A technology odyssey

Some in the technology business may fret about the uncertainties – China’s growing influence and the repercussions of offshoring and outsourcing – but, for the lucky ones, five years hence seems so predictable that it could be minutes away.

Road maps for product development have been shaped for the second half of this decade, chief technology officers know exactly where they want to be in 2010, and well proven theories on the pace of development – such as Moore’s Law for the constant doubling of the the number of transistors per square inch on a chip – lend a feeling of inevitability about their forecasts.

“It’s in the bag,” says Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, about 2010. Sun launched its high-end Niagara chip, a processor that it expects will give it a five-year lead over the competition, last month.

“I know exactly what technology I’ll be using. The research is there, we’re at the start of a five-year manufacturing cycle – so 2010 is a pretty reasonable thing to talk about from a chip point of view, it’s like next year.”

Microsoft, meanwhile, knows that its Xbox 360, just released, will be coming to the end of the usual five-year life cycle for games consoles. But its idea of what might be in the next version will still be sketchy and is likely to be shaped by the kind of audience and usage that this new online digital-home device attracts.

“You can look at technologies in the lab and see a number of things happening,” says Rick Rashid, senior vice-president for Microsoft Research. “But the caveat is that it’s hard to predict how people will use technology, how it will get adapted into their lives.”

Research companies such as Gartner have noted the trend that ordinary consumers are beginning to drive technology in all its forms. “There’s a socialisation of technology taking place. It’s making its way into every part of our lives,” says Steve Prentice, Gartner’s chief of research.

“The non-techies are starting to find this is easy, they’re becoming much more au fait with the web and it is becoming an integral part of their social lives with such things as blogging. The PC is just another appliance, it’s not reserved for the numerate.”

The implications of this consumerisation of technology are broad and deep. Technology is becoming more widely available through cheaper hardware, and software that is often free.

But consumers are demanding better design than the putty-coloured boxes of the past and their attitudes and demands are being carried down the supply chain as far as the semiconductor manufacturers and over into the buying habits of enterprises.

“Employees are increasingly buying their own bits of hardware and putting them in an office or branch – using the stationery budget to buy a colour printer – and that starts to change the business model for re-sellers, who say write to us and fill in this form.”

Knowledge workers are also flexing their muscles and telling IT departments to do away with locked-down PCs and give them the freedom to choose their equipment and software.

“If organisations continue with their ostrich-like approach over the way people are beginning to work, they will find their employees taking their skills elsewhere,” says Mr Prentice.

Richard Holway of the Ovum Holway consultancy says that nobody asks for a new desktop in the office any more: “They want the latest mobile devices. They want access to everything they have from everywhere.

“In the next five years, we will see a revolution where things will become very much web-enabled.

“You will be able to access all your software from anywhere in the world on any device with a couple of biometric swipes – from the whole of my e-mail archive to all of the software I’m licensed to use. I believe you will either pay through subscriptions or have the service funded by advertisements.”

Pieter Knook, head of Microsoft’s mobile and embedded devices division, says users can expect to see a unification of their experiences in personal and work life in the next five years as devices and software get smarter.

“The user will be in control. You will decide when your home life is interrupted by work and when you allow the personal to come to the office. Today, we have three phone numbers, but increasingly we want these numbers to be one single device with multiple profiles for the user, with calls forwarded so you would get full control over when you do your work and when you allow interruptions.”

Mobile devices will serve as payment tokens, access cards for buildings and log-on devices for home and office PCs, Mr Knook says. Cellphones will become multi-functional entertainment devices as well by 2010, says David Cooper, chief technology officer of 3, the UK 3G network operator.

“It’s just a matter of the miniaturisation and the cost-base falling. The [handset makers’] road map is set on taking over the world and eating other people’s lunches – from Apple’s iPod to video cameras.”

Science fiction author William Gibson once said: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” In emerging markets, consumers can look forward to simple $100 or pay-as-you-go computing machines helping them access vital data.

“They might just need a weather forecast or the price of wheat,” says Phil Hester, chief technology officer at AMD, whose 50x15 initiative aims to provide affordable internet access and computing capabilities for 50 per cent of the world’s population by 2015. Only 15 per cent have access at present.

He is in tune with other processor companies in forecasting more efficient chips that generate less heat and need less power, helping rich and poor. “There is an energy crisis in data centres and a global green movement.”

Virtualisation technologies will also make better use of servers, which typically run at only 12 per cent of capacity. They can run different processes and operating systems and be pooled using VT techniques.

This means fewer racks and boxes, but Sun’s Mr Papadopoulos goes further, foreseeing the death of the stand-alone microprocessor by 2010, as components are reduced to systems on a single chip. This could also spell doom for box makers, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard.

“As entire servers are rendered on a few chips, the whole ability to add value by doing system design disappears and the view of what makes these computer companies different collapses,” he says.

“It seems very clear to me that by 2010, it will all be over. You will look back at the time when people used to build motherboards and a bunch of different people brought computers to market as being rather silly.”

The Sun CTO says that all the components for a computer could be on a chip inside a monitor and even predicts “display over IP” – a monitor and keyboard pulling much of its computing power from the network – as a model for a future where bandwidth will be far greater than at present.

It seems clear to others that another kind of box – the kind that contains software packages and CDs may not be around in five years’ time.

Web 2.0 is the name being given to a trend that is injecting fresh dynamism into the browser and making applications available over the web in a form that closely resembles traditional software installed on a hard drive.

Mr Holway says: “Microsoft has a huge challenge. If it makes a lot of its software free on the internet, it breaks its business model. Google, with no legacy systems, has the same opportunity Microsoft had with IBM 20 years ago.

“How we procure software and services is about to change for the first time in 40 years and, by 2010, we will see a huge revolution in the way users interface with their software.”

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