Small Tech, Major DisruptionsBy
Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once defined history as “merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.” That definition seems most appropriate when applied to ongoing disruptions or revolutions. While caught in the middle of such events, astonishment can temporarily limit our sight and understanding.
That’s what makes a book like The Mobile Wave: How Mobile Intelligence Will Change Everything so valuable. The author, Michael Saylor, is especially qualified to step back and offer an analysis of the causes and some conclusions about the current mobile disruption. It’s what he does for a living as cofounder, chairman, and CEO of MicroStrategy, a firm that provides business analytics, mobile software, and cloud services.
After stating his belief that mobile computing is a tipping-point technology for the larger Information Revolution, he outlines the fundamental thesis of the book: “Mobile computing is the fifth wave of computing technology, and it will be the catalyst that brings society the most dramatic changes of the Information Revolution.”
Not only a thorough archivist of the history of mobile computing, Saylor is also an interesting writer. Consider how he anthropomorphizes digital cash to explain its superiority to paper currency. Unlike paper, he writes, “Digital cash knows who owns it, who should have it, and it can alert the police if either of those is suspect.” When you add those qualities to mobile technology, you have a “showroom world,” where “we will be able to purchase any item we see in the world around us, instantly.”
AN AMAZING PARADE
Saylor covers mobile computing and the Information Revolution in eight general spheres of activity and influence, each with its own chapter: computers, paper, entertainment, wallet, social networks, medicine, education, and the developing world.
He begins with a survey of computing history from Charles Babbage’s calculating machine to mainframes, desktops to mobiles, going far beyond the wiring and hardware. After crediting smartphones and tablets with the advantages of miniaturization and power, he attributes some of their explosive growth to the nonsymbolic connection to the user via multitouch gestures. Not only have users found gestures easier to learn and fun, but also “Multi-touch is enjoyable for another reason. It is shape processing rather than symbol processing, so it’s wired deep in our minds. We comprehend shapes mainly with the visual cortex at the back of our brains, and this intricate skill is almost inseparable from sight itself. It feels effortless, because evolution has had millennia to automate it.” Shape processing is primal; symbol processing/keystroking isn’t. With desktops and PCs, older interfaces require literacy to connect with the computer. Saylor quotes the Harvard neuropsychologist Alfonso Caramazza to explain how reading can tax us. “‘Reading is a bizarre skill—and a very complex process.’ We’ve been reading for a mere 5,000 years, so the brain has developed no areas dedicated to literacy. Instead, we hijack areas all over the brain, and as a result, a sizable portion of the populace is dyslexic.”
It’s this kind of analysis, throughout the book, that explains the adoption of mobile computing. His statement in the foreword, “I personally believe that the combined forces of mobile and social software networks will transform 50 percent of the world’s GDP in the coming decade,” becomes more credible as you progress through the book. And the warning, “Understand the wave, you can ride it. Refuse to adjust, you will be swallowed,” becomes more ominous.
Another side of this mobile revolution has encouraged many companies to replace their physical products and services with software equivalents. Books and magazines have become software, music and video, advertising, and news. And retailing has been disrupted. “Given the ability to plant their software directly on the person of every customer who owns a mobile device, businesses will open an explosive new front in the battle of competition…. Consumers browse the brick-and-mortar store, examine the products, identify their favorite, and use an app on their mobile phones to scan the barcodes and identify an online retailer with a better price—and then the consumer will have the product shipped directly to their homes. This is ‘highjacked retail.’”
Complete health profiles on personal IDs, micromultinationals, distributed sensory systems, social coordination systems—all are establishing footholds with the digital and economic engines we call mobile devices. As Vonnegut promised, there are a lot of surprises, even in our limited perspective of the historic upheaval.