Talking Technology: Earth, Air, Fire, Water

This post was inspired by two recent posts. The first, by Redmonk’s Steve O’Grady, argues that The Technology Industry Talks Too Much About Technology. It concludes with

If it’s true, and it seems self-evident here that it is, that software is eating the world, technology will only become more important moving forward. In that context, quality of implementation will naturally play a role in sifting the winners from the losers. But as we move forward, it is worth remembering that the best technology not only doesn’t win all the time, it may not even win most of the time. For better and for worse.

I read Steve’s post because I’ve been a big fan of the Remonker’s going back to 2004 or so. I first dealt with Steve on a conference call during my days in IBM Strategy, when I spent a few months as part of a small team investigating commoditisation,open-source software, and their possible impact on IBM’s software business. One of the team hired Steve to get his insight.

I saw Steve’s post in part as a challenge. To wit, do I have anything useful to say about technology today? That led me to thinking about another post I read just yesterday, one that came to me in an indirect fashion.

I twit from time to time, and every so often Twitter informs me that I have a new follower. I find the arrival of a new Follower both surprising and interesting. Surprising in that I can’t see why anyone would follow anyone except Andy Borowitz and his hilarious tweets. Challenging in that I wonder why on earth would anyone give a damn about my tweeting.

In this case I learned my new Follower was Matt Walton, aka @MattWaltonRED, CEO of RED Method, a software development company in Austin that specializes in mobile software.

I became quite excited when I noted that RED Method’s newest project is EventMethod, a new cloud-based product for mobile event management. I’ve been helping a friend build a website for his startup, and managing events is one of the requirements. (That’s the reason I wrote about Drupal few posts back.) I then went on to read some of Matt’s blog posts.

I was quite impressed with one of them, Why Should Business Care About Mobile?. Indeed, a simple two-word phrase, one I don’t recall seeing before, gave me new insight into the state of software today, and some possible opportunities for the technology we are working on here at HARDBOL.

So let’s talk Technology. To keep it simple, let’s look at one simple question:

What is the single most important element in the computing industry today?

This is the kind of question that folks who talk — and write — about technology love to ask, as answering it takes lots of time, and may even put some bread on the table.

There are many options. Is it a single company? Say Apple, Facebook, or Google? Or all three together?

Or is it single hot technology? Smartphone? Tablets?

Perhaps new software? Node.js? HTML5?

And so it goes, more grist for analyst’s mill.

My own view can be expressed in a single word:

The most important element in the computing industry today is itself an element: Silicon.

Silicon is the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, and the lifeblood of the computer industry. Silicon — in the form of sand — is the basis of one of the oldest yet still most useful, technologies: glass.

The ancient Greeks believed the world was made of four Classical Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

Glass is the combination of two of them: Earth (sand) and Fire (energy).

Glass is magical. It is not a metal, yet it can be quite hard. It is impermeable to water and most other liquids. Best of all, it is transparent, and forms the windows that bring light into our homes while keeping the wind and rain at bay.

Glass, like any technology, can be abused as well as used. Consider, for example, the Window Tax introduced over three centuries ago:

The window tax was a property tax based on the number of windows in a house. It was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in England, France and Scotland during the 18th and 19th centuries. To avoid the tax some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed at a later date), as a result of the tax. It was introduced in 1696 and was repealed in 1851, 156 years after first being introduced. Spain and France both had window taxes as well for similar reasons.

Britain not only adopted the Window Tax — which condemned generations of people to houses with a few number of small windows –but applied another technology, in the form of the Industrial Revolution, to spend well over a century perfecting the means to coat those windows with ash, soot, and other industrial effluvia, making it even harder for the hapless Brits to see outside. Witness London’s Great Smog of ’52, the worst air pollution event in the history of the UK. Over 12,000 died.

Silicon, the key element in glass, is also the key element in modern computing, for it has the physical properties that enable the fabrication of transitors measuring a few nanometers across upon a silicon substrate. We use these transistors to assemble gates, registers, memory, and the other components of the modern microchip.

Within the last twenty years, a new form of glass has become another key technology in computing: fiber optic cable.

Or as the ancient greeks might have expressed it:

Earth (silicon) + Fire (energy) = Glass
Earth (silicon) + Fire (heating) + Water (cooling) = Wafer Substrate
Earth (silicon) + Fire (energy) = Fiber Optic Cable
Fiber Optic Cable + Fire (radio) + Air = Wireless
Computer + Wireless = Mobile

Within the last five years, silicon in the form of glass has emerged as yet another key element in computing: the glass display of a smartphone.

This new use of glass has changed the nature of computing itself, at least for the vast majority of users.

Ten years ago everyone used keyboard and mouse to create and manipulate information viewed through a glass screen. Today most people compute not by looking at a glass screen, but by touching a glass screen.

It was while reading Matt’s post that I came across the phrase “surface computing.” I don’t recall seeing it before, but I instantly knew what it meant.
See Surface computing and Surface Computer — a surface computer is a computer that interacts with the user through the surface of an ordinary object, rather than through a monitor and keyboard — and Multi-touch.

Since I found it so insightful, I here take the liberty of quoting much of Matt’s post:

First, in order to answer this, let me ask another question. Why should anyone care about surface computing? After all, maybe only a few have ever even heard of this, and even fewer, perhaps, even understand how surface computing changed mobile, and how mobile will change surface computing.

But, if you just look past the novelty of the mobile smartphone device, and really look at what has happened, you’ll notice that it isn’t the phone capability that has changed, it’s the computing capability within a very small device wrapped up in a sexy package–all accessed by the tiny tip of your skinny fingers, or in my case, fat fingers.

The bag phone, or the famous phone from Wall Street, the Motorola Brick, represented two technologies converging: the microprocessor and the signal infrastructure owned by the telecoms. Within 20 years, the phone had flown through its evolution, at a crazy speed. What I find interesting is, however, isn’t the evolution of the phone, but the ever-increasing speed of the signal, of the connectivity. Seriously, think about the connectivity coupled with our smartphone devices today. They are fast, very fast, and they are only going to get faster.

What the mobile device essentially does is that it provides a link to a key, to an identity that you control, that you own. It is just like you having a set of keys for your existence in that the device will become that for you. This, however, I will save for another, more in-depth, blog entry. But, because we are now coming to a convergence of tiny microprocessors, as far as ram and network connectivity are concerned, the market struggles with UI.

If the mobile device is the key to your identity, it is essential that you be able to access that identity quickly (connectivity) and easily (UI). How are people supposed to click on such tiny buttons, became the concern. Speed and connectivity were already solved issues thanks to telecoms, so we trained a whole generation of people to type on a little keyboard on a mobile phone to fix the secondary issue.

Then, in stepped Apple, giving us what we truly needed: a touch screen. It was, at the time, something only a very few were talking about in meetings, on blogs or vlogs. It was an area in which people were experimenting, but where in which they couldn’t crack the code for a commercial product. The solution was surface computing.

Overall, I’m sure you can find a few people with differences of opinion about what surface computing really is and how it will be used in the future, but you should care about it because it is the solution to all things mobile. Without surface computing, connectivity, speed, size, none of it would matter.

Surface computing changed the history of mobile and took it from a telecom business and brought it back to the tech world. In my humble opinion, we started surface computing back with the first touch screen, and it is just now beginning to mature.

Not even telecoms can predict where this one is going. Can you?

This expresses well a vague feeling I have had for some time. As a programmer for over forty years, I know the game has changed, and in a much more dramatic fashion that such “innovations” as object-oriented programming, Java, HTML/XML, and so forth.

The notion of “surface computing” captures the new paradigm. We no longer type on a keyboard and look at glass. Now we touch touch that glass, tap on it, rotate it, and talk to a microphone placed near the glass.

There is yet another great change going on.

Until now the majority of users have used keyboards with English characters and looked at English text, in the form of ASCII, displayed on a glass screen. It doesn’t take too many more characters, say several hundred, to display the languages commonly spoken in Europe and the Americas.

It is only a matter of time — and it may even have already happened — until most of the content of the Internet is not in English, and within the same span most of text displayed on the world’s smartphones will not be in English.

There is an additional change that has already happened, but has gone largely unnoticed.

Today’s smartphones have the computing power of a 1990’s supercomputer. That this is not fully appreciated can perhaps be explained by noting that the processor speed is not apparent because most applications have as their workload a series of simple exchanges of information with a web server, the speed of which is much slower. Also, the base languages of the dominant players — Apple’s Objective C and Google’s Java/Darvik — are both complex and too low-level for most programmers. There are lots of cycles left to permit the use of higher-level languages to write mobile applications.

With great change come both challenges to established players and opportunities for new entrants.

To me the great opportunity is to enable the use of higher-level languages, first by working at the hardware level — just above the silicon substrate — to make them more efficient; then by promoting their use to write applications at a higher level.

Any such system must thus provide full and efficient support for Unicode. A Smartphone user will not learn another language just to use it. Any taint of a non-native language will be an invitation to competitors.

I’m not sure if I’m right or wrong on this, but I do expect to spend the next few years finding out.

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