It is certainly not a bad idea to take from time to time a break and guess where we are going in the field of Information Technology. If you too feel yourself lost don't rely to much on the author as a lighthouse...
Those who cannot swim will have a hard time to survive the Information Technology (IT) flood but those who can swim may well not discover, like Colombo the Indies... or will they?
Picture of a dense history period  
If we let aside in the past the many failed attempts to provide computing power, what is left is a period consisting approximately of the last four decades in which IT developed at an astonishing speed. This span of time can be roughly subdivided in three periods:
  1. The hardware development era
  2. The operating system and programming languages era
  3. The application software era
Let us characterise a little more this overlapping periods before stepping to the discussion of the actual state of Information Technologies.
The hardware era  
The discovery of the transistor gave almost immediately a big impulse to the development of electronic circuitry required for the construction of computers. This were heroic years, where the computer people used to wear white labcoats... and within few years a multitude of different proprietary hardware designs emerged whose value was bound to the number of its users. When the prices for hardware started to fall due to increased competition many constructors were forced out from the market leaving at the end just a few big players you could count on one hand. Although later some players were replaced by newcomers no major changes occurred on the hardware scene.
The operating systems and languages era  
At the beginning the many Operating Systems (OS) around where the result of the many hardware designs but after their reduction the competition shifted toward providing the most powerful operating system for the few left since it was thought to be a key factor in improving the productivity of programmers realising user application software. This was also the period where many new programming languages appeared each one trying to purport itself as the fittest to cope with the immense task of writing user applications. Those who thought they could describe conveniently our world had to discover often that it was that world that shattered their intents and believes...
A characteristic peculiarity distinguishing software from hardware is that it doesn't rust. This might explain why so much of it is still around and alive ...
The application era  
It was evident since the mid eighties that once people were provided with Personal Computers (PC) one had to give them also some more or less useful stuff that could justify their usage. This culminated In the mid 90ties in the appearance of a steady increasing plethora of user applications. Since this times OS no longer were an argument but wait a minute .... are we not ignoring Linux? Oh yes but, paraphrasing a famous sentence from Rossini, what is new in Linux has little to do with OS design and what is OS design almost nothing of it is new. Linux may best be considered as the flagship of open source software, a concept which evolved thanks to the development of Internet. It is almost a mild word if we state that the Internet has revolutionised the IT world and even beyond. In the last few years it has markedly changed the rules of competition. It has spurned a renewed effort in establishing widely accepted standards. More prominently, it has considerably improved the accessibility to information world-wide.
What to do amid the IT flood?  
We already may postulate the emergence of a fourth era, but as cautious historians as we are let's for now just focus on the formidable flood of standards, proposed standards, software tools, etc... whose acronyms could easily fill at least an A4 page. At the sight of this a number of questions arise:
  • Do we really need all this to fare well?
  • Are we really building sound foundations for the future?
  • Are we not fatally overstretching the available resources?
  • Are we not reinventing over and over the wheel?
  • Are we really getting the best tools and/or software?
  • Do all the members of our modern society really benefit from it?
  • Are we not overestimating the economical benefits, if any?
  • What about the fragilisation of our private sphere due to the pervasiveness of Information Technologies in our daily life?
Some of this questions have yet to find an adequate answer but with increased awareness of this new problems certainly new ones have to be and will be found. The easiest thing we can do in order to get a clearer sight is to compare this new Information Technologies against a number of concepts we learned from the past, listed hereafter by keywords:
  • accessibility
  • acceptance
  • security
  • standard compliance
  • user friendliness
  • flexibility
  • maintainability
  • compatibility
  • modularity
  • interchangeability
  • interoperability
  • scalability
  • availability
This certainly will clarify the field and help as to decide where to invest our resources. Let's never forget that each of this key concepts has sounded the death bell for some past and also present IT development.
Everybody knows Moore's law but few consider the other face or rather the other faces of the medal: the economic operators have always managed to stay ahead with the demand for resources ... The developers continue to speculate on this progression but the time is not far where the boundaries imposed by physical laws will be reached.
Many present facts make us think we are going toward the best of all worlds but the current optimism may equally well conceal that we have already lost the cap. Considering the huge sizes involved, let's not forget that in the past dinosaurs appeared but also disappeared. As long as the checks and balances governing the IT play are not distorted we can expect to progress.
What apparently has improved men's life has just become increasingly difficult to be provided by the IT professionals and operators.


December 2000

  1. The end of ..?