I’ve been writing this column for 20 years, and from time to time—now being one of those times—it seems as though I’ve said everything there is to be said about business and technology. Sure, there are tech advances every day, but the reality is that most businesses have already invested in technology, and that for them, change will be, at best, incremental. Unless there’s a clear return on investment on a new technology, most businesses will wait for someone else to try it first.
The most fundamental change over the last two decades is the evolution and stabilization of cloud-based services. Many existing businesses still run desktop apps, like Microsoft Office or Quickbooks, but desktop applications are clearly on the decline: the trend is toward browser-based applications. Software as a Service (SaaS) has triumphed, and with good reason. In 2020, most businesses and people in the US have access to reliable high-speed internet, making it almost immaterial whether my applications and data are on my local hard drive, or on some server in the cloud. Computation and storage have become commoditized—a laptop or a phone is simply a means to access those resources (even though phones and laptops are cheaper and more powerful than ever).
A cloud-oriented worldview
There are many benefits to a cloud-oriented worldview. Your applications and data are accessible from any device or location. The latest version of an application can be downloaded in seconds. Data is stored elsewhere, so the loss of a laptop or phone is negligible. There’s a broad choice of applications to choose from, and many applications are free, or offer a free tier of service. And because of the reach of the Internet, applications which might be needed by only a few businesses—such as a customer satisfaction survey tool specific to HVAC contractors—are still affordable to those businesses.
But, there are downsides. Subscription pricing can be expensive. There are valid concerns about privacy and security. Without network access, your data and applications are inaccessible. A slow network connection can make it impossible to work effectively. And there’s a certain loss of control when an application you’re using is suddenly upgraded, changing a familiar interface, or worse, introducing bugs. Worse still, a company can decide to stop offering a service that you rely on.
Writing this column in on the cloud, while sitting on my couch in rural Sonoma County is completely normal. I can watch all six seasons of Madame Secretary on Netflix via my Xfinity internet connection. And if I don’t have my laptop handy, my phone is equally well-connected via LTE, with applications like Slack that allow me to stay in touch with work, regardless of where I happen to be. Anytime I have a question, Google is there to answer it for me. The amount of information accessible to me, while sitting on my couch is astounding. And much of it, such as Wikipedia, is free. Even obscure information is readily available. The speed and ease of access to information has transformed our lives, but at the same time, it’s gradually become commonplace. We take it for granted.
The limits of technology
Ubiquity of access made it possible for some of us to remain relatively unaffected by orders to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We log in from home, and meet with others using Zoom or other video conferencing technologies. At the same time, technology does have its limits. The current pandemic demonstrates that even with all this miraculous technology, we still need people doing physical work. Someone must box up our Amazon purchases, and someone else must deliver them. Someone must man the checkout line at the store (at least for alcoholic purchases). Someone must cut hair. Someone must slaughter the chickens, cows, and pigs that most of us eat. These are the workers who provide essential services, such as medical personnel, firefighters and police.
The work I do is hardly essential: I help create mobile games to entertain people. Sure, I can argue that people need something to entertain them, while stuck at home. (In fact, mobile games have seen an uptick since we’ve all been locked up). Playing games on computers, consoles, and phones is a huge business, $152 billion in 2018, according to market research firm NewZoo. Mobile gaming alone, at $68 billion, is larger than film ($42 billion) and music ($19 billion) combined.
A better world
As others have said, the full-stop of the pandemic gives us the opportunity, not to return to normal, but to create something better. Technology has an important role to play in that better world, but the people who make the world go ‘round—the essential workers who frequently have little choice about going to work—should be recognized and rewarded for the role they play. I’m grateful for all those people who go to work every day, many in jobs that involve almost no high tech, who make my life possible.