The pace of change in IT has never been faster — or has it? After 25 years of desktop computing and 15 years of the commercial internet, there are still plenty of frustrations, pains and throwbacks in our everyday technology experience. It's great having a terabyte hard disk, but not so great trying to manage it using interfaces and tools that have barely changed from the days when 40MB was respectable.
Many factors are holding back technology. Here is a list of 10 such barriers, in no particular order. We have almost certainly missed a few, so feel free to leave your comments using the Talkback facility at the bottom of the page.
1. Microsoft's stranglehold on the desktop
Windows unified the personal-computer market, and led it into the enterprise. A good thing, surely? Yes — if unity is more important than innovation, flexibility and a free market. The European Commission disagreed with that, as have courts around the world.
For most people, computing means Windows, not because they choose it but because the company's immense power in retail and business channels, together with the inertia that comes through decades of market dominance, make it a default that's hard to change.
So why does this hold back innovation? The European Commission ruled that computer users are unnecessarily used to products like Windows Media Player — applications that are mediocre just because Microsoft has no real incentive to make them better. Monopolies are anti-competitive and therefore anti-innovation. Just look at Internet Explorer's long stagnation.
Microsoft's stifling influence on new ways of thinking goes beyond applications, however. As Vista so readily proves, rehashing the same idea again and again does not make for progress. For everyone's sake, especially Microsoft itself, the company needs to learn to compete fairly again.
2. Operator lock-in
In Europe, we have only recently emerged from the dark ages of the mobile internet, as the market has forced operators to abandon the so-called "walled garden" approach. This meant that users could only access websites that had been pre-selected by their operator — the very embodiment of what net-neutrality advocates are seeking to block in the US. Of course, that debate revolves around fixed access, and is so relevant in the US because — unlike the UK — most of that country has very little choice of internet provider.
However, both situations show, or have shown, the harm that can be done to innovation when those operating the pipes of the internet decide they want control over content. Operators providing content is nothing new, nor is it a bad or surprising thing for them to do, but that provision needs to be in line with the founding principles of the internet if innovation is to flourish.
Any threat to the equality of access and provision on the internet is a bad thing for innovation, and a combination of the market and regulation is needed to hold such threats at bay.
3. Input methods
We haven't come far. Qwerty is 130 years old, and windows, icons, mice and pointers are 35. Both come from before the age of portable computing. So why are we reliant on these tired old methods for all our new form factors?
There are lots of new ideas — voice, gesture and handwriting recognition; video and infrared inputs that watch what we do with our hands and decide what it is that we want — but the mobile experience remains one of thumb-mangling, eye-straining frustration. A BlackBerry keyboard is a wonder of miniaturisation; shame the same's not true of most BlackBerry users.
Until we manage to break down the barriers erected between us and the machines back in the days before eight-bit processors, we'll be stuck back there too.
4. Battery life
All the newfangled input and display technology in the world doesn't amount to much when your handset and laptop struggle to support more than a few hours' hard usage.
Particularly on the handset side, the increase in processing power needed to support the internet and the mobile office puts huge demands on a device's battery, as do high-speed wireless data technologies like 3G — there is a good reason why the iPhone, which has to provide a reasonable simulation of the iPod's battery life, does not currently use 3G. Also, even when they refrain from exploding, the lithium-ion (li-ion) batteries used in a wide variety of electronic devices become less efficient over time. That means mobile technology will forever lag behind fixed technology.
But perhaps the greatest application for improved battery technology would be in electric cars. The concept is proven and on the street but, until it becomes possible to go as far on a charge as you would on a tank of fuel, only first adopters and urban eco-warriors will bother.
5. The mania for speed
Faster processors are great. However, there is more to computing than processor speed — a point which can be easily proven by comparing a two-year-old PC running Linux with a new PC buckling under the weight of Vista. Shrinking the manufacturing process to enable greater speed has proven essential, but it's running out of magic.
Too much R&D time and money goes into processor speed when other issues remain under-addressed. For example, could data not be handled a bit better? What about smarter ways of tagging data? The semantic web initiative runs along these sorts of lines, so where is the hardware-based equivalent?
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