My company was among those that recently exhibited an application for Microsoft's Surface technology, demonstrating a program for Tesco Wine Club that was developed in association with IdentityMine. I like Surface a lot: it's terrific technology that makes what Microsoft calls ‘massive multi-touch' a reality by interpreting your taps and gestures in a format that resembles a coffee table.
It enabled Tesco to have something uniquely collaborative and interactive; something that could persuade people to find out more about their tastes in wine, and there are plenty of other interesting applications out there too.
Microsoft has done an excellent job in making a complex version 1.0 system actually work and, if anything, I believe that some people might even be underestimating its potential role. There's more to Surface than a bit of corporate branding in your reception: you're starting to look at a way of using applications that are rich and support touch and even voice as ways to interact. It's a potent mixture, especially backed up with today's enterprise search software as virtual interfaces bring search to life.
You could also think of the Surface theme reappearing in a system for home grocery shopping without a web browser or the need to touch a keyboard or mouse. Then again it could be for a system that is like knowledge management on steroids, with spider diagrams, mind maps and text interlinked with images and videos that can be moved around and mashed up with each other. Or it could of course become a fantastic new generation of kiosk technology that taps wireless links to replace store product listings systems.
On the other hand, I'm not daft enough to bet the farm on Surface, nor any of the current crop of new technologies. Surface systems are still expensive and aimed at a niche audience, although I'm sure some of the underlying technologies will find their way into other products.
It can be a conservative world out there and even some services depicted as breakthroughs carry a sense of déjà vu with them. It's chastening to think that the most pervasive electronic communications medium today is SMS. That might be why Twitter, a technology that offers an incremental change with a similar short burst of text, seems to have reached a tipping point in the last couple of months. I suppose it's the latest incarnation of social networking, letting people communicate across the web and allowing journalistic tendencies to come to the fore. It's a bit faddy, but it's in line with the way social behaviour is changing.
LinkedIn has emerged as the social networking tool of business while Facebook is the equivalent for family and friends. Twitter is interesting in that it sits somewhere between the two with CEOs, marketing directors and engineers all out there Tweeting away. Another characteristic of new technologies is that these things morph in terms of usage patterns. Twitter could be a very useful tool as a sort of ad hoc team-working jotter, just as Surface could emerge as a more advanced interactive whiteboard.
Adding to the complex picture of what's hot and what's not, IT seems to be forking after years of expectations of Microsoft/Java duopoly. On the mobile device you have the iPhone and BlackBerry. We're doing quite a lot of work developing business applications on the iPhone. It sets the standard for user interfaces, but the developer environments are not quite as robust or fully featured as you might like, and you have to be careful about things like backwards compatibility. As for the BlackBerry, the Java environment is a familiar one but it lacks the presentation layer for a rich web user experience. And as for Microsoft, we dived very early into the mobile apps space with Windows Mobile and it never really happened.
Distinguishing real change from shorter-term trends or outright failures isn't always easy, but there is one change that I'm confident is significant and that's in what some of us are calling ‘platform as a service', as in environments such as Amazon.com's Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), which can act as an alternative home to activities that would typically take place in the corporate datacentre, from application testing to provisioning and backup. By contrast, if you look at the better known trend of software-as-a-service, many popular applications, such as Salesforce.com, are in functional silos. Most software is still being downloaded and developers won't usually write for a multi-tenant architecture - they will just write an orthodox app and then web-enable it. But platforms like EC2 provide tremendous efficiency, speed and a generally more flexible environment.
Change is happening but be careful about where you're placing your bets because, in this economy in particular, you just never know.