Many years ago, I read an article that made a big impression on me. It compared the adoption of information technology to the adoption of electricity. The article noted that, in the late 19th century, when electricity was a novelty, it was a quirky, visible, high maintenance presence in the lives of those adventurous enough to embrace it. When electric motors were first introduced in the household, they were bulky units that most often sat on a big stand in the front hall. The motors powered a belt that turned a shaft mounted over head. Appliances like washing machines were also connected to the shaft by belts. The system was inherited from manufacturing operations that had been powered by water wheels prior to electricity. The proud owners of these early systems would show them off to all their friends, but they also had to be willing to get their hands dirty greasing the shaft, replacing the belts and rebuilding the motors.
The author of the article argued that the information technology business was then in the same stage of development. [I should be pointing to the article, but I don’t remember its title, author or publication - so my web search did not find it.]
I do remember, however, thinking that the article was on to something. Information technology was, at the time, proudly displayed in a glass houses with raised floors. Anyone brave enough to use it in their daily lives had to be willing to maintain it themselves. I also felt certain that there would be a day when, it would be come as invisible to us as electricity. We would stop proudly displaying the infrastructure of IT, and would eventually be blissfully ignorant of how it worked and even who provided the basic infrastructure. How many of us know which national conglomerate owns the local utility that delivers the amps to our home?
I have to admit, however, that at the time, I had no clue how this was going to happen. I suppose I vaguely thought personal computers would get smaller and cheaper, and software would get easier to use, but I was stuck in the then obvious model, in the same way that early users of electricity were stuck in the model of using shafts and belts to distribute electrical power.
I think we are now ning to see just how the quirky, clumsy, high maintenance infrastructure of computing is going to disappear from our lives. Over the next few years, more and more of the services we expect from our computers will be delivered over the web. There are lots of reasons for this but the analogy to the early days of electricity, makes it clear that mass adoption of technology doesn’t happen until the consumer can be completely insulated from the complexity of its implementation.
Google’s success with search is an early indicator of this transition. They presented us with a very simple interface – type what you want in the box and get relevancy ranked links that may have the answer. None of us think much about the huge server infrastructure necessary to do this, algorithms that make it efficient, or the pipes that deliver the answer to your home or office.
Hotmail and Gmail are pure web services. There is slew of calendaring services and network web based file management services popping up. Google’s purchase of the web based word processor, Writely, suggests that word processing may not be far behind. There are also a slew of new services that are native to the web – services like Flickr and Del.icio.us, that are inherently collaborative - services that could not have been implemented as PC software. Some of these services are already accessible anywhere, anytime, on any device, the rest will be soon.
There is a long way to go before the web browser becomes the same reliable standardized interface that the electrical outlet is today. But it now seems possible that the ugly sausage factory of information technology could eventually disappear behind a browser. I cant’ wait.