In 1988, a group of scientists at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California came up with the concept of “ubiquitous computing” – a world in which computers would rise off desktops and permeate everything around us.
If this fanciful-sounding idea ever came to be, the pace of innovation and change would accelerate in every aspect of life – from business to leisure to health – and transform every known industry, plus create new ones.
It’s not fanciful anymore – we’re in the midst of ubiquitous computing now. Technology is no longer its own silo but, rather, increasingly infuses the minutiae of daily life, from traffic lights and stock trading to shopping and even our own health.
Innovation in every industry, even the stolid ones, is speeding up as a result. Much disruption has already taken place, and more is still to come.
Take something as mundane as home-audio quality where, for much of its history, innovation was slow. Speaker manufacturers were limited to making tweaks to the physical, analog aspects of products, such as their shapes, circuits and materials.
Now, software and internet connectivity are opening up new possibilities.
The wireless-speaker maker Sonos, for example, recently introduced TruePlay, a mobile app feature that turns smartphones into tuning devices. The user moves around a room while their phone “listens” for a tone from the speaker. The two devices work together to build a sonic “map” of the room, which the speaker automatically adjusts to.
Anyone who has tried it knows that TruePlay appreciably improves the quality of the sound coming from the speaker. It’s the beginning of what are sure to be many more software and internet-driven changes for audio.
This analog-to-digital paradigm shift also has profound implications for the car industry.
Today, we know the “Big Three” US car makers as General Motors, Ford and Chrysler but in the near future they are liable to be replaced by Google, Tesla and Uber.
Like speaker makers, car manufacturers have been slow to innovate thanks to the limitations of physical analog technology. Vehicles improvements were slow and incremental in the 20th century: window wipers; stereo systems; anti-lock brakes – but little that could be considered truly transformative.
It’s only in recent years, as digital technology has come to permeate vehicles, that the pace of innovation has sped up and opened the veritable car doors to newer companies that are more accustomed to implementing software-oriented change.
Google is, of course, leading the charge in self-driving cars, a movement that is spreading to more countries each year. Officials in the UAE, for example, are looking to deploy them in time for the Dubai Expo in 2020.
Tesla is replacing combustion engines in vehicles with electrical charging, a fuel system more conducive to software control. The company has also made strides in bringing wireless connectivity to cars, allowing features to be updated in the same way that smartphones can download new apps.
The taxi firm Uber, meanwhile, is in the process of creating a worldwide network of cars that are linked to each other. Combined with self-driving technology – which both Uber and Tesla are also researching, and reportedly Apple too – the potential to change the entire notion of driving and car ownership looms. The paradigm shift will have major implications for oil demand and geopolitics in the Middle East.
Traditional car makers are scrambling to catch up with their own versions of these technologies but they don’t have the core competency in software that the emergent players do. They also have vested interests to protect, so they’re unlikely to move as fast.
Even analog healthcare is being upset by the digital wave.
High costs and long waits coupled with improving self-tracking technologies – from mainstream FitBits to specialised monitors for diabetes and other ailments – are leading to a decline in doctor visits in many countries. In some places, such as Canada and the United Kingdom, the traditional annual physical check-up is rapidly losing its appeal for patients.
Health care is attracting technology multinationals such as Apple and Samsung, which are increasingly adding vitals-monitoring sensors and analytical software to their devices. It’s early in this particular transformation, but for many people Doctor iPhone is already becoming the physician of choice.
When the mundane opens up to invite transformation through innovation, then computing has become ubiquitous indeed.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
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