With nearly 3 Billion people connected, the continued march of information and communication technology shows no signs of slowing. We explore mobile, BYOD/CYOD, the Facebook effect, cloud computing and ask what the future holds for a sector where the only constant is change.
Just 60 years ago, within living memory of many today, electronic devices used valves (also known as vacuum tubes) to provide amplification and control functions. These were bulky, hot, unreliable and required high voltage electricity which meant that, in almost all cases, devices could not be easily made portable.
All this was set to change, following the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in the United States in 1947. The transistor did not require a heater, was smaller, lighter, more reliable, used less power, was much cheaper to manufacture than its predecessor and, most importantly, led to an abundance of portable devices which could be easily run off small batteries. At the same time the concept of stored-program computers was being developed and some practical computers had been built. No-one at the time could have foreseen the enormous technical, economic and social impact that these developments would bring over the next 60+ years. We got some glimpses from science fiction – the wrist communicator and voice-operated computer from Star Trek, for example, are now available but not yet widely used.
There have been enormously important developments since then, not least the miniaturisation of electronics so that today’s microprocessor chips contain over 1billion transistors in a package a couple of centimetres square. Indeed there is several times more computing power in any mobile phone or modern car than was used to get the Apollo 11 space mission to the moon! Other things happened along the way – LASER light, created in 1960, is used with fibre optic cables to provide very high speed communications cables; battery capacity and weight were an issue until Lithium-Ion batteries and, for some applications, fuel-cells were developed; the replacement of cathode ray tubes by smaller, lighter liquid crystal display screens occurred from 1992 onwards; cellular phone technology developed in the 1980s; satellite communications developed over several decades, voice recognition software has improved substantially just in the last two or three years – I could go on!
The development of the structure and protocols for the world-wide web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and colleagues in 1989 cannot be ignored either. Although the internet relies on many of the previously listed developments in order to function, the simplicity, flexibility, scalability and openness of Berners-Lee’s design were revolutionary compared with the proprietary computer networks available at the time. The world’s very first webpage can still be viewed at http://www.w3.org/History/19921103-hypertext/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html
All these milestones and many other contributions over the years have brought us to where we are at today – a world where (in developed countries at least) we take it for granted that we can have continuous access to information and communications devices which have become a vital part of our everyday lives, even for young children. Ofcom, the UK communications regulator, published its 2014 survey report in August which shows that 6-7 year olds now have a better understanding of communications technology than 45-49 year olds, and the so-called “millennium generation” of those currently aged 14-15 are “the most technology-savvy in the UK”.
Mobile devices in particular not only act as a phone and computing device but also seek to make redundant many other common household items such as torches, cameras, games, books and music systems and, with the rapid growth in sales of tablets, even desktop and laptop computers themselves! This is having an enormous impact on the way we live our lives and interact with each other, both personally and professionally.
The World Goes Mobile
Whilst portable telephones using conventional radio technology have been used in industry and the military for many years, there is no doubt that the single development which made mobile communications available to the general public is that of cellular phones. The idea of hexagonal “cells” for communicating with phones in vehicles was first proposed by engineers at Bell Labs in 1947 (coincidentally the same year and organisation as for the development of the transistor) but the technology did not exist at the time to implement their ideas. The first hand-held cellular phones appeared in 1973, and became more readily available during the 1980s. We are amused now by pictures of them and they were awkward, heavy and with little talk time between charges but they were, nevertheless, at the time life-changing. Previously if you needed to be contacted urgently you might carry a pager and have to find a landline telephone if your pager was activated, but with a cellular phone you had instant voice communications wherever you were. This is so common to us now it is hard to remember what daily life was like before they were invented.
Developing countries in particular, without the highly integrated fixed-line infrastructure present in developed countries, have embraced mobile wholeheartedly. According to figures from the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) the number of fixed-line telephones decreased by approx 20% from 2005 to 2014 across most geographies, whilst the use of mobiles increased substantially, by 50% in developed countries but by a whopping 400% in developing countries. Across the world the ITU estimates there are currently 95.5 mobile-cellular subscriptions for every 100 inhabitants, a figure which has almost doubled in 7 years. There is no doubt that this new-found mobility of information access and presentation will be a key plank of the next round of life-changing and largely unexpected innovations.
The Facebook Effect
Just to take one example of the impact of new technology on the world let’s look at Facebook. The phenomenal growth of Facebook and the story of its founder Mark Zuckerberg have been well charted in books and film – it is just 10 years and 6 months since “The Facebook” first went live to a small group of students at Harvard University. According to the company’s latest quarterly report in June, daily users now number 829 million with those using the service at least once a month totalling 1.32 billion, of which just over 1bn are mobile users. The total world population is approx 7.25bn, of which 40.4% – around 3.0bn – are now internet users, according to the ITU. To sum this up, astonishingly, 1 in 7 people worldwide are using a mobile device – phone or tablet – to access a service dreamt up by a Harvard student 10 years ago. In many geographies Facebook is the most widely used social media site.
For some years Facebook was a “cool” place for teenagers and college students to share pictures and messages and this drove its meteoric growth. More recently their parents and grandparents have joined the service to more effectively keep in touch with family and friends near and far, sending some of the teenagers elsewhere to find their own “space” at sites such as Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat. Currently the fastest growing segment of Facebook users in maturing markets is the over 50s (80% increase in users in this age group in North America over the last 3 years). Zuckerberg is not daunted by these maturing markets; in February this year he said “In 2014, we’re going to focus on deepening our relationships with mobile operators around the world and working to develop new models for internet access”. “Helping more people get connected is important to developing the global knowledge economy.” This is not the first time Zuckerberg has made bold claims for his brainchild. In his book The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick recalls Zuckerberg’s assertion that Facebook “would create ‘a more open and transparent world’ where people would be held to the consequences of their actions and be more likely to behave responsibly”. There is much debate over whether Facebook is able to achieve this, and to what extent this openness is in conflict with the users’ need for privacy but there is no doubting that it is a bold and altruistic vision. Indeed Kirkpatrick reveals numerous conversations where Zuckerberg refused to take advertising revenue in the early years believing that it was more important to deliver his vision of more open communications to a growing user base than to take on advertising which could make the platform less attractive to users – at one point he and his family stumped up $85,000 for new servers to meet demand. Accessing Facebook requires internet availability and, as we have seen, this is increasingly being effected through mobile devices. This is key to Zuckerberg’s vision of bringing the internet (and Facebook!) to the 4.25million people who do not yet have access. Can technology really be the catalyst for radical social change? Zuckerberg certainly believes so!
Where do we go from here?
As the Danish physicist Niels Bohr famously quipped “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future!” We already know that 60% of the world’s population do not yet have access to the internet, mostly in developing countries, yet more than half of these already possess a mobile phone. It will not be long before these handsets and/or networks are upgraded to include internet access, with whatever is necessary to make it relevant for those communities, especially with powerful individuals such as Zuckerberg actively seeking to make this happen. Google are in on the act as well – in June this year they announced Android One, an initiative to bring mobile technology to emerging markets, which will debut in India.
Already technology advances have led to fierce competition, sometimes appearing from unexpected sources – Japanese manufacturing in the 1970s; Indian computer programming in the 1990s; China in multiple areas over the last decade or so. Marketplace websites such as PeoplePerHour and Elance, where freelancers can offer their services to others willing to pay for a task to be completed, are truly worldwide with contributors from every corner of the globe bidding for work. With living costs much lower in some developing countries, rates as low as $2 per hour are being offered by some. With many more such users likely to come online this could have a profound effect, both positive and negative, on established businesses the world over. With such access enabled in developing countries, barriers to entry in certain markets may be lowered bringing new competition but also, as these areas gain additional income, may provide new markets for existing businesses.
Within companies the proliferation of employees’ mobile devices has caused issues – from concerns over the presence of devices containing cameras in areas which threaten company security through worries about personal privacy to more tangible vulnerabilities such as computer viruses. Companies have developed BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies to manage these risks. Very recently concerns have been raised about the possibility of a mobile device being hacked and the microphone and camera being activated by an app without the owner’s knowledge or permission. Thus far this seems to be a theoretical rather than actual possibility, but business owners need to have a thought-through policy on the use of such devices in the workplace. Some companies are moving to a CYOD (Choose Your Own Device) policy whereby the company provides a choice of mobile devices, which have all been configured to conform to the company’s IT security and connectivity policies. Further challenges will be coming – wearable technologies such as Google Glass (see www.google.com/glass) could bring many benefits (although how many people will be able to effectively view data through one eye whilst using the other to participate in one’s surroundings, much like an Apache helicopter pilot, needs further exploration). Watch-phones are now available from a number of manufacturers at prices as low as $50 and are likely to become more widespread in the next year – Apple have just launched their long awaited “Apple Watch” which will add further credibility to this market. Voice-operated computers have been demonstrated with various levels of success – the key challenge has been getting sufficient processor power to reliably recognise and interpret the voice in real-time. Industry watchers predict that, by 2020, computing devices will be routinely operated by speech removing the need for keyboards.
Until recently many organisations preferred to hold their data in their own datacentres rather than in 3rd party owned datacentres accessed via the internet (so-called cloud computing). However, cloud computing is gaining in popularity, as CIOs begin to recognise the advantages. At a recent user group meeting in London, UK, the CIO of a large law firm stated that, within 5 years, he expected all the London law firms to have dispensed with their datacentres in favour of cloud computing. With the rollout of 4G mobile technology now underway and further improvements in the availability of Wi-Fi connections, one of the main disadvantages of cloud computing – the requirement for users to have continuous internet access – is becoming less of a barrier.
There are a number of other key considerations not covered in this article – how to utilise the vast amounts of data now being collected; how this data may be abused; the many personal and societal effects of new and emerging technologies. These will have to wait for another time. We have come a long way in 60 years, even the next 6 are hard to chart accurately. As has been said many times, the only constant is Change!