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The Dawn of Pervasive Computing

  • January 16 2003, 1:00am EST would like to welcome Joe Luedtke as the new author of the "Toward Pervasive Computing" column and thank Lee Capps for writing the column for the past year.

This month is the one-year anniversary of this column, "Toward Pervasive Computing." My predecessor, Lee Capps, first published this column in January of 2002 and now I have the privilege of carrying it forward into a brand new 2003. At the start of 2003, we are still working "toward" pervasive computing. However, this topic remains as relevant now as it was a year ago. While the typical lifespan of an IT catch phrase or acronym may not even be a year, pervasive computing is here for the long haul. The reason is it is not just a catch phrase, but is, as Gartner terms it, a "megaforce" shaping the software industry.1

My interest in pervasive computing started about two years ago during an ad hoc philosophical conversation I was having with a colleague of mine. We were talking about the state of the IT world when my friend challenged me to look back in recent IT history and try to answer the question…

What major new breakthroughs have been made within IT in the past decade that have fundamentally altered the way companies do business?

This may seem like an easy question with countless easy answers, but it initially made me pause. So, just what have we accomplished lately that is really new? How has IT benefited the business world? After struggling and talking through this with my colleague, I came to the conclusion that there have been major waves of innovation within IT, each having a meaningful, but different impact on business.

The Automation Era

In the 1960s, we automated every major business function. Using the old behemoth mainframes and green screen terminals, IT went department by department, automating every major business function. While ERP and MRP systems are still hot commodities today and continue to evolve and improve, virtually all business functions such as general ledger, accounts payable and inventory control have been automated for decades. Recent developments in these areas are really more incremental than revolutionary. Modern ERP systems may be more integrated, easier to use and process faster than their green screen ancestors, but they are definitely not new. Sure, back then there wasn’t automated workflow moving a transaction through a given business process or real-time messaging integrating separate systems within an extend enterprise, but the core process functionality at a department level has been automated for decades.

The Empowerment Era

During the late 1970s, a major shift in centralization began. With the advent of the IBM personal PC and its early software like VisiCalc, the processing functionality and raw computing power that had been completely centralized in a monolithic central IT department began to be pushed down to corporate business units and to individuals. This individual access to computing power, data and the tools to analyze the data began to give rise to the proto-knowledge worker. This fundamental shift allowed decisions to be faster and decision-making authority pushed farther down the decision chain.

The Internet Era

The Internet era began quietly enough with a secret government project designed to secure communication lines in the event of war. It was noticed by the public with the advent of the Mosaic browser. What started out as a small point of light in the technological sky went supernova during the dot-com years. The burst of the dot-com bubble has caused this star to fade, but it is far from dim. The era of the Internet allowed information access (and angst) as never before. It can be credited for extending the enterprise outside a company’s four walls into their subsidiaries, suppliers and partners. It even blurred the lines between customer and company agent as companies empowered their customers with customer self-service, online ordering, shipment tracking and support knowledge bases. The Internet is probably the reason that PCs now exist in the majority of homes in America and the capacity and reach of the global inter- network continues to grow exponentially annually.

With this history in mind, let’s go back to the original question…

What major new breakthroughs have been made within IT in the past decade that have fundamentally altered the way companies do business?

This question originally stumped me because I was not looking for something that was merely turbo-charged or had lots of window dressing, rather I was looking for something fundamentally new that IT had brought to the table. With the possible exception of CRM from a high-level business process perspective, we haven’t added anything new in awhile. But what we have done is change the pace, the how and the interconnectedness of everything. Our achievements of late have been in pushing down decision making or functional ownership to lower-levels through innovations such as employee and customer self-service, extending the enterprise to partners and subsidiaries with supply chain management and enterprise portals, and increasing the speed and ease of integration in the extended enterprise via XML and real-time messaging.

The Era of Pervasive Computing

Just as Internet era pushed computers into nearly every cubicle in corporate America and the majority of U.S. households, The era of pervasive computing will push computing power into many of the nooks and crannies of our lives. Wireless PDAs and tablet PCs may already be here, but wearable computers and active spaces are just around the corner. These advances will begin to challenge our notion of what a computer is as computing devices become less pronounced and more integrated within our environment.

As we look to the future, we shouldn’t forget the lessons of the past. For those of us that have been around IT for a while, think back to your first experience with early corporate LANs or the World Wide Web. Just as those first attempts at inter-networking were quickly eclipsed by more robust and powerful solutions, pervasive computing will give rise to far greater innovations than the Internet-enabled refrigerators and Blackberry thumbs of today.

We are at the dawn of the pervasive computing era. Our road to its zenith is still dimly lit and undoubtedly there will be twists and turns ahead – maybe even a few dead ends along the way. The path we are taking to get there, the challenges we’ll face along the way and the benefits we’ll reap when we get there are some of the aspects of pervasive computing that we’ll be examining in this column over the coming months.

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to the adventure of "getting there" almost as much as the final destination.


1 Wang, John and Correia, Joanne. "Megaforces in the Software Industry Causing Natural Selection." Gartner Inc. June 5, 2002.

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