Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Everything Old is New Again

With many industries, the old adage of "whatever is old is new again" rings true. Technology is the same.

When I started in computers 30-plus years ago, mainframes ruled the computing world. All computing was centralized and we had "dumb" terminals that provided windows into the big computer.

Personal computers changed that dramatically by distributing the computing horsepower to the users. The death of mainframes and centralized computers was predicted by many people.

The pendulum swung from centralized computing to distributed computing.

And, in fact, many mainframes did disappear; although, to be accurate, most laptop computers far exceed the computational horsepower of the mainframes of decades ago. But with the development of local computing came problems of managing not only the applications, but the data.

Specifically, whenever a new version of software was released, for people to use it, the software had to be distributed and installed on people's computers. The more people out there, the more Herculean a task this became.

So when the Internet came along, the idea of a Web browser and centralized computing came back into vogue. In other words, the pendulum had started to swing from distributed computing back to centralized computing.

People discovered that managing applications and data centrally is, in many ways, far easier and cost-effective than trying to manage oodles of computers. But I'm seeing a change yet again. We now have very smart devices such as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android smartphones. Add to that the iPad and other devices and we see something interesting.

While the centralized computing approach was meant to occur through a Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox, we're starting to see "app stores." Each app store is a virtual location where people can buy applications for their smart devices. Most everyone has heard of apps to do banking, games, maps, etc.

By last count, the Apple Store has more than 125,000 applications for the iPhone and there are more than 50,000 apps for the Android operating system. And, unlike most Web browser-based applications, these apps run locally on a specific operating system, and are not compatible with other operating systems. For example, an iPhone app won't run on a Motorola Droid phone, and vice versa.

But what surprised me is that this seems to be the pendulum swinging back to local applications running on devices, rather than Web-based applications that run on a central computer. There are a number of very good reasons for this.

First, local applications can typically do more things than applications that run solely in a browser. This gap has closed over the past few years, but still exists in some very significant ways.

Second, as connections to the Internet continue to be more and more "always on," tying the portability of a remote device with the computational horsepower of computers that reside in large data centers makes a very attractive option.

Third, updating these local applications has become almost painless -- either they automatically update themselves or offer to be updated with little to no interaction from the user.

So now that we're seeing robust applications become local again, I'm trying to see what the next swing of the pendulum will be and what it will look like. Open platforms, such as Google's Android operating system, have a good shot at working well on multiple devices. Closed platforms such as Apple's have been solid innovators, but are not known for cross-platform compatibility.

It's all yet another reason why technology is so fascinating to follow ... you never know what will be coming next. But, I predict what comes next will look a lot like something that has come before. After all, everything old is new again.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 7 July 2010.
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