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Consumer, business technologies face same challenges

From Chris Shipley's opening remarks at the DEMO conference, February 6-8:

Each DEMO event captures a moment in the wild ride that is this personal technology industry. Indeed, over this conference's 16 years, we've seen ups and downs – and more recently ups again. We've seen moments that have defined a year, like the great last hurrah of the Internet bubble at DEMO 2000. We've seen products that hinted at the future of the markets, like the first web application servers and the ASP software that pointed to the service-based computing economy that now dominates the industry.

So, of course, it is fair to ask: what does this DEMO conference say about the direction of the technology markets?

It seems to me that we have, over the past 18 months or so, been building to a sort of crescendo. Not a "bubble-about-to-burst" sort of crescendo – the idea of which still makes most of us flinch, but rather the kind of crescendo that is the fulfillment of a building vision.

The kind of crescendo that brings with it a dynamic change.
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At DEMOfall last September, I talked about the rise of the individual as the power-holder in personal technology. Each and every one of us is making our own decisions about which technologies to buy, which applications to use, the web sites to visit.

Someone commented last night that this year's DEMO lineup seems to lean toward consumer applications. I must beg to differ.

The distinction between consumer and business is fading, and fading quickly. I rarely differentiate between my personal and professional uses of computing, nor, I suspect, do you. In this, we are not unique or more sophisticated than other technology adopters. We are representative. We adopt the tools that allow us to be most productive, no matter how we describe productivity or where we use these tools.

We don't stop being business computer users at 5 or 6 ... or 7 or 8 in the evening. We don't ask permission of an IT department when we find the right tools and services to get our jobs done more efficiently. We adopt what is right for us and we work – and play – when we need to.

Certainly, you will see some products at DEMO that are purely fun. And there are those products that will only be purchased by an enterprise computing organization. Still, there is a wide swath in the middle of applications, hardware and software that defies definition as either business or consumer products.

This gray area will only widen in the year ahead. Business and personal computing will become much less distinct. Software developers will no longer feel the need to "dumb down" products in order to sell them to the consumer market. Indeed, the inverse is true: developers will "smarten up" technology in order to make sure the products we buy as individuals also meet our needs as business executives.

At this DEMO podium some 18 months ago, I talked about the shift to service-based computing. Indeed, every bit of software introduced at this conference has been designed in whole or in part with communications or service-based components. It is only slightly premature to pronounce the passing of the packaged, stand alone desktop software, but I am quite certain that that day will arrive before DEMO hits another significant birthday.

At DEMO two years ago, we shined a spotlight on blogging, RSS, and other components that make up the market we dubbed "social media." Today, we widen that circle to include an array of products that extend and transform social media into social browsing, social bookmarking, social search, and other social applications.

In fact, the cooperation and collaboration of many individuals -- whether contributed as part of a defined group or as one person's independent contribution – become the way clear to make sense of the massive amounts of data that besiege us on a daily basis. This move toward social computing – in which people collectively and individually provide human filters to massive data sets – begins to fully unfold here at DEMO this week.

This social computing movement, I think, speaks to another and most significant challenge in the 25 year history of personal computing, something I alluded to in DEMOletter back in November.

Over two decades and more, personal computing technology has become much too complex. So many products, so many sources of information, so many blogs, so many e-mails, so much spam, so many applications, so many features, so many choices...

Individuals are becoming overwhelmed.

Worse, this state of overwhelm has moved the personal technology market closer to the point of diminishing returns. We simply are no longer getting the maximum value returned on our investment of learning and time.

Who needs a better search algorithm to find another 100 or 100 thousand needles in the information haystack? We can barely explore past the first page or two of search results as it is.

Who needs more buttons and features and options – on just about any product? Can you seriously say that you've used all the capabilities of any of the software or devices that you already own? Do you really want more?

Unless, as an industry, we commit ourselves to a better user experience, clearer choices, and greater value, I am afraid that a many people may just sit out the market. Needing no more new features, being unable to sift through any more search results, being overwhelmed by options, these individuals are going to stop – or at least slow down – the acquisition of new technology.

They'll stop buying, they'll stop using.

Instead, they will wait for applications, devices, and services to deliver on the promise of their potential – a promise that doesn't demand steep learning curves or a permission slip from someone in central IT.

I've been thinking a lot about this challenge over the past three months. And in thinking about this, I have been reminded of a placard that hung above the copy desk at a magazine where I worked in the early 90s.

The placard offered the straight-forward advice of the American existentialist Henry David Thoreau: "Simplify, Simplify"

Thoreau was talking about how to live a better life. And from his rude cabin at Walden Pond, I'm sure he didn't envision the complex life we enjoy today. Still, his advice is as good for technology product designers as it is for 19th century Concordians.

It turns out, though, that even Thoreau could benefit from his own advice. One day, I came into the office to see the placard had been edited.

"Simplify"

This is the challenge I put to you today. How can we make computing more simple for the mass of individuals who represent new and widening markets for the products this industry creates? I'm not suggesting that anyone "dumb down" technology. Quite the opposite. I'm suggesting that as we simplify technology, we open it to new buyers – and that we bring personal technology back from the brink of diminishing returns.

DEMO 2006 will introduce you to 68 products – all of which, in some form or fashion have taken up this challenge. They are about making computing more accessible, safer, easier, smarter -- indeed, simpler.

But, please, don't confuse simple for simplistic. This is very sophisticated stuff we have to show you – no matter if it is technology for scaling WiFi networks, or the must-buy toy for Christmas 2006.

It takes a great deal of technology to make a product or service simple. And DEMO 2006 presents a great deal of technology – simple, elegant, wonderful technology.

Chris Shipley is the executive producer of NetworkWorld's DEMO Conferences, Editor of DEMOletter and a technology industry analyst for nearly 20 years. She can be reached at chris@demo.com. Shipley, has covered the personal technology business since 1984 and is regarded as one of the top analysts covering the technology industry today. Shipley has worked as a writer and editor for variety of technology consumer magazines, including PC Week, PC Magazine, PC/Computing, and InfoWorld, US Magazine and Working Woman. She has written two books on communications and Internet technology, has won numerous awards for journalistic excellence, and was named the No. 1 newsletter editor by Marketing Computers for two years in a row. To subscribe to DEMOletter please visit: http://www.idgexecforums.com/demoletter/index.html.

This column was reprinted with permission of Network World Inc. All registered trademarks are owned by IDG. More information can be found at http://www.idgef.com.

IDG. All rights Reserved

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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