Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Flipping it around

I am now the lone MSFT holdout in the family.

I recently upgraded from a Dell XP based machine to a Velocity Windows 7 based system (shame on Dell for having such a terrible site with horrendous advisor workflow; otherwise I would have bought their XP 7100), I am now an Island in a sea of Apples. It happened over the past year, first with phones, then laptops, iMac's and now iPad's. It got me thinking about a broader trend we are seeing.

For the past couple of decades, technology paradigm shifts have rested on a three legged stool:

* Processing power (e.g. Moore's Law)
* Bandwidth speeds
* Software innovation

Each leapfrog one another but, when two move radically, you tend to see a wave of innovation that augers a fundamental change in the information technology business. The now ubiquitous move to 3G wireless, coupled with broadband to the home are rapidly moving many applications to the 'cloud'. This move is coupled with innovations in software development, led by open source movements ranging from the LAMP stack to Wikipedia to Google's Android. The pace of innovation is staggering.

The great strides in bandwidth availability and reliability, plus the progress in advancing the software infrastructure is impressive, however, it seems to me that these are the forerunners of a bigger phenomena we are about to see.

Oftentimes, advances in processing power have been nearly invisible to end-users. Sure, photos edit quicker, but for the most part, absent gamers, the mainstream has not seen wonderful improvements in computing capability. Mom still has a devil of a time dealing with this stuff. Except if you use Apple computers. A large measure of their success, certainly in stark contrast to MSFT, is the massive investment they have made in making the interaction between their customer and their devices as seamless as possible. The iPad is magical. It powers up in no-time and the gesture based User Interface defines intuitive. This takes serious processing power to pull off. While many vendors in the Wintel orbit have invested billions of dollars in software 'plumbing' and expanded features, Apple has poured their money into changing the 'face' of computing.

The intuitive nature of gesture based computing has been embraced by more than 100,000 programmers offering more than 225,000 programs on Apple's Application Store. But I think the innovation is just starting. Having recently downloaded an iPad product Flipboard or seeing the interaction between me and Zinio, the standardized, yet now static Windows interface, that served us so well for nearly 2 decades is now obsolete. This is a change as profound as MS-DOS moving to Windows.

Of course, Apple does not have a monopoly on gesture based computing. We are seeing a two horse race between an open Google OS based world (Android and soon Chrome OS), soon to be flooded by a myriad of computing devices from phones to tablets to systems, vs a 'curated' (e.g. closed) world of Apple. HP will soon join the fray with recently acquired Palm OS based systems. I suspect MSFT is not too far behind.

The effect of investing processing power in making more intuitive User Interfaces will be to greatly broaden markets, upset the status quo in existing industries, and fragment users in Hatfield vs McCoy camps. Fortunately, due to widely accepted standards (e.g. HTML5) we won't step back into the tower of babel. Instead, we are poised for a great leap forward.

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