Column The death of Sir Clive Sinclair at the end of last week sparked an outburst of nostalgia. This is understandable.
Its glory days in the early 1980s marked the start of the digital revolution. He had already put the first affordable calculators in his pocket, and his computers were often the first in many homes. They’ve put countless young geeks on their way to becoming the backbone of the tech industry and given many more the first touch of gaming addiction.
Since then we have only had more fun. What started with a ZX Spectrum 48k and tape recorder has grown into the new global defining force. With our desktop platforms synthesizing reality, our gigabit connections in the cloud, and countless storage and compute at our leisure, it has never stopped getting better.
Only he has. The week Sinclair died, Apple released a new iPhone whose only novelty was the word “new”. There was a relatively small update to the Linux kernel. There was the first new version of Java in three years, and Microsoft has been trying hard to beat the drums for an incremental version of Windows 10 with a +1 name and -1 interest. Across the industry, innovation is becoming the theater for innovation. All the engines of new and exciting experiences that Clive’s children have come to accept as intrinsic to their computing lives are running out of steam. This is a good thing.
There was a lot to do in the early 1980s. From RS232 to printer setup, from moving files between computers to running your PC’s memory, a lot of the experience of using computers was a disaster. The standards were not. The software was late, buggy, and lousy. The computers would whistle if you asked them to go up the stairs. You had to know what an IRQ number was and why it mattered. We forget because it was brand new and the next version would be faster, more colorful, less boring.
The computer industry has constantly promised that the next version will work. At first, it never did. Then it worked a bit. Now it is. Sometimes it was through slow iteration and linear hard work, sometimes through the application of industrial strength irony. It has to be argued that Sinclair’s greatest legacy isn’t inspiring a generation of geeks with cheap, simple, colorful computers, but because it made the QL so irritating that a young owner, Linus Torvalds, vowed there had to be a better way of doing things. Sometimes things got triggered, like when SMS, an afterthought added to the GSM digital mobile phone standard, was enthusiastically embraced by the public and made the industry realize that, hey, there can be have something in this mail lark.
We have solved the problems. Not all of them, but the standards are set, the memory and compute are more than enough, the graphics as good as our eyes, and the software does what it’s told. Like the dog chasing the car, now we’ve caught up and don’t know what to do next.
As an industry, we are slow to come to terms with this. All the dynamics learned from entire careers are changing, and that’s the devil to digest. It should be a matter of celebration, that the promise has been fulfilled, it is a new period of stability where we will be free to find new challenges. Few people feel this, yet it is and we are.
But if we don’t continue with the upgrade, what will we do? For the business, this is an opportunity to reconsider what IT means for the organization. If a platform is good enough, the next time the refresh is due, do not specify more old numbers. Ask for something that will last longer, that is more environmentally friendly, has longer support cycles – in short, something that fixes technology’s everlasting sins. Adopt platform standards that are primarily about longevity. Freed from planned obsolescence, we can devote our development resources to solving business problems, without erasing the butt of the IT industry. Why does LTS last three years and not 10? Or 20?
There are a lot of areas where new things are happening quickly. Big data dances with machine learning and who knows what will come out of it. The creation of high-performance, robust, task-appropriate, and accessible applications continues to advance as development and deployment techniques evolve. Google is still failing to create a healthy Unified Messaging platform. And we still need a security revolution, a calculation of privacy that makes sense, and regulators and laws that don’t bow to power so blatantly. And what about China and IT?
All engaging, important and able to absorb our attention and guide our decisions for decades to come. They will not be resolved without an understanding of the technology and a willingness to implement new ideas. But none have anything to do with what we buy for our corporate desktops, chosen as the primary platform, or the rate of change we budget. These issues are resolved and we must move on.
The revolution has arrived. We can honor its early leaders and learn from their failures and successes. But Sir Clive’s passing is a good point to recognize that a lot of the ground has been prepared, the tools produced, and now it’s our job to build on it. ®