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Tech of the future versus apps of the past

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee September 9, 2014
Do core tech advancements drive the worlds of business, industry, healthcare, scientific research, and even the basic institutions of society, asks's Peter Coffee?

When people talk about technology change, they usually measure technical attributes: the number of transistors on a chip, the number of bits per second across a connection, the number of ways that different sources of data can be tied together. Once the stuff of science fiction or government intelligence reports, the quantifiably spiky edge of technical possibility is now becoming mainstream entertainment – reflecting a combination of admiration for exotic skills, and apprehension about what the resulting systems may know and be able to control.

None of that is what actually matters.

Does core technology’s advancement drive the worlds of business, industry, healthcare, scientific research, and even the basic institutions of society? Sure, in the same way that London Fashion Week (starting this week) is all about textiles, or that Motor Expo is all about new composite plastics and magneto-rheological shock absorbers. Which is to say, new technologies are enabling – but better applications are compelling, and the evolution of applications has been grossly underwhelming compared to the pace of core technology improvement.

For example?

Compare the state of authoring a document today to what it was in, say, 1984 – when Apple’s MacWrite was a somewhat novel, but rapidly mainstreamed archetype of word processing that a user in 2014 would find totally familiar. Wait a minute: thirty years. If someone had just awakened from a 30-year nap, having fallen asleep waiting for the floppy-disk shuffle that marked the early days of the Mac, would it take more than about fifteen minutes to get that person up to a decent level of proficiency with the latest version of Microsoft Word? Even the file-save icon in today’s Word would look familiar, despite the fact that hardly anyone has touched one of those hard-shell floppy discs in the present century.

Is no one able to imagine, implement, and drive the adoption of a superior model of crafting prose and sharing it with other people? It’s not as if no one is trying. There are existence proofs of multi-person authoring/editing environments with integrated conversation and collaboration. What does it take to accelerate something truly new to sound-barrier-breaking momentum? For one thing, cloud-delivered services reduce the barriers to discovery and the high initial costs of evaluation: what has been a disappointingly flat curve may be about to inflect decisively upwards.

Watch this space.

In the meantime, though, we could (and should) say the same thing about the spreadsheet – despite past attempts to introduce richer model-based approaches like Javelin, or more uncertainty-accommodating tools like Palisade’s @Risk. We can’t afford to settle for what we have, and say that it appears to be good enough—as word processors could, perhaps, be said to be—because bad decision-support tools don’t just merely fail to make things better. Research shows that even inadequate tools induce a spurious confidence that makes people more certain without being any more right. Better decisions would improve almost everything that people and organizations try to do. Progress is hugely overdue.

Obstacles down

What could accelerate the refinement of applications, to a point that is at least somewhat less embarrassing compared to continuing breakneck improvement of core technology? We’re seeing simultaneous reduction of two obstacles.

First, the boundary between being “in business” and being “in technology” is getting thinner, as more and more companies realize that superior use of information is their best source of competitive advantage. Having a driving license is pretty much essential to holding a job in many parts of the world, even if the job description says nothing about being a “driver” as any part of the job description; the same is the case for many skills that used to be considered “programmer” or “technician” territory. More people are coming into the business world with ambitions and skills that make them ask, “how can I take what I know and package it in a way that others can use?”

Second, and partly answering that question, is that the gap between “business administrator” and “application developer” is getting narrower – as new application platforms take non-value-adding complexity off the agenda of the person who has business expertise and a business problem to solve. What tools like Microsoft’s Visual Basic (and much-less-well-known competitors) once did for individuals on isolated desktops, cloud-based Platform-as-a-Service facilities like’s Salesforce1 Platform are now doing for a world of mobile and multi-device collaborators.

A reasonable question might then be, where can businesspeople-cum-developers meet other people in a similar situation? Where can they trade with each other the insights that will help them turn from what they were into something more? I’d be missing the obvious if I didn’t point out that in mid-October, many of them will be heading to San Francisco for the once-yearly Dreamforce conference.

I don’t apologize for mentioning this because, even though it’s hosted by my employer, this is an event that is very much of its attendees’ making. It’s largely defined by the breakout sessions that are mostly “real people” presenting to each other about the things they’re trying to get done in customer service, team effectiveness, and…well, in whatever might be genuinely new that year, mostly in the minds of people who used to think they weren’t technology professionals

Enabling technologies expand the space of what’s possible, and warp the space of what’s competitive, but ultimately it’s about the “Why?” – not the “What?,” and only indirectly about the “How?” Whatever a person’s community of expertise may be, there’s increasing opportunity to take a leadership role in that community by building the tool that you always wished you had – not by becoming a programmer, but by letting a modern platform raise the floor beneath you, to a point where you can start adding value much more quickly than ever before.




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