A vast preponderance of the world's problems today can be traced to the fundamental economic disparity of having a very small layer of rich people (that's us in the developed countries) living on the same planet as a vastly larger group of desperately poor people. What those people, many of them so alienated and angry, need most is the ability to raise their standard of living quickly to something more closely resembling ours. Despite all the suffering, war, distress, chaos, and fear in our world, the ongoing unstoppable trajectory of progress, particularly technological progress, continues to give me confidence that change will come.
War or no war, technology is increasingly the way the world's problems will be addressed. The Internet makes the world a smaller place. And it is growing up in its capabilities. We are on the cusp of a new era of cheap and effective technology, an era in which many capabilities of networked software and hardware begin to come together in new ways. Much of the progress has been hard to discern in the face of the dotcom and Wall Street crashes, and September 11 and its aftermath. But this coming together will benefit companies, and it will benefit the world.
Look at the biggest tech trends:
An ever-widening array of technology tools are available in inexpensive, standardized form. The price of computers, storage, and bandwidth, among other things, continues to drop per unit of performance. Dell Computer is the ultimate apostle of this trend, but Dell only succeeds because of the work of Intel, Microsoft, the Linux community, and others.
Software that costs essentially nothing can do more and more tasks. I wrote the other day about the mySQL database. Meanwhile, Linux continues to astound. It makes available to anyone, inexpensively, the kind of robust software provided by the traditional proprietary Unix vendors. Linux also allows Wal-Mart to sell a $200 PC.
The cost of deploying a broadband network is plunging because it can now be done wirelessly. This suits our public spaces, workplaces, schools, and homes. We can thank not the telecommunications industry but those in the computer industry who developed the standards-based unregulated Wi-Fi technology.
'Data Comes Alive'
This was the theme of Esther Dyson's recent industry conference, and aptly summarizes a panoply of emerging new technologies that hold the promise of dramatically increasing what software can do. Among them: Web services, which allow applications to seamlessly communicate with each other; the so-called "semantic Web," a richer version of the Web we use today that allows software to communicate more efficiently without human intervention; and a variety of new enterprise applications that will bring the benefits of automation to many intractably uncomputerized business processes.
Selling software as a service
I've written in this column about the phenomenal growth of Salesforce.com's per-user-per-month sales automation software. Salesforce is just one of several new companies that allow anyone to automate parts of their operations without buying hardware, networks, and expensive enterprise software. All you need is a browser and you can get work done. If you apply this concept to your entire computing and software infrastructure, you have what IBM calls "on demand" computing, or Hewlett-Packard refers to as "adaptive infrastructure." It's all about getting more efficient use of technology resources, whether you own them or not.
Take these trends together and it is clear that a dramatic new set of inexpensive but powerful capabilities is emerging. With the growth of the Internet, we're starting to see a much more supple technology fabric available to any enterprise, organization, or indeed, country. These new tools will be as usable in Peru as they are in Peoria.
The Internet will be the great leveler. The new interconnected network and today's technologies give the little guy access to tools of unprecedented power -- whether that little guy is a small competitor to a big corporation or a small poor country struggling to compete with the U.S. and Europe. Cheap machines, inexpensive bandwidth, easy-to-deploy networks, and rapidly improving yet affordable software all add up to a gift to the world. Let's make the most of this gift in the hope that things from here on get better, not worse.
By Albert H. Lee