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Festooned in Technology

If you saw Google's, Microsoft's and Intel's earnings, you know that these companies missed their revenue expectations for the quarter. Some on Wall Street have been saying that the common thread is that they missed the "mobile revolution". Apart from the fact that Google's Android is the largest-selling mobile OS, there's a big assumption in that "missed-mobile" claim, and I think its falsehood is worth exploring.

PC price/performance has been improving for years because of improvements in microprocessors. In any technology, buyer decisions to refresh their stuff can be linked to the extent to which the new version improves on the experience. Well, how much horsepower do you need in a laptop or desktop? We've been seeing PC refresh cycles stretch out for several years now, so obviously the answer is "less than we currently have". I used to buy a new system every couple years; today I buy one when another breaks.

The industry response to this longer refresh cycle has been to focus on portable devices because those chip improvements make these little gadgets into something more powerful than the PCs of old. That's great up to a point, but we now are expected to talk on our smartphone while juggling our tablet in the other hand, all the time looking at product codes through our superglasses and trying to hear what our smartwatch is saying to us. Soon we'll be swallowing little computers that will post our state of health on Facebook automatically. Seriously, guys! How much of this stuff can we hang on ourselves before we start looking like a junk pile?

It should be clear that what we really need to do here is create a personal technology ecosystem. Imagine each of us having a virtual agent process, that lives in the cloud, as our personal information valet. This agent would answer our questions, recommend things based on our behavior patterns and even the presence of others we get the picture. Every time we turn on a device we own, or buy a new one, it becomes another window into our world for our virtual personal agent. We buy new stuff because it adds to our technology perspective, and thus fills a vacant niche. But what we buy is not only an incremental value, it adds value to the ecosystem at large.

The ecosystemic whole could be a lot more than the sum of the tech-gadget parts in this framework, and also therefore a lot more valuable to vendors. Microsoft, which has been struggling to make a place for itself in the smartphone and tablet markets that are already commoditizing, could instead focus its Azure technology on creating that ecosystem and then brand its stuff as agents to its own central cloud process. That's differentiation versus rival Apple, who's never been able to make sense of its own cloud. Google could forget product codes with Glass and think of it as how the agent sees the world through our eyes. And Intel could build chips for piece-parts in a community of technology that could include more things than before because each thing multiplies the total value, not just adds a bit to it.

The notion of a personal ecosystem maps pretty well to enterprise use of technology too. We have a vague notion that technology empowers workers and thus that more technology might empower them better. What really empowers workers is knowledge that can be delivered by the IT and networking staff to the user's point of activity--and, in turn, what can be fed back from that point to a knowledge center to refine what can be offered to workers to aid in what they're trying to do. More gadgets doesn't necessarily make that exchange any better, and in fact could simply increase per-worker costs and reduce the ROI. Not to mention making it hard to take the panel off the connection cabinet while juggling phones, tablets, glasses, and watches.

All this ties in with the "big data" craze too. We can imagine our worker, weighed down by gadgets, now getting all kinds of correlations that were gathered by sifting through the worker's own emails and those of related superiors, subordinates, and peers. To make big data into knowledge, we have to make it context-sensitive. Somebody standing in front of an equipment cabinet might be very interested in what work had been done there before, but the system needs more information--our IT worker probably isn't interested in storing tools or displaying sports equipment. What, for this user, is meant by an "equipment cabinet?" Context tells us, or it should.

When we sit down for a beer or soda, we're consuming atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon in the main, but the experience isn't pleasurable because of the atoms; it's how they're combined. We can make planks, plastic, and a lot of unpalatable stuff from those same atoms. Yet, as an industry, we continually focus on the pieces of technology and not the ecosystem in which they can be made to cooperate. We totally miss the mission of facilitating that cooperation, and so we are increasingly missing the value of the ecosystem, and the gadgets that create it.

So, Google and Microsoft and Intel, you have a choice here. Send your best and brightest engineers out to develop smart inlays for people's fingernails, or send them out to create the social and business fabric of communication, collaboration, and cooperation that can make that technology whole more meaningful than a little glitter on someone's hand.

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