Things looked bleak when the dot-com economy of the late 1990s collapsed, and information technology spending plummeted; but most longtime technology executives weren’t terribly worried. They were confident that the “next big thing” would spur excitement and industry growth soon enough. After all, in the 40 years since the information technology industry began, this boom-bust-boom-again cycle had repeated itself quite predictably. Before the Internet, there was client/server computing; before that, PCs; and before that, minicomputers and mainframes. When the bubble popped, many information technology experts remained confident that a new wave of technology would sweep the market and bring success to those vendors who persevered.
But four years later, domestic growth in technology spending is still stagnant. No next big thing has emerged – at least not one that you can sell. Finally, however, technologists are in agreement about what that next big thing will be.
Call it “pervasive,” “ubiquitous,” or “invisible” computing, it will make intelligence as common as electricity. While it remains difficult to quantify the market for invisible computing, analysts now predict that it will reach $675 billion by 2008, and that by 2012 there will be an estimated 16.4 billion networked devices around the world.
A world of pervasive or invisible computing will contain a dizzying number of intelligent devices – computers and cell phones, of course, but also cars, toys, refrigerators, soup cans with sensors, and so on – that interconnect via an intricate series of networks. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory refer to their version of the technology, which they have been working on for several years, as Project Oxygen, because that’s how free, available, and simple access to computing will be. This vast new network of interconnected devices should, its promoters predict, create greater productivity gains than any previous information technology.
Although it’s tough to market oxygen, it is possible to sell invisible computing’s underlying technologies: wireless, instant messaging, Web services, customer relationship management, and asset management. That’s what technology vendors want enterprise buyers to get excited about. But here’s the cynical truth: in order for a technology boom to get going, market researchers at companies like International Data Corporation or Forrester need to promote it. And for consumers to buy into a concept, they must be able to readily grasp it. In other words, technology leaders need to learn how to market invisible computing in a way that cracks open the wallets of CIOs and consumers alike.
They might learn a lesson from Intel and its creation of the Centrino brand (see “Intel’s Centrino Solution”). The chip maker synthesized a market basket of compelling technologies into a single brand that communicated “computing on the go.” Vendors with a substantial stake in the future of invisible computing could likewise create a coherent, easily understandable combination of components to sell as a package. Project Oxygen has succeeded in doing this for the research community. It’s time for the vendor community to make enterprises and consumers aware of the invisible-computing wave and get them excited enough to want to buy into it.