Generational Technology Change Means New Winners

We are in the midst of a massive disruption of an entire industry: the technology space. My children, currently aged 5 and 3, are already using technology in a way that previous generations did not. And we are seeing a massive change coming from the major providers of software in this space: Apple and Microsoft.

Apple, of course, built off of the work Palm did a decade ago to make touch interfaces mainstream. The iPad, though, is the culmination of that effort and companies are rushing to emulate their work. Microsoft, too, is now demonstrating a massive change in the next generation of Windows. The video is extremely intriguing and could modernize Microsoft in one fell swoop… if the rest of the company falls in line.

There has been a lot of commentary on Windows 8 preview. John Gruber, Jared Newman and others focused on the touch interface and whether it really can be combined with the old world of mouse-driven interfaces or whether a clean break is required from the past. I’m less interested in this issue. I think we need to play with it to see if it really works.

Instead I want to focus on the massive change this means for developers. I’ve been analyzing the history of spreadsheets and realized that each successive computing generation meant a new leader in the area of spreadsheet. Visicalc dominated the first wave when the Apple II series was the most popular. Lotus 1-2-3 dominated the second wave when DOS was the powerhouse. Then Microsoft took over when windows-oriented machines (small “w”) took over. Excel has been the mainstay on Windows (big “W”) and Macintosh computers ever since.

But what is emerging now is the fourth generation. The iPad, Android devices, Windows 8 all signify this change. And the question becomes how does the software we use change to match? With this change is a massive opportunity to re-write products and change expectations. Was the spreadsheet (and calculators) the past for calculation and something else is the future or will a new company emerge with a slightly improved spreadsheet but the form factor and functionality will likely remain the same?

Mike Mace said it cleanly:

…ask yourself how a new competitor could use the platform transition to challenge your current products.  Here’s a sobering thought to keep you awake tonight: the odds are that the challengers will win.

I’m placing my bet: I think the future will be different. I’m betting that the direct manipulation of on-screen objects by touching them makes products designed for a mouse and keyboard obsolete.

3 thoughts on “Generational Technology Change Means New Winners

  1. I’m not sure touch interfaces are the key change. Certainly they will dominate casual use, but I don’t see the point for desktop computers. Something like the 10/GUI interface demo could displace WIMP, but not the current crop of smartphone and tablet interfaces.

    One possible game-changer is integrating multiple devices and multiple people seamlessly. People crunch numbers and make project plans on desktop computers, but they arrive at the conference room with a series of static slides. Technology which allows one person to manipulate the same data with a desktop computer, a interactive conference table or a smartphone would shake things up.

    HP webOS aspires to this, but it remains to be seen how good the execution is – and whether that’s what would motivate people to change.

    • I agree that seamless, cross device synchronization is very important. Frankly, I think that is a feature though that every reasonable app must have. But touch is as much a fundamental change in technology as the move from line entry to windowed computing. I remember people discussing what a toy a Mac was in 1984 and how they would never leave DOS for that, too.


  2. I use a Fujitsu tablet/laptop hybrid and use the tablet functionality for digital pen note taking but have switched off the touch functionality as I prefer mouse and keyboard for general work applications. I think used want products that adapt to their preferences

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