The Great Tech Lull of 2014

This story originally written by Matt Rosoff at CITEworld. Sign up for our free newsletter here.

One of the things that really struck me about Google (NASDAQ: GOOG  ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) I/O this year was how much of it felt like a retread of old ideas.

Android TV? That sounds like the resurrection of Google TV, which was announced at the 2010 show. Android Wear and Nest? Recall the connected-everywhere vision of Android @Home, the big deal of the 2011 show. Android "L" is just the next version of Android -- it's got a lot of important new design elements and promised enterprise security features, but it's an incremental release of an already immensely successful product. Google's new attention to providing cloud infrastructure to third-party developers, while useful, is simply following down the same path Amazon pioneered with AWS a few years back.

I had a similar sense watching Apple's developers' conference earlier this month. Our writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry drew a lot of flak for his criticism of WWDC and how he thought it reflected on Tim Cook's leadership as operations guy rather than visionary. I have a lot more admiration for Cook -- his reorganization of Apple to be more open and less controlling, and able to concentrate on multiple huge complicated projects at once, are remarkable changes that bode well for the company's future.

But I understand what Gobry was getting at. What's the big vision? How does Apple see the future, and what products will it create or enable to help bring us into that future? This is the company whose last three hit products revolutionized the recorded music industry, created the smartphone industry, and threatened the consumer PC industry with irrelevance. (Not to mention, Apple was arguably the inventor, or at least the great popularizer, of the personal computer in the first place.) Instead we got a bunch of disparate ideas and some connective tissue that may or may not be used to construct products that we may or may not want. 

Part of the "meh" comes from a misunderstanding of what these conferences actually are. Because Apple and Google have done so much to revolutionize technology for everybody, we sometimes forget that these are conferences for developers -- the people who build the next generation of products that will wow and delight us. They're not for the rest of us, really.

But still. There's a sense right now that big technology companies and start-ups alike are casting around for the next big thing.

Everybody seems to agree that the next wave of computing will involve a bunch of previously dumb devices becoming smarter with new kinds of sensors and processing power provided largely by cloud services, and getting connected up in some fashion. This data will be collected and compiled and used to provide custom-tailored services, even to the point of anticipating your desires before you have them.

This is what's behind Apple's HomeKit and CarPlay, Google's acquisitions of Nest and Dropcam its new connected car and TV initiatives, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's talk of "ubiquitous computing and ambient intelligence," and Internet of Things and big data efforts by enterprise giants from Cisco to SAP to Salesforce. Not to mention hundreds of start-ups.

But there are so many details left to work out. How exactly will these devices communicate? Will a set of standards emerge, or will one company dominate the market and end up creating a de facto standard? What devices does it make sense to connect, and what data should they transmit, to whom, for what purpose? How will that data be stored and analyzed and secured, and what effect will it have on privacy? (Do people even care about privacy any longer?) 

Most important, who will come up with the right scenario, the right combination of features and user experience that will convince tens of millions of people to part with actual money (or something else of value, like personal information) to get it?

But this is how the information technology industry works.

If you're a certain age, you probably remember the period between the late 1970s, when personal computers were a hobby pursued by countercultural types, and the mid-1980s when there was suddenly an IBM PC clone on every desk in every office and in many homes. Most readers of this site probably remember the Internet going from a government and university research tool in the early 1990s to a mainstream phenomenon after 1995, when Windows got a built-in TCP/IP stack and Web browser and a flood of web sites and web-based businesses emerged. We all remember how the iPhone turned smartphones from a tool for executives -- Email on your phone? Who needs that? -- to a must-have.

In each case, individuals and companies alike had already put in thousands of hours laying the technical groundwork necessary for the "revolutionary" products that we all remember. This was the point made by CITE keynote speaker Steven Berlin Johnson in his book, "How Ideas Work." The myth of the genius founder pulling revolutionary ideas out of thin air is just that -- a myth. 

And in each case, the revolution had many echoes. Without the IBM PC, we never would have had enormous software businesses like Lotus and Microsoft and Intuit and Adobe. The web not only gave birth to consumer giants like Yahoo and Google, but spawned the programmatic web, social media, and the entire cloud computing revolution in the enterprise, most successfully exemplified (so far) by Amazon and Salesforce. 

In 2014, we're still managing the enormous effects of the mobile revolution that kicked off in 2007. The smartphone has changed human behavior. We can work from anywhere. We can order food, buy products, or hail a ride from anywhere. We no longer need to carry 20 separate items to find our way around, listen to music and record sound, or shine a light into dark places.

Perhaps more importantly, the smartphone will get cheaper and better, and will bring personal computing and the Internet to billions of people who missed out on the last two revolutions.

We're in a lull between major computing epochs. But the next one will come eventually. This year -- and probably the next couple of years -- is all about preparing for it.

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