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Computing’s "Fifth Wave"

In the July issue of Business 2.0, senior writers Michael Copeland and Om Malik argue that computing is entering its fifth wave, an “epic technological transformation” comparable to the introduction of mainframes in the 1960s, minicomputers in the 1970s, personal…
July 7, 2005

In the July issue of Business 2.0, senior writers Michael Copeland and Om Malik argue that computing is entering its fifth wave, an “epic technological transformation” comparable to the introduction of mainframes in the 1960s, minicomputers in the 1970s, personal computers in the 1980s, and networking and the Internet in the 1990s. The three forces feeding this new wave, they say, are cheap, powerful computer hardware, especially mobile phones and handhelds; broadband Internet access from almost anywhere; and “technological openness,” meaning the emergence of a “global tinkerer’s workshop, where thousands of creative minds are constantly cobbling together code that entrepreneurs and even established businesses can cannibalize, free of charge, for parts to build new software systems.”

Now, compare those three forces to the tagline of my Continuous Computing Blog: “Mobile Devices + Wireless Everywhere + Web 2.0 = A Social Revolution.”  On the first two elements, we’re in exact agreement. And what Copeland and Malik call openness, I’m simply calling Web 2.0: a set of standardized, remixable tools for building sophisticated Web-based software services. When I talk about Web 2.0, I have the same examples in mind as those cited by Copeland and Malik (Amazon Web Services, Google’s APIs, et cetera).

Bottom line: the Business 2.0 piece is the twin of my Social Machines piece. But it’s a fraternal twin, not an identical one. I focus on the personal and social implications of this new state of continuous computing that we’re all entering. Copeland and Malik, as befits their venue, focus on the business implications and how companies can get in on the opportunities presented by this new way of deploying computer power. Their piece makes some key points and predictions that I would have loved to include in my own article, if not for the fact that it was already 5,000 words long (about 50 percent longer than our typical features):

  • “The fifth wave…will coincide with, and in some ways fuel, a surprising increase in corporate IT spending. And as the new wave sweeps in, it will create fertile conditions for starting new companies–even new industries–and remaking old ones.”
  • “The ability of a company to easily scale services from a single customer to millions is a defining feature of the fifth wave….The secret to doing that is the ‘Amazon-ification’ of software. People tend to think of Amazon as an online store, but it can also be viewed simply as a software platform for delivering a service over the Web.” [On this point, see my January case study, Amazon: Giving Away the Store.]
  • “Some of the richest opportunities churned up by the fifth wave are in the tricky but vital need to better merge the computer and the telephone. There remain significant technical hurdles to seamless interaction between the two technologies.” [Amen. But while Copeland and Malik focus on interactive voice response systems, there’s another huge disconnect between the capabilities handset manufacturers could build into cell phones and the meager services the carriers have actually seen fit to offer.]
  • “Over the long haul, one of the most important implications of the fifth wave is that it could create a more level playing field than the tech industry has seen in many years. The old titans may still do well. But many experts believe that the sheer number of opportunities, the cheapness of basic technological components, and the ever lower barriers to entry for many new niches could ring in a golden era for entrepreneurs and startups.”

Right on. Copeland and Malik have written one of those rare tech-business stories that’s both optimistic and realistic. They make no attempt to hide their enthusiasm about the future of mobile computing, but they never cross over into hype and hand-waving. Believe me, that’s a hard line to walk.

If there’s anything missing in the Business 2.0 piece, it’s a discussion of what real people can actually do with the new computing and communications power that the tech industry is handing them, and how this power is already beginning to reshape the way we live, work, and learn. But I guess that’s where my piece comes in. ;-)

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