Changing How Things Work Together

Technological innovation seems to follow a pattern: things that initially exist alone in isolation start to work together and end up working in a seamless way. This is true of almost all the technical advances of the last century or so. Cars, electricity, telegraph and telephones started their journey along this path in the late-nineteenth century. Radio followed closely behind. Household consumer appliances, like vacuum-cleaners and washing machines, came after that. Television, although "invented" in 1929, really didn’t take off until after the War. They started out being distinct, stand-alone things that became better integrated as they came into everyday use. For instance, radios & telephones are regularly fitted to cars; some even have TVs.

A whole host of technological innovations are now working together better, like TV over the 3G Wireless Internet onto a mobile phone with a computer in it. The common term for this kind of integration is "convergence". But there’s something much deeper behind all this – a fundamental change in the way that things in general work together. At the heart of all this is a profound kind of interoperability provided by digital technology – semiconductor hardware, standards-compliant software and ubiquitous high-speed communications. There are more computers in cars today than there are in the houses in which they’re garaged. An airplane, like the Airbus A380, has more software (about 1 billion lines of code) than most companies. More and more, all of these things are linked together by optical fibres, satellites and cellular networks that move a staggering amount of data around the world.

The poster-child of reliable interoperability is the telephone. Even electricity has not attained that level of service. The ability to call from one phone to another anywhere, any time is taken for granted by billions of people worldwide. Email is nowhere near as dependable. Instant messaging and various other communications tools are far behind that. The ability of computers and their software to talk to other computers and their software is a long, long way behind that. The more advanced the technology becomes, it seems, the harder it is to get it to work together. That’s why there is such a booming industry in "systems integration" and "enterprise application integration". Getting email to work as well as telephones is still a goal for many. Getting software in general to work together as well as telephones, remains a lofty goal which need a lot of work for a long time.

While the opportunity seems insurmountable, getting software to interoperate is also enormously attractive for many reasons. Digital hardware, software and communications have become pervasive in the developed world over the last 2 decades. It is being adopted aggressively in large scale in some of the emerging economies, like China and India. In coming decades, some 3 billion additional consumers are forecast to join the digital revolution. Personal computers, digital TV and radio and a host of other devices will connect more than half of humanity over the next generation, much as mobile phones do today. As these consumers become more affluent, they will likely consume more digital services. As the telecommunications networks become more widespread and capable, more services will be provided. As more of these communications facilities become wireless and higher speed, many of these services will be available to mobile devices, much as Internet-access services today have become more wireless and faster.

The Changes in the Living Room and changes in pocket devices are a harbinger of this change, but getting an HD video off a digital camera (or phone) and onto a HD TV screen at home just isn’t easy yet. For enterprises, Web Services standards are the beginning of getting software in general to work together, but getting a doctor, an insurance company, a pathology lab and a pharmacist to collaborate on a person’s healthcare is almost impossible today. There’s some promising work going on in supply-chain integration now, but I can’t easily sign-up to an integrated ERP, CRM & supply-chain solution that just works with my trading partners. Most concerning, I’m not convinced that the 1 billion lines of code on the Airbus A380 all work together inside the airplane just yet.

When I can email my HD video from my seat in a future airplane to my Mom on the ground and be confident that she can watch it on her TV, I’ll be more convinced that things work together better. When my health record in Australia shows up in a doctor’s office in a ski-resort in the US or Europe, I’ll feel better. When the systems integration business starts shrinking, I’ll know something good is happening. I hope all of that happens before I die…

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About Fred Pugsley

Digital guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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