The dizzying speed of technology advance over the past 30 years, driven first by the advent of the personal computer, followed by the Internet and then by smartphones, was merely the curtain-raiser for the coming decade.
This view was expressed by one industry executive after another in interviews at last week’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona. And these were no start-up upstarts. These were industry veterans who had been instrumental in some of the landmark products and services that built the information technology industry we know today.
Pat Gelsinger, CEO of cloud computing giants VMware, was the first chief technology officer at Intel and architect of the original Intel 486 processor. As one-time head of Intel Labs, he led many of the research projects in the 1980s and 1980s that would help speed up the pace of high-tech change.
“We are at the dawn of a re-acceleration of the technology industry overall,” he said in an exclusive interview at MWC. “The next decade will see more change and new technology than in the last 20 or 30 years.
“An accelerating crescendo of technologies is coming together: cloud, mobile, big data, robotics, analytics, 3D printing, and more. It will bring together a reinforcing set of innovative activities.
“In the next decade, 75 per cent of the world’s population will have a persistent connection to the Internet with some smart device. Today it’s already 40 per cent. Soon, you’ll be able to touch half the world’s population.”
These devices, he said, will come into their own once intelligence is added.
“I can put intelligence into everything for almost zero cost, so while there are more people than machines connected today, in the next few years there will be twice as many machine-connected intelligent devices as human-connected intelligent devices. It will transform supply chains and our quality of life.”
Emerging markets, including South Africa, may well have “some of the greatest opportunities we have collectively over next decade,” he says. “Would someone in Ethiopia or Zambia be able to buy a $700 iPhone and $100 service? Of course not. But in markets where the price of phone is $20 and a service less than $10, we see rapid innovation around affordable access to core technologies, basic financial services, crop information, trading information.”
Gelsinger offered a fascinating vision of a future that is already possible.
“Tomorrow morning your smart device will wake you, and tell you: ‘last night you had a heart irregularity, so I’m waking you early and uploading your biometrics to the medical cloud, I’m running comparisons of your pattern with everyone in your DNA group. I’ve made a doctor’s appointment and loaded the directions into your self-driving car. I’ve moved your regular coffee order to a different Starbucks on your revised route, and made it decaffeinated because you’re seeing the heart doctor.’
“None of that is unreasonable to implement, but the results are life-changing.”
These sentiments were echoed by Frank Kern, chief executive officer of Aricent, a global technology services company with more than 12 000 staff focused on software and hardware innovation. He spent 30 years with IBM, including heading up its core consulting division, Global Business Services. He came out of retirement to take up the challenge of the future.
“This is the most exciting time yet,” he says. “Before, I was just in the boring old computer industry.
“I was around when IBM did a lot of interesting stuff. We created a services business, I ran the consulting business, and in 2009 I created an analytics practise with 9 000 people, worth $25-billion.
“But today is the most exciting time of all. It’s a time when you have a combination of an explosion of sensors, accelerating of communications, combined with the software capabilities of AI, and now we are designing the user interface of the future, the customer experience of the future.”
Aricent owns a renowned strategy and design company, frog, which was responsible for the design of several Apple computers, along with hardware for numerous global organisations. The parent company has also been in research and development of software for 25 years, with a strong focus on telecommunications, and taking a leading position in 5G, AI and autonomous vehicle software.
“We are able to see and participate in multiple trends going on, and all are accelerating at same time. It’s not only one thing right now; it’s all these things that, together, are creating this exciteme.”
Gelsinger puts it neatly into perspective.
“All of this gives me an almost child-like enthusiasm. I’ve been in the technology industry for 37 years. If you ever used a microprocessor or a USB drive, I helped do all of them. But, in many cases, the next decade is as exciting as the last three decades. Because so many of these things will become life-changing and business-changing.”