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Predicting the Future of IT

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The Mighty Micro

I’ve been reading a book called “The Mighty Micro” by a namesake of mine, Dr Christopher Evans, a computer scientist from the 1970s, who sadly died at the age of only 48, not long after his book had been published.

I’m currently into the chapter discussing middle-term futures, which in this case refers to the years 1983-1990.  It’s interesting to see how some of his thinking was close to the mark and some wasn’t.  Here are some examples;

“By the late 1980’s, if data compression techniques continue on their present curve, it will be possible to store very large books, perhaps even sets of books on a microchip and a whole library in the space about the size of one of today’s paperbacks”.

In reality, compression techniques haven’t delivered the ability to store large volumes of information; although we can compress and de-duplicate data resonably well, the thing that has been most successful has been the increase in areal density of disk drives and memory chips.  This growth in drive density probably wasn’t obvious 30 years ago as “portable” 3.5″ drives didn’t exist (5.25″ was the standard and they were big and bulky) and once they gained ground, the miniaturisation has been astounding.  There’s no reason to assume the increase in drive and chip capacity won’t continue, as techniques are developed to get around limits in Physics.

“By the late 1980’s its computerised equivalent [a physical book] could be available at something like 10 pence, as raw material and distribution costs reduce sensationally with miniaturisation”

Wow, this one was miles off the mark.  It has taken a lot longer for e-books to be accessible to the masses than Evans thought, as the ability to control content was so important.  It seems strange to assume because production costs have reduced, it should therefore drive down the retail price.  Electronic books are usually cheaper but not to the level of commodity.  In fact new publications are pretty much on a par with their printed price.  One exception to that is in out-of-copyright literature which can easily be found for free.  It’s true to say that as we’ve moved to digital content, we haven’t seen a great reduction in price.  Music is definitely not cheaper – a 10 track album at 99p per track is equivalent to the price of a physical CD – reflecting a trend that matches the value of the content to its price rather than distribution cost.

“The aethetic needs of the book lover are most likely served by making the chip-readers themselves pleasant to look ad and to touch – binding them with gold clasps….”

Evans assumes that we will want our e-readers to look like physical books – how much further from the truth could that be!  In addition, he implies that all content will be supplied on memory cards to be inserted into the reader – there was no discussion of the ability to receive content over the internet or wireless.  However he does get one prediction right in this section, fortelling the demise of the bookseller, which of course has happened as Amazon have come to dominate the market.

Predicting the future is notoriously hard and I suspect anyone who says they can do it is deluded or lying.  Even the most eminent computer scientists of my youth couldn’t predict the future in either content or timeline (remember the above changes were due to happen before 1990).  The world’s (once) richest man didn’t see the impact the Internet was going to make, so what hope do the rest of us have?

However as I mentioned in this post, change is exciting and keeps me interested in IT.  I’m not alone in this view.  Perhaps it is a good thing we can’t predict the future; the mystery of not knowing keeps it fun!

About Chris M Evans

Chris M Evans has worked in the technology industry since 1987, starting as a systems programmer on the IBM mainframe platform, while retaining an interest in storage. After working abroad, he co-founded an Internet-based music distribution company during the .com era, returning to consultancy in the new millennium. In 2009 Chris co-founded Langton Blue Ltd (www.langtonblue.com), a boutique consultancy firm focused on delivering business benefit through efficient technology deployments. Chris writes a popular blog at http://blog.architecting.it, attends many conferences and invitation-only events and can be found providing regular industry contributions through Twitter (@chrismevans) and other social media outlets.
  • http://blog.thehigheredcio.com Jerry

    I also like to review the predictions made in the past. It isn’t just that we have 20-20 vision now it’s that it helps me have a more healthy expectation for the latest predictions. The predictions that are based on incremental advancements of the current trajectories versus the ones that contemplate disruptive changes from forces unknown are useful and interesting.

  • http://www.oortcloudcomputing.com/ Tim Wessels

    Well, Bill Gates is purported to have said he did not think anyone would ever need more than 640KB of RAM on his or her computer. Having a 30TB SSD does seem outrageous today, but you should know how this story goes by now. The future of storage is very high density with very low power requirements. Store more using less of everything over time. IBM researchers demonstrated last year the ability to store 1 bit of data on a single atom and read it. Today, it takes 100K atoms to store a single bit of data and read it. And when all of this reaches mass production and deployment nobody will blink and eye over it. That said, having 1PB in a 1U storage appliance is exciting to contemplate. A 42U rack would be able to store 42PB of data. Thinking about the energy savings alone makes this interesting.

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