Monday, December 28, 2009

How disrupted is technology?

The idea of disruptive technology is that changes in technology can bring about significant changes in society as a whole. But how much does technology itself change?

Let's start with what's on my screen right now:
  • A browser
  • An email client
  • A few explorer/navigators or whatever you call things that let you browse through a file system.
  • A couple of flavors of text editor
  • A command-line terminal (which I often don't have open) into which I mostly type commands I learned over twenty years ago.
  • If I'm working with code, I'll also have an IDE running
Everything on that list could have been there ten or fifteen years ago [The browser has since eaten the email client and a couple of flavors of text editor.  In general the trend seems to have been spending more and more time in the browser, to the point that, at least on my laptop at home, I spend virtually all the time in the browser.  I don't know what the split is between apps and browser pages on my phone, but certainly almost all screen time on a modern phone is web-driven one way or another --D.H. Dec 2015].

Now that first item, "browser", is a bit misleading because what you can access with the browser has changed significantly over the last decade or so, but even then the last major changes in browser technology, namely the key pieces of AJAX, happened over a decade ago. Again, I'm talking about disrupted technology here, not disruptive technology. Whatever changes the web and the computer desktop have wrought over the last decade, the underlying technology hasn't changed fundamentally.

What about the broadband connection behind the browser? There's broadband and then there's broadband, but if you mean "much faster than dial-up, fast enough to stream some sort of audio and video", that's been widely available for years as well. What about the server farms full of virtual machines at the other end of that connection? The whole point of such server farms is that they're using off-the-shelf parts, not the bleeding edge. Virtualization has become a buzzword lately, but the basic concept has been in practice for decades.

In short, I don't see any fundamental shifts in the underlying technology of the web. In fact, it seems just as likely that it's the stability of web technology that's enabled applications like e-commerce and social networking to build out over the last decade. Whether those are disruptive is a separate question, one which I've been chewing on for a while, mostly under the rubric of not-so-disruptive technology (in case you wonder where I stand on the matter).

Now, it's a legitimate question whether a decade or so is a long time or a short time. If you're a historian, it's a short time, but wasn't even one year supposed to be a long time in "internet time"?

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