Back to the Future?

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After the idea of the browser as a dumb terminal had occurred to me, but before I’d finished drafting this post, Mark Suster drew an identical comparison in a post on his blog, in which he presents a robust defence of the Mobile Web in the context of the Apps vs Web debate.

Until the ‘70s, the average computer was a huge, expensive mainframe locked away in an air-conditioned room. It’s users interacted with it through what we refer to nowadays as a dumb terminal – little more than a screen and keyboard on the end of a long cable. The advent of the personal computer in the late ‘70s changed all that by putting computing power on the user’s desktop. In the ‘80s local area networking technologies allowed PCs to share expensive resources like storage and printers, and allowed the people using those PCs to share information with their colleagues. No longer did you have to copy a spreadsheet onto a floppy disk and carry it across the office – you simply stored the file on a network drive. The Internet now allows us to do this on a global scale; we can now publish, access and share information quicker, easier and with more people than has ever been possible before.

But somewhere along the line, we seem to have regressed towards the days of the dumb terminal. Despite the fact that modern personal computing devices rival 80s-era supercomputers in terms of raw computing power, we seem to be progressing down a path where they are little more than displays for accessing information and services stored in “the Cloud”. The web browser is the modern equivalent of the dumb terminal and many mobile apps are simply custom-designed interfaces for an application running on a back-end server. Instead of connecting directly with our friends online, we congregate on sites like Facebook. Instead of collaborating directly with our colleagues, we do so through something like Sharepoint, Huddle or Basecamp.

Am I the only one who finds the concept of logging onto a website (that’s probably hosted on a server thousands of miles away) in order to collaborate or share with someone who’s sitting a few feet away, to be faintly ridiculous? We might be “connected” but not to each other.

Modern technology offers us incredible power and flexibility. It feels like we’re wasting the opportunity to use that technology to create tools and services of real, intrinsic value that are tailored to and fulfil users’ needs, instead of constraining them because it’s easier, from a technical perspective, to centralise data, or because the company’s business model relies on those constraints.

Wouldn’t it be sad if the reason we never got our personal jetpack was because it was more lucrative to keep selling tyres?

The picture above is of Ben Kingsley and Robert Redford sitting on a Cray Y-MP supercomputer in a scene from one of my favourite  movies: ‘Sneakers’.

Written by jackgavigan

December 22, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Innovation

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