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I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

When the only computing jobs left are named Steve

In the late 1970s / early 1980s I worked my way through university on a co-op program. I worked for an online services company (which served the business market, since online services were far too expensive for consumer use at the time). One day my boss Walter Keirstead and I went to visit a prospective customer. This conversation ensued:
Walter: I see that you use computers here.
Customer: Yes; how can you tell?
Walter: Because you have such large wastebaskets.
I tell this story as an example of how while the computing industry was working hard to improve productivity it was also reducing it. A project to reduce labour down the road usually increased labour for a while. And it wasn’t all about eliminating people’s jobs; there were new products and services being created that weren’t practical, or often even possible, without automation.

I wonder whether this force is now slowing. With Web 2.0, and with the increasing decentralization of organizations, the focus in software is shifting from large monolithic applications intended to do everything imaginable to less ambitious apps that come off the shelf at a low price and don’t even need installation. And on the hardware side, Web 2.0 reverses the trend of building and wasting massive amounts of computer power: as in the 1970s, centralized servers that cover a variety of users can load-balance very effectively.

Building the public Internet does continue as a large project, but in the highly industrialized countries I find it remarkable how much of the job has already been accomplished — in less than ten years. Internet television still lies ahead, though, and perhaps that will be a rare bright spot.

What will happen when the process of automating jobs has largely been accomplished? What’s left then is the creation of new products and services — which requires customers who are looking to spend money, not cut costs. And then we are at the mercy of mass social mood as expressed in such things as “consumer confidence”.

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