Wednesday, June 27, 2012

What's That, Daddy?

Having been in the technology business for many years, I have accumulated a lot of mementos over the years. Projects I've worked on, products I've created, stuff I just can't or haven't thrown away.

But it didn't really hit me how much stuff is really old until my 7-year-old son saw something the other day and asked, "What's that, Daddy?"

What my son was looking at was a memento from a software project that had been created and published on 3.5-inch floppy disks. He had never seen a floppy disk before.

I tried to explain to him that it's how people used to move information from computer to computer and he was having difficulty understanding life without high-speed Internet access.

Later that weekend, he was really trying to get me to buy him a song from iTunes on his iPod Touch. We were in a rush and so I said we'd buy it when we arrived at our destination, which happened to be a restaurant.

When we sat down in the restaurant, I said I'd help him buy the song. His 7-year-old fingers quickly navigated the Touch screen to open up the iTunes app. But it wouldn't let us search for the song. His fingers then zipped to the Settings app, where he tried his best to find a WiFi signal.

In the end, he looked up at me and said sadly, "They don't have WiFi in this restaurant." Such disappointment. He had to wait until we returned home before he could buy his song.

As I think back on the technology that was new and leading edge in my younger years (i.e., punched computer cards, dial-up modems, teletypes, even fax machines) and compare that with what kids use today (i.e., mobile devices, high-speed Internet access, television on demand, Facebook and more), I marvel at how things have changed.

I wonder how much, if any, my children's world is better because they didn't learn about many of the things that make up my experiences. Of course, my grandparents probably wondered how my life is different because I didn't experience the Great Depression or World War II.

Ultimately, we are the result of our experiences. One day, I will probably sit down with both my daughter and son and talk about life and computing in "the olden days." While I do that, I'm sure they'll be texting or Facebooking their friends about how they're glad they never lived back then.

Another day, I may even throw out large chunks of my history. I already am lacking any computer that can read a 3.5-inch floppy disk. It won't be too many years before reading a CD or DVD will be problematic.

But when my children have children, I'm sure one of my grandchildren will look at a DVD and ask, "What's that, Daddy?" I hope I'm around to smile when my son has to answer the question.

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 13 June 2012.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Thinking Big

I remember one of the things that intrigued me about the first software program I wrote was that I could get a machine — a computer — to do what I told it to do. Cool!

Without going into the old then-versus-now analogies, what has impressed me over the years is how technology has allowed people to do big things.

There are a few things that have allowed people to think big over the years:

First, computing is now far less expensive than it was years ago. The computing power of a multimillion-dollar computer decades ago is now in a mobile phone that costs under $100 per month. This has put massive technology in the hands of people who would never have had access to it.

Second, the Internet. For all of the good and bad things about the Internet, it connects the world. There are very few physical places where the Internet is not available. Oh, and for all intents and purposes, all digital devices — computers, phones and more — are connected to the Internet.

What this means is that the ability for people to have an impact on the world has changed. Where it used to be that only large, global media companies could touch people around the world, now people have the ability to do so.

So, whether one is wanting to communicate about new recipes, a personal event, a new product or overthrowing a government, anyone with an Internet-connected device can have a voice on the world stage.

That's thinking big.

Furthermore, anyone with some nominal programming skills can write an iPhone or Android app and make it available to people around the world. Whether the app is intended to make money for the author or not is almost secondary to the fact that the app can be put into the hands of people around the world. These apps can be funny, serious, intended for a broad audience or intended for a niche audience. But geography does not matter.

Many people with a simple idea have become known around the world. For example, the Angry Birds app.

That's thinking big.

With big thinking also comes responsibilities. In particular, when one puts oneself on the global stage, there are a lot of people who can see you and not only praise, but criticize you. As attractive as having a global audience might sound, it's not always as attractive as one might think.

But technology does allow everyday people to think big and act big. In many cases, great ideas that might never have an opportunity to see the light of day can now have their opportunity for greatness. So go ahead, give your big idea a stage.

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 13 June 2012.