E-Commentary-- Hey Dude, The Surf's Up... Somewhere

Dec. 21, 2004
The next big wave in technology is coming. But what will it be?

Like a ripple from a stone landing in a pond, technology comes and goes. Clearly, though, some technologies make a bigger splash -- and last longer -- than others. I remember working on a car culture feature for the "Los Angeles Times Magazine" in Tinseltown in the late 1980s. I couldn't help noticing all these people driving around in Jaguars and Mercedes while talking on telephones. This new phenomenon struck me as odd. I recall wondering at the time, why in the heck would people want to talk on the phone in their cars? Duh. As it turned out, millions of people wanted to talk on the phone, not only while they were in their cars, but everywhere -- while they walked their dogs, stood on street corners, rode in airplanes, played tennis and went to the theater. In 2004, mobile communications are a fact of life not only for consumers but for those in manufacturing as well. A business person traveling without his or her cell phone today is like a fish leaving its gills home for the day. Now that I've proven my acuity in trend-spotting, it's worth pointing out that high tech is catching a wave again, judging from the latest results from Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp., and Cisco Systems. It figured that sooner or later, technology as an industry would find its lost board and surge once again -- at least until the next glut of capacity and goods swallows demand like a shark sucking down a seal pup. What technology and the economy need is the next big thing to foster sustained growth. For analogy's sake, here are a few "technologies" that were big enough in and of themselves to provide an engine of growth: The personal computer -- The PC spawned the growth of an entire industry of computers, software and peripheral devices. With nearly 150 million computers sold worldwide last year, the industry continues to be a big driver of economic wealth. Software -- The explosion of the software industry in the 1990s -- for networks, applications, and databases -- helped many businesses and their employees be more productive. Over the last quarter century, millions of people have retrained for positions as developers, analysts and administrators. Personal entertainment -- The Walkman, MP3s, the Apple iPod, Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameBoy and the like are part of a huge industry catering to the ever-changing desires of young people for music and games. As is the case with PCs, most of these devices are manufactured overseas, but much of the creative juice fueling the game biz is homegrown talent. The Internet -- While falling short of transforming businesses the way some had envisioned, the Internet has nonetheless transformed the way people and businesses communicate. What's more, it continues to offer almost unlimited promise of process gains for business. Biotech -- From the early days of Genentech more than two decades ago, biotech has expanded to a global industry, spawning employment in manufacturing, research and management. Of course, the computer chip was the base technology that made possible or at least spurred the growth of these technologies. But in their own ways, each of these innovations fostered the growth of a new industry in and of itself, while helping create growth elsewhere in the economy. I'd like to be able to tell you what that next big technology wave will be (RFID? "Smart" devices? Nanotechnology?). Unfortunately, I'm like the surfer who knows the wave is coming, but who can't recognize it until it's already swept past. What wave, dude? Doug Bartholomew is a former IndustryWeek Senior Technology Editor. He is based in San Francisco.

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