Special Report - Seeing the Tech-Tsunami Before the Impact

By Daniel Burrus

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As the CIO, you’re responsible for staying abreast of technological changes and making sure your company is using them to increase productivity and efficiency in all areas. But in this second decade of this new century, improving these areas will no longer be enough to provide the competitive advantage your organization will need to stay ahead. You must also apply new technology to create new products, services, and markets that will allow your organization to clamber up on top and ride the wave into a bright and profitable future.

Yes, this is possible … as long as you understand a few key hard trends. Those who don’t will experience massive chaos and dislocation. Those who do will find unprecedented opportunity.

So what exactly does this technological tsunami look like, how big is it, and how fast is it approaching?

To get a clearer picture of the world ahead, it’s helpful to see individual streams within the technological wave. The hard trend of technological advancement flows through eight specific pathways:

Since first arriving at this list of technology-driven hard trends in the mid-1980s, I have presented it to thousands of audiences, and it has been fascinating to see how people have responded differently over the years. At first, some of these concepts seemed a little arcane or obscure. Not anymore. Today, they have all become everyday household realities -- yet still we have barely begun to experience their true power and scope.

The 8 pathways of advancement

Pathway No.1: Dematerialization - As technology improves, we are reducing the amount of material it takes to build the tools we use, subtracting atoms from them even as we improve their capacity and performance. The computer, which soars in speed and memory even as it shrinks in size, is itself a microcosm of modern technology. Computers, among other devices, are getting smaller, lighter, more portable, more economical (in terms of the materials it takes to produce them), and softer in environmental impact. Laptops used to be several inches thick and weigh six or seven pounds; today they use a fraction of the material and accomplish far more than their predecessors -- and cost far less.

Whatever your company has, you can make it smaller ... that is, if you want to. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily want to make everything smaller, and dematerialization doesn’t necessarily mean miniaturization. For example, we have the capacity to make our cars much, much smaller, but we may not necessarily want that for all models. However, we do want them to be lighter, because then they use less fuel. How do you make something lighter? Dematerialize it.

Pathway No.2: Virtualization - When it comes to IT, CIOs are well aware of virtual storage and virtual desktops. And for those who are looking ahead at what I call hard trends, you can see that we will soon be virtualizing processing power and much more.

A good way to consider broader opportunities using virtualization is to take things we currently do physically and shift the medium so we can now do them purely in a weightless, representational world.

An example of virtualization is simulation. As our technological capacity has increased, our ability to model incredibly complex physical realities in software simulations has grown to amazing proportions. Now we can test airplanes, space ships, and nuclear bombs without actually building them (let alone detonating them!).

Virtualization is transforming our world in ways we’re often not even aware of. Today, for example, the time lag from the moment the engineers at Toyota see a car in their minds to the moment it rolls off the assembly line is a mere 12 months. How can they possibly take a car from concept to completion in such a short time? Advanced simulation and virtualization.

Remember those crash dummies we used to see on television? Today’s newer generation of crash dummies are simulated along with the cars: they are so sophisticated they have a pulse, blood pressure, and other vital signs, which is possible because they exist only virtually. We can even perform a virtual autopsy that lets us see what happened to them internally.

Pathway No.3: Mobility - With advances in wireless bandwidth and availability (along with progressive dematerialization), we are rapidly being de-tethered from everything: telephones, computers, stereos, etc. For example, our primary computing device has shifted from mainframe computers to desktops, then laptops, then palmtops, and now smart phones and tablets.

Ten years ago our software and data all resided on our hard drives and in-house servers. Not anymore. We now use cloud computing and Web-based applications like Google Docs and MobileMe to tap into distant servers, as well as store our data on other servers, allowing our computers to act as “clients.” It is becoming increasingly common to hop onto any computer, anywhere, to work on our proposal, check our appointments, and much more.

We’re finding ways to unhook ourselves from all the physical anchors and going mobile with our work in new and powerful ways. Now, you might be thinking that mobile workers have been around for years. True, but the degree of mobility has changed, and the degree of practicality and productivity in a mobile context has transformed. As we continue to raise the bar on what this means by adding high-definition streaming video, accurate speech-to-text, and other powerful new features, we will transform the very definition of mobility. Think mobile finance, mobile health, and mobile security to name just a few.

Pathway #4: Product Intelligence - In the '80s and '90s, as microchip technology became more practical and affordable, we saw an endless parade of consumer goods that suddenly had intelligent features: self-cleaning ovens, motion-sensing porch lights, and car tires that tell us when they are getting flat. But that was only the warm-up. The degree to which we can now add intelligence to practically any product is about to transform our lives.

The microprocessor offers an almost infinite number of opportunities to imbue a product with intelligence. It’s not just your car that will be intelligent: the road you’re driving on is becoming intelligent, too. When I pull into a parking lot, the lot tells me there’s one space available on level three, aisle two, four cars up on the right. Soon it will also be able to tell me, “The lot is full, but hang on, some people are unloading a grocery cart on level five. Drive on up, their space will be free in a moment.”

We already have the capacity to build with smart cement and smart steel, with sensors built into them. Now we have the technology to make roads smart. Imagine a road telling you that there’s a pothole ahead, or a sinkhole forming. How can we do that? Simple: we use smart asphalt. We already have smart cement that will tell the highway department when the bridge needs to be repaired.

Any tangible thing can be made smart. All you have to do is put a sensor on it and give it the ability to connect.

Pathway #5: Networking - Telephones were the first public communication network, in that they allowed us to start sharing ideas at great distances in real time. We stayed connected by our telephone network for generations. Then came faxes, e-mail, instant messaging, cell phones, and text messaging. Today, the average American teenager is capable of carrying on a dozen texting conversations at once, without losing the thread of any one of them. Napoleon was said to have routinely dictated as many as six different letters to six different secretaries at once. With real-time texting via laptop and cell phone, millions of American teenagers are now operating at twice the emperor’s capacity.

As networking increases in its scope, speed, and accessibility, we are also enlarging its meaning and application, working not only in the media of text (e-mail, instant messaging) and voice (phone, VoIP), but also in video and even 3D video. This acceleration is creating fascinating new capacities and unimaginably huge opportunities.

Pathway #6: Interactivity - Interactivity everywhere is on the rise. This is why websites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are so popular: they allow us to interact. The more you interact with something, the more engaged you become.

From the days of Gutenberg onward, print has consistently been a one-way medium. A “Letters to the Editor” section of a newspaper or magazine could blossom into a moderately lively debate, but only at sedate intervals of time. Radio talk shows, with their entertaining call-in feature, provided a type of interaction. But these were small flourishes that merely decorated what has always been an essentially one-way flow of information and opinion.

No longer.

Today, social-media has rocked the foundation of the news industry. Interactivity is transforming politics and the nature and spread of democracy. It’s also transforming marketing and advertising. In the past, mass advertising was a passive experience: all you could do with TV commercials, magazine ads, and billboards was look at them. Now you can see a location activated ad using augmented reality on your smart phone and you can click on it -- and that makes it a whole new ball game. Pathway #7: Globalization - With the explosion of outsourcing and collaboration software that enables us to easily spread even the simplest procedures around the planet, we have quickly grown familiar with the concept of globalization. But we are only beginning to grasp its true implications.

Globalization doesn’t apply exclusively to information. We’re seeing the globalization of everything . Additionally, there are degrees and levels of globalization. It’s one thing to manufacture and sell products in markets throughout the world; it’s an entirely different thing to customize them for differences in the various markets of the world.

A Mercedes is a Mercedes, no matter where you buy it but when you buy a Toyota in Asia, it’s different from the Toyota you’d buy in the United States. (For one thing, the steering wheel is on the right and the car itself is smaller.)

Likewise, it’s one thing if the members of your company’s board have passports with stamps from all over the world, and quite another when your board is composed of people who actually hail from those different parts of the world. In 2005, Sir Howard Stringer became CEO of Sony, giving the company a top executive who was not Japanese for the first time in its history.

As our companies’ board and staff composition globalizes, we’ll reach a point where it won’t matter where the company originated. The focus will be more on new job creation than the country of origin of the hiring company. In fact, companies won’t be “from” anywhere; or to put it another way, they’ll be “from” everywhere.

Pathway #8: Convergence - All of these pathways tend to overlap and interact, which only increases their acceleration. In fact, convergence has itself become a pathway of technological advancement.

For example, entire industries are converging. Filling stations and convenience stores converged in the '80s. In the '90s, so did coffee shops and bookstores. Those were mere 20th Century convergences, though. Today, it’s really heating up. The entire industries of telecommunications, consumer electronics, and IT are all converging and becoming, in essence, one thing.

There’s also product convergence. Look at your cell phone: how many products have converged into that little thing sitting on your palm? The modern smartphone is an e-mail device, a camera, and a video camera. You can do three-way calling on it. And because it has contact management and a calendar, it’s also a complete organizer.

The even smarter iPhone took convergence to another level, bringing a genuine Web-browsing experience (with Google maps, phone directories, and more) together with all the normal phone functionalities, so you could hunt for a restaurant, find it on the map, and dial it for a reservation, all on the same device. Along with all that, plus e-mail, camera, and video camera, plus YouTube player, it was a full-feature iPod, complete with WiFi music store. And of course, there are all those apps!

Now we’re starting to see the convergence of convergences.

The Internet was born of the convergence of the phone and the computer. Google Maps and MapQuest converged the Internet with maps, and now GPS has given us the convergence of MapQuest and our cars.

That’s dematerialization, virtualization, mobility, product intelligence, interactivity, and networks. Take a close look at where the parts of your car were manufactured, and chances are you’ve got globalization there, too. This means you have all eight pathways converging in a single technology that you use every day.

That is exactly what’s beginning to happen everywhere: all eight pathways are interacting with one another, the transforming whole becoming far bigger than the sum of its parts.

In the second part of this report, to be published next Tuesday, Dan will present the three digital accelerators driving these advancements.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.