Back to the Future

By Anthony Caruana
Thursday, 18 April, 2013

Back to the Future

Forty years ago, a revolution took place that completely changed the way we connect, communicate and collaborate.

I don’t know what you were doing in 1973 - I was starting primary school, as I was just five years old. Computers were the stuff of science fiction and the idea of global networks of interconnected computers belonged on Star Trek. Mobile phones weren’t on my radar until the 1990s. But that year two momentous changes began. The era of mobile telephony commenced when the first mobile phone call was made and we saw the birth of ethernet.

Think about how your business operates today. Both of these technologies are at the heart of you business’s communications.

The mobile phone has grown well beyond its original scope of allowing people to talk to each other wherever they are and whenever they want. The modern smartphone is now a mobile computing device that can make phone calls and remains connected 24/7 over a ubiquitous mobile data network.

Inside the office, your local network, and the WAN that connects multiple sites, makes it possible to conduct business. How many businesses could operate without this?

What’s interesting about these technologies is that neither is the best possible solution. That’s reflected in their continual evolution. Mobile phones can now deliver data faster than wired networks could just a few years ago and connecting devices to a network is trivially easy - notwithstanding the security challenges. What these technologies share is their openness.

Almost anyone can create devices that can connect over these two network standards. What makes these interesting for those looking at the longer term is that both persisted and become dominant despite the availability of other competing standards.

What really shines through is that it’s not always the most technically sophisticated solution that persists. It’s the most open standard that survives and thrives. A look back over the last couple of decades gives us a picture of the future.

MSN and AOL fancied themselves as superior to the internet but the open standard won out. Token ring, NetBEUI and IPX/SPX were common but it was the open TCP/IP that we all use now. For today’s decision makers and influencers, it’s worth looking at history for guidance on what the future will bring.

It’s fair to say that corporate IT is at a tipping point today. Over the last couple of years, the volumes of data we have to manage have increased markedly and rapidly. This change has been fast enough that we’ve had to come up with new names for units of measure as we’ve moved from terabytes to petabytes, zettabytes and beyond. What data storage, management and access technologies are going to persist so that our data isn’t trapped in a legacy system?

One of the temptations is to look at the open source world for open standards. But it’s not always open standards that become ubiquitous. It’s the standard that’s most easily used. For example, although Apple advocates using AAC encoding for music, it’s MP3 that’s king. AAC is open, MP3 is proprietary. Similarly, Open Office is open source but it’s the proprietary Microsoft Office that is most used - although this is interesting as the office file formats are now ISO standards.

What’s the takeaway from all this?

Does your strategic plan consider standards for key functions? How do you decide which standards to back and which to reject? For core infrastructure, you might not be able to look 40 years ahead, but you may need to consider the next five to 10 years.

Are you actively looking at what’s coming out of think tanks and research organisations like CSIRO and NICTA to see what technologies are emerging and you need to monitor?

While we doubt we’ll still be working on another 40 years, we wonder what’s being invented today that will shape how we live and work in that time.

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