources on the local machine, and the software it runs, are devoted to a very lightweight operating system that delivers the user interface and the connection to the cloud. We are used to thinking of that interface as a “browser,” but the idea of a “browser” as an application installed on top of a discrete operating system is no longer useful. The OS is the browser, and vice versa.
  3. Some devices will need more OS than they have now--televisions, for instance, need an integral web interface to become the cloud-based delivery form factor of choice for video (which itself will be cloud-sourced, as physical DVDs and the like become unnecessary.)
  4. Most devices will need far less OS than they do now.  We don’t move the data and the heavy lifting on processing to the cloud because we aren’t capable of doing it locally.  We do it because it frees us from so many limitations and offers so many benefits. A simpler device is a less-expensive device.

We are probably close to versions of the form factors we need now: television/home entertainment, workstation, tablet, phone, in-car.  The problem is, they operate piecemeal and don’t give us the benefits of stateless life.  We’re in the midst of cobbling together something that feels a bit like stateless life will feel. However, we’re still dragging along the baggage from the last generation of computing.

Look at your smartphone; it’s the handheld form factor, but what percentage of the time is it used for voice calls?  10? 20?  It’s now your text message center, your e-mail, your connection to your online social world, your shopping aide, your GPS, your music, and most likely your primary camera for still images and video. “Phone” is now just a convenient word to use because we’re used to it.  But it’s still proprietary, likely backed by Apple or Google, maybe RIM, and if it were lost or damaged, you’d be in scarcely better shape than someone who lost a laptop in 1998.

Let’s think about the same handheld device as stateless.

  • Your "community", represented now by your social connections AND all your documents, data, video, music, and books, has been freed from the limits of place and of specific device.
  • Your entire world of apps and data would be provisioned the moment you signed in to your phone for the first time.  They’d all be where you’re used to, they’d all work just as you expect.
  • Lose or break the machine, and it’s a blank slate. Nothing to wipe, nothing for a thief to exploit. And nothing lost for you as the user.
  • You’d be free to have as many as you liked to match color, style, or status needs, because all the phone does is separated from all the ways you express the form factor.
  • You could get every experience your phone offers on any other form factor.  And vice versa.  Watch movies and TV on the phone in a pinch, or make calls from your TV.  Carry what machines you like with you, but always know your whole world is there any place you sign in.  EVERY part of your digital life is finally connected.
I’ll revisit the stateless idea often.  We need to look at the vendors who are likely to make stateless work--especially Google and the Chromebook concept--and the competitive pressures that are standing in the way.  After all, if a proprietary world is what is keeping your company alive, you may fight the stateless future with all you have.  

Most exciting of all, it’s time to think about stateless devices as one of the next big trigger points--and run with the idea to think of the innovations and the business successes it will bring.  

This is the first of a three-part series, my analysis of the biggest fundamental elements of the tech future.  Part 2, "A world of services" will explore new tech delivery models and evolving business/IT models that promise--finally--to increase agility.  In Part 3, "Power to the people," I'll look at the flattening of the technology delivery cycle, consumerism, and extend the social-as-community idea to look at the tech-fueled promise of "the world as my village."

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