Disruptive Technologies to Watch Over the Next 12 Months

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

Keep an eye on these four technologies in the short term, as they’ll have profound implications for the long term.

This week I get to talk about one of my favorite subjects: disruptive technologies. These are the innovations that get into the cracks and crevices of our daily lives and break things apart, often causing massive changes to institutions and procedures years down the road. Those changes are rarely evident at the outset.

Here are four technologies that I think are potentially disruptive:

Digitized voice – We’ve been recording voice digitally for years, of course, but the arrival of voice-over-IP services like Skype are forcing the cost of voice communications toward zero. Also, technologies embodied in services like Podscope are making it possible to index and search audio almost as effectively as we search text today. What will the world look like when our voice interactions can be stored and searched? How will this development change the way we research a topic or access content that helps a customer? What are the privacy and accountability implications?

Virtualization – So many of the headaches in IT today are caused by scarcity of resources. Software slows down, crashes, or is rendered unavailable because of hardware problems. Virtualization is a big step forward. First storage was virtualized. Then servers. Now you can also virtualize applications, running each in its own protected and secured envelope. Combine that with AJAX technology, which permits applications to be downloaded from a server and run as needed on a client, and you have the elements of a radical restructuring of computing fundamentals.

In the future, software will be less and less “machine-aware,” meaning that programs will draw on hardware resources as needed, whether locally or across a network. This could make a rich suite of applications available to users wherever they are in the world without concerns about hardware availability or capacity. The possibilities for innovation are almost endless.

The $100 laptop – A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the One Laptop per Child project, whose goal is to build a $100 networked portable PC. When you think through the implications of this achievement, the potential is stunning. Here we have the possibility of putting computers in the hands of billions of people who can’t now afford them. What will be the implications of this development be on global business? How will it change the way we organize workgroups, outsource applications and manage dispersed organizations? How will communities of people who are unfettered by a legacy of costly, complex computers organize new enterprises around this cheap, simplified technology? How will it change our expectations of computers as appliances? The implications of this project are very long term, but very exciting.

Video iPod – If this choice looks incongruous, hear me out. The next wave of the Internet will be the multimedia Web , and portable video will be the killer application. Once we can stream and download video to a lightweight, handheld device, it will change nearly every aspect of our lives. I’m not talking about watching reruns of American Idol. I’m talking about being able to communicate with our colleagues, access real-time news, view training materials and documentation, access archival information and check in with our loved ones with all the benefits of full-motion video. The ultimate vision is to carry around a window on the world, but coming up with functional players is the first step. Whether the leader is Apple or someone else, the term “iPod” connotes a user experience that we all relate to.

The Power of Goals

From Innovations, a website published by Ziff-Davis Enterprise from mid-2006 to mid-2009. Reprinted by permission.

One characteristic that’s almost universally shared by innovative organizations is a commitment to goals. I’m not talking about fuzzy goals like “improve the customer experience,” but rock-hard, quantitative, measurable and achievable goals, stuff like “cut invoice processing times by 50% within 12 months.” Those are the goals that get results.

There’s a remarkable example of such goal-oriented innovation going on right now in Cambridge, Mass. There, a team led by computing visionary Nicholas Negroponte is building the $100 laptop. Their project has gotten a lot of press and a lot of skepticism. I have to admit that the first time I heard the idea 18 months ago, I thought it was crazy. Everyone knows laptops have to cost north of $500.

But the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) association, a nonprofit group led by Negroponte, is on its way to achieving that impossible goals. Although early production units are expected to cost about $135 when they ship in early 2007, the $100 price tag is within reach and certainly will be achieved within a year. It is a stunning example of the power of big, hairy audacious goals (“Beehags,” for short).

The OLPC team came up with a long list of innovations to achieve this milestone. It used open-source software (naturally, since the Windows license would put the machines over the $100 threshold out of the box) and an innovative dual-mode screen based on display technology used in portable DVD players. The screen can display color but can also be switched to black-and-white mode at three times the resolution.

The units have only 128Mbytes of memory and 500Mbytes of flash ROM. That’s not very much by business standards but, as Negroponte explains it, “Today’s laptops have become obese. Two-thirds of their software is used to manage the other third, which mostly does the same functions nine different ways.” In other words, the project will focus on doing a few basic things well rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

Broadband wireless networking will be built in, as will mesh networking, a technology being advanced by the MIT Media Lab that enables nearby computers to create a peer-to-peer network that inexpensively expands the power of each computer.

Finally, each unit will have a hand crank on the AC adapter that can deliver about 10 minutes of power. Designed for rural areas where power is scarce, the innovation strikes me as something that could be handy for business travelers on long plane flights with dying batteries. It’s flat-out brilliant.

The One Laptop per Child project is a shining example of the power of beehags. The group started with a simple, if seemingly impossible goal, and methodically knocked down barriers until it reached its objective. The toughest problem to solve was the display, but there the team looked to apply technology that was already on the market to a new use. Building on an established product is a form of innovation.

Give credit to Negroponte for never wavering from the mission. At any point, he could have revised the goal to a $200 laptop, but that would have been too easy. It was up to the team to innovate the last $100 out of the cost. And now that they’re nearly there, you can see $50 laptops on the horizon.

Give credit, also, to OLPC for changing the rules. If it had focused on simply stripping cost out of today’s low-end laptops, it would have invented an under-powered business machine. Instead, the group looked at the needs of the core audience – the roughly 80% of school children in the world who have never touched a computer – and designed a machine from the ground up just for them.

If the initiative succeeds – and there’s no guarantee it will – it could revolutionize the computer industry in unforeseen ways. Laptop computers were designed from the outset to duplicate the power of the desktop as closely as possible. But who says we need to compute that way? Could you be happy traveling with a machine that only did word processing, spreadsheet, e-mail and web browsing, but got eight hours of battery life and weighed about three pounds? We’ve been conditioned to believe that such portability should cost hundreds of dollars more than the price of a conventional laptop. OLPC is turning that on its head, making a lightweight portable machine the cheapest option.

The project could also be a breakthrough for open-source software. U.S. business users are hooked on Windows because that’s all they’ve known for 15 years. The OLPC project works from the assumption that users shouldn’t care about their operating system. Under those conditions, Linux works just fine.

The One Laptop per Child initiative is innovation personified and a tribute to the power of simple goals. What beehags have made a difference in your life? If you were the boss, what big goals would you assign your team to meet? Let me know in the comments ection below.