Are we falling back on IT Innovation?

Smartphones, tablets, and the cloud – are they true IT innovation?


As Bob Lewis suggests, are they consumer innovation or port of one or more of the dozen earlier innovations to these new platforms?

In this article he has listed out a list of 12 innovations that had created the ability to do something new and significantly different from anything that had been done before. They are:

  1. Programmability – Starting with ENIAC
  2. Storage and management of structured data – Earliest commercial mainframe to RDBMS and beyond
  3. Electronic publishing – Linotype machines to electronic page setting
  4. Word processing – Ability to edit and reprint document
  5. Electronic spreadsheets – Starting with VisiCalc
  6. Visual programming
  7. Personal empowerment – The PC revolution
  8. Personal information management – Starting with Sidekick
  9. Electronic mail
  10. Electronic communities of interest – Starting with electronic bulletin board
  11. The WIMP interface – Windows, Icons, Mice, and Pointers = GUI
  12. E-commerce

I have 6 cribs – more about the article than about the list.

Anybody can contest this list and create a separate list of technologies. I also have few technologies which I would like to see in this list. But that is not the point.

When can you proclaim a technology to be truly innovative?

It is very difficult to know the true disruptive potential of any innovation when you too near to the time when the innovation happened. Only on hindsight, when several years have passed, can you really say that “yes; that was a disruptive innovation”.

Each one of the innovations in that list (for that matter such list) falls into the category where the true disruptiveness was realized several years after the initial innovation. It also takes several years for the innovation to mature.

So, we should judge smartphones, tablets and cloud five years down the line.

12 innovations in 60 years = 1 in 5 years

On a linear time scale, 12 innovations in 60 years translate to one innovation every 5 years. How are we doing on that scale?

The “electronic communities of interest”, though initiated several years back, became disruptive only with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. and that has happened in last 5 years.

Similarly, “E-commerce” took off within last ten years, “Personal information management” in last 15 years and so on …

May be, we need to wait for another 5 years to realize that another disruption has happed.

How to date the disruption?

“Storage and management of structured data”, as pointed out in the post, starts from the first generation mainframe computers and goes at least till the creation of RDBMS. There is a hint that we should extend the concept to the newer post SQL data storage techniques.

So, should we date this innovation to early 50’s when the mainframe computers were commercialized? Or, should we date it to Codd’s publication of A Relational Model of Data for Large Shared Data Banks, which happened in 1970?

What is the date of WIMP innovation? Is it when it was first created in Xerox PARC in 1973 or should we take the date of release of Macintosh in 1984? The “Touch” technology available in smartphone and tablet is possibly as disruptive as WIMP and you need to credit Apple – iPhone for popularize it. More work needs to be done but it should evolve over a period of time and it will probably become all pervasive and as disruptive. Like microprocessor, it will be embedded in every piece of equipment that we see – as pointed out by Robert Cringely.

Level of abstraction

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe” … Carl Sagan

There is no doubt that the 12 innovations listed have been true game changer but future innovation will necessarily be built on top of the 12 innovation listed.

So, should we treat “virtualization” to be a separate technology innovation? It is another matter that we may have to wait for several years to judge the impact of it and by extension judge the innovative impact of the “Cloud”.

Do we still have a distinction between consumer and business technology?

Any consumer innovation disruptively impacts business. Gone are the days when IT was primarily used for improving efficiencies. Today, almost every IT application has an outside-in look. It has to interface with the customers and other stakeholders. It is part of every product and service design.

Here is an article by Adam Richardson on the four technologies that will have a disruptive impact on your business, almost regardless of which industry you’re in. They are:

  • Microprocessors
  • Sensors
  • Wireless connectivity
  • Databases

I would like to add touch screen to this list.

Finally my crib about …

What has been missed out from the list?

  1. Compiler
  2. Hyperlinking
  3. Search
  4. RDBMS – it deserves a separate mention
[Update: Thanks Madan]
Yes, Networking should be in the list.
In fact, all future innovation will either enhance our connected-ness or leverage it.
By connected-ness I mean human to human connection, human to machine connection and machine to machine connection.
One Response to “Are we falling back on IT Innovation?”
  1. MK says:

    How about Networking (IP network).

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