Whenever a great speaker/philosopher/futurist says “the only constant in life is change”, it sounds very elegant and even brilliant. When anyone else says it, the response is usually something akin to “No s***, Sherlock”. It actually is astonishing that Europe was basically frozen in time during the Middle Ages, failing to progress in a way that one would expect to happen, if not over decades, then at least over the centuries. The answer is that change is inevitable, and the only way to stop it, is by enacting a tremendous counterforce, that nevertheless, eventually gives way.
There is a great episode of Star Trek (the original, of course) where the writers summarize the entire argument against any dictatorial system of government in about 3 to 4 minutes. By the time Kirk is twinkling in the transporter, the argument in favor of fascism is so obviously ridiculous, that one wonders why anyone would support a dictatorship. Actually, I guess there are two kinds of people who would: those who have no vision and can never imagine anything ever being better or worse, or immortals, who have, at least, deluded themselves into believing that they can hold power forever.
I started with this very ominous tone because it is appropriate for the time in which we are living. The funny thing is that I’m not talking about nuclear powers and fishing rights. I’m talking about what’s happening in the world of computing, which filters up/down into everyone’s hands, including the decision-makers [whether dictatorial or not]. What I personally see in just the last few months is truly a transformation that has finally reached the world stage. This isn’t about a kid who gets a calculator that’s programmable and makes it do things that the developers never thought were worth the time. This is about Mr. and Mrs. everyone, and their kids, using computers in a way that has blended into the background. And this blending is so complete that you can already imagine children and adults alike everywhere, standing in front of blank walls, failing to understand why they cannot draw a pussycat with the tip of their finger and the voice command “draw”.
Recently, I watched the yearly major announcement conference for Apple. Apple used to be the artist. Apple was the visionary and the idealist that wasn’t limited by such paltry things as dollar bills. Apple was where innovation really started and from where everyone else copied. When the latest grand new digital graphics package would come onto the market, the question always was “is there also a Windows version?”. It was understood that anybody designing an advanced digital art system would develop it first for Apple. Any of the real artistes and visionaries used Apple to make dreams a reality.
There was a moment during the Apple presentation when there was this stunned silence in the audience. The Apple CEO, whose job it is to present the litany of updates and upgrades to all of the Apple products, held up a digital version of a pencil, declaring that this was the future of digital art and much more. Apple-smashers from around the world attacked their keyboards almost in unison. A whole suite of YouTube videos flew up into the cloud, the first part of which played a portion of an old speech by Steve Jobs in which he referred to a digital pen as “yuck”. The second part of the YouTube video displays the portion of the present CEO’s monologue in which he sings the praises of the pencil.
Something had changed. If anyone needed proof that the spirit of Steve Jobs had left the building, this seemed to be it. It was almost frightening. You had a sense that the people on-site to hear the infamous pencil speech, suddenly had a FlashForward type of vision of Apple announcing the tremendous benefits and unique abilities of the cathode ray tube computer boxes for their next version of the Apple desktop.
I just finished watching the equivalent type of presentation from Microsoft. I can honestly say that I am excited about the future of computing. That excitement stems from the fact that Microsoft has finally internalized the fact that, while computing is becoming more and more plentiful, computers are dying a quiet death to the sweet tunes of “oh Johnny boy”. The Microsoft presentation demonstrated a new suite of hardware and software that made the transitioning of a person from phone to desktop to laptop to TV to gaming device, fluid.
There were no hiccups. There was no “let me just copy this file, it’ll just take a minute” moments. For the first time in a real technology demonstration, I could see myself, with only my phone in my pocket, carry on any computerized task you could imagine while transitioning from my house to a taxi to the airport to the plane to my destination and to my hotel’s docking stations with 42 inch screens in every bathroom. The purpose of local storage is now seen more as a backup for our online real presence, as well as a safety net for when we can’t get a signal. The amount of actual memory we have on our various devices is almost meaningless because it automatically increases and decreases to maximize efficiency versus reduce cost.
When wireless communications start at a terabit per second for pennies a month, the idea of a landline will finally be dead. The last wire that still makes us think that computing is a kludge wrapped in a black hole surrounded by a pita, will be the power cord. Wireless power is coming, though, and whether it takes five years to 15 years for it to be a universal standard, we will soon truly experience being virtually wrapped in a layer of computing. For those who still have nightmares about the Matrix, you’re out of luck.
As I was watching the Microsoft demonstration, I couldn’t help but notice [as so many did] that Microsoft was effectively putting on an Apple show. This was not a show with half finished edges and uneven borders. This was stylistically a masterpiece. Things worked. One only has to remind themselves of the famous Windows 95 demo blue screen [with a nervous Bill Gates shuffling back and forth] to realize how far we have come. It has also not missed anyone’s attention that Microsoft looks like a totally different company since its CEO went from being a business person to being a programmer. When the guy who runs the company treats its products as if they were divine gifts, that emotion is reflected very strongly in the Gorilla Glass that covers the screen for Microsoft Surface 3 and 4.
I want to reiterate the point that I just made in the previous paragraph. It sounds funny, actually very funny, to try to undermine the significance of money when I have just spoken about two companies that together have a worth 3/4 of a trillion dollars. Nevertheless, if you don’t drink the Kool-Aid, you will never see Lucy in the sky. You have to believe in what you make. You have to believe in what you sell. You have to have faith in the people around you, who are entrusted with making your ideas and dreams a reality.
This is not a nuance or a checkbox on an application form for a job. In every business there will always be a small core of people, perhaps 1 person per department or section, that are the keepers of the flame. I would argue that there has to be somebody who always reminds everybody else why they’re there. Sometimes, people will start to argue that the flame keeper is no longer necessary or if anything, an impediment to “really making progress”.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a mathematical equation to prove I’m right about the need for flame keepers. But I am. It is astonishing how quickly the flame goes out once the keeper is gone. Thankfully, the flame can be reignited. But in too many cases, people get all excited about the wax. They start to think about how much money they can make from selling the wax and how they can create an entire new line of products out of the wax.
I’ll end with this retelling of the story that still pulls at the heart of so many people I know, especially those in the high-tech industry. In a famous Wall Street Journal conference interview, both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were interviewed at the same time by Walt Mossberg. There was a moment when Steve Jobs literally stopped Bill Gates in midsentence because Bill Gates was telling a story about Steve “Woz” Wozniak and Gates was getting the details wrong. And for about 2 to 3 minutes, the Bill and Steve on the podium were not in the year 2007. For those 2 to 3 minutes, they were transported back in time to when they believed things that everyone else said were crazy. For those 2 to 3 minutes, no one was sick, no one was dying, circuit boards filled the room, and the yellow taxi was waved off. On stage, were the two young men who shaped the future that we now live in. I have heard many people say Jobs, Gates and Woz never again experienced the pure joy they felt during those early years. Of course, at the time of the Mossberg interview, their bank accounts were much fatter, but their hearts were clearly dulled.
In the hope that there will be some type of new show or movie as a continuation of the FireFly saga, let me remind everyone of the words of the preacher, that he speaks as he is dying [in the movie Serenity]. “I don’t care what you believe, just believe”. Sounds like a good mission statement to me