The Future of Tech

Business Week has a special report on a topic that has been discussed a lot since the HBR article by Nicholas Carr.

It’s true that some parts of info tech have probably seen their best days. Personal computers are so pervasive that they may not top 4% sales growth in coming years. Ditto servers, and mainstream corporate software may never reach double-digit growth again. Yet we’ve seen this movie before. The same thing happened to mainframe computers in the 1970s, as buyers flocked to new, cheaper minicomputers from Data General Corp. and Digital Equipment (DEC ) Corp. In the 1980s, minis declined as buyers poured many more billions of dollars into cheaper, more flexible PCs and servers.

Fact is, tech has always has worked this way. Like Italian mansions built with marble from the Roman Forum, new markets emerge on the foundation of maturing technologies. Lower prices make mass markets out of niche products. And mass markets inevitably mutate and evolve into something unforeseeable. Only by the mid-1990s, when tens of millions of people had PCs, did it make sense to connect them, giving rise to what became the World Wide Web. Today, millions of people have laptops and handheld computers — thus spurring rapid development of wireless networks. And more than 20 million U.S. homes have broadband connections. As fast Net access takes off, it will spark altogether new ways of using the Internet that we’re just beginning to imagine today.

Simply put, tech hasn’t settled down yet. Its days of maturity may be decades away. The IT revolution may share many parallels with previous transformative technologies such as railroads and electricity, but it differs in one key way: The underlying technologies not only aren’t slowing down, they’re accelerating. Computer-chip performance keeps doubling every 18 months, and disk-drive capacity and Internet-connection speeds are improving even faster. That’s spurring new products, from MP3 and DVD players to Web services for corporations, that are disrupting industries from entertainment to health care. Says Intel Corp. Chairman Andrew S. Grove, who has worked in tech for more than 40 years: “The rate of change in technology is as much today as any time in my experience.”

I got a call recently from an Economic Times correspondent on my views on the HBR article. I said that is is very important to keep the context in mind – for India, the article is irrelevant. We haven’t even started adopting IT! We need to make IT part of our DNA in this country. My esitmate is that 3 million SMEs in India employing over 30 million people barely use 1-1.5 PCs on an average. (India has a total installed base of about 8 million PCs.) So, we are far away from discussing if IT matters – we need to be discussing ways on how IT can be made affordable to ensure it becomes a utility for companies in India and similar emerging countries. That is where the next set of tech opportunities lie.

Will write a Tech Talk series on this shortly.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.