Lee Capps would like to thank Joe Luedtke, a principal in The Revere Group’s Advanced Technologies Practice, for this month’s column.
When Charles Darwin proposed the Theory of Evolution in his momentous book, The Origin of Species, evolution was viewed as a continuum slowly unfolding over time. Each infinitesimally small change to an individual from its predecessors was painstakingly tested out through natural selection and the concept of survival of the fittest. If the change proved to be a competitive advantage and helped the individual to survive and flourish, that individual was able to pass the change to its offspring who then had the potential to further improve upon the original change. Over eons, these small changes, hardly noticeable at first, developed into entirely new attributes of a given species and then eventually into a brand new species completely different than and incompatible with its predecessors. These new positive changes enabled the new species to flourish and the less-adaptive slowly died. Many of these biological concepts appear to apply to the world of technology. The 5¼-inch floppy drive will readily attest to this.
However, looking through the fossil record not all changes seemed to occur slowly and imperceptibly. In 1972, Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University proposed a refinement to the Theory of Evolution called Punctuated Equilibrium or "Punk Eek" for short. This refinement proposed that evolution occasionally leaps and can manifest itself in dramatic alterations in a geological blink of the eye.
As I struggle to write this article on a four-hour plan ride to Los Angeles, I am desperately wishing for an evolution of the technology I’ve come to depend on. My laptop PC may have enough battery power for the flight. However, even if my battery lasts, I will probably not finish this article. Without being able to extend laptop screen all the way due to the person sitting in front of me, my neck is now tilted uncomfortably too far back and to the left. My other technological tools aren’t necessarily faring any better. I’d love to call a biologist friend of mine on my cell phone to get his view on Punk Eek; but, of course, I can’t use my cell phone in flight due to its potential interference with the airplane’s systems. My Windows CE PDA also contains a couple of thoughts I dictated on its voice recorder on the drive to the airport, but the airplane’s engine is drowning out my attempts to replay those thoughts, so I’m having to go from memory instead.
The evolution of modern technology appears to occur through software releases, hardware upgrades and brand new models being produced. Over time, we can expect longer battery life, cell phones that function on airplanes and PDAs with not only voice recording, but also voice recognition software. In fact, if we look hard enough, we’d probably find that all of these examples are available in some form today.
While evolution appears to occur incrementally (perhaps too slowly) for technology, punctuated equilibrium also manifests itself in the ecosystem of our technological world. New products (species) like PDAs, as in the Palm Handheld, seemingly burst on the scene out of nowhere. They multiply and flourish and then go through another biological process termed "adaptive radiation" where as they move into new environments they further evolve into new distinct species such as Windows CE and Blackberry devices.
"Species" of technology do evolve and they also go extinct. Each technology has its niche, but they may not be able to reign over that niche forever. My laptop would easily be relegated to the graveyard if a Tablet PC with an efficient user interface was available. The dawn of the information age we live in is very analogous to the start of geological epochs of time. With the dawn of each new epoch, there was an explosion of species and a dramatic increase in the diversity of life. This tremendous diversity did not sustain itself. Great species flourished, but not so great ones briefly appear on the scene and make their mark only to die out a short time later.
What we are experiencing now with technology is Punctuated Equilibrium. We are seeing great experiments of technologies that could be long-term survivors or may end up as evolutionary dead ends. Laptops and PDAs may not survive in their present form, but they are laying the foundation for portable computing devices of the future.
While we are dawn of the information age and headed toward pervasive computing, at the moment we are in its primordial soup. Many of the ideas of our time may not live more than a few years or decades. These deaths need not be mourned, although I do admit a soft spot for the Apple II. These species set the stage for their successors. Mainframe applications may still exist, but many have evolved into client/server applications, then Web and now into XML Web services. Similarly, the desktop PC set the stage for the portable PC, which was followed by the laptop and eventually the PDA.
Where is this evolution going? What will survive and what is next on the horizon? The risk here is that it is difficult if not impossible to tell right now, but with risk comes tremendous opportunities. The survivors will inevitably adapt and flourish, but for those less adaptable life maybe very, very short. Be careful; it’s a jungle out there.
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