Last week I was at the Web Summit in Dublin. Me and about 10,000 start-ups, Eva Longoria and Bono. It's a remarkable event partly because it seems to have come out of nowhere but also that the Summit was not really about technology but the impact technology is and will have on our everyday lives. It's remarkable in that the Summit underlined that digital technology has become mainstream in society.
This event was so big because there were many side stages discussing tech in sport, tech in food and of course the impact of technology in the enterprise. It is I guess a mark of the times that events of this size and scale can seem to just pop up out of the ether, it just shows how fast technology is moving, from cloud to the Internet as a platform to the Internet of Things.
The start-ups here come in all shapes and sizes. From Big Data-based analytical tools to apps that help you buy shoes. They are all here for the same purpose – to attract attention from customers, potential partners and investors. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are a lot of apps. Mobile apps, tablet apps – a sea of apps in fact. I don't have anything against apps but I am become a bit concerned that start-ups (and everyone else for that matter) are not doing a very good job at learning from what has gone before. That is to say as soon as we have got comfortable with one thing in this digital age – it changes.
This year has been the first year in a while that has not been all about the mobile and I think that, five years from now, we will agree that 2014 was the year that the mobile went into decline. In fact in five years I have a sneaking suspicion that the mobile as we know it might not just be in decline, it may even have become an endangered species.
Before you accuse me of having lost the plot just hear me out. Over the last 20 years we have seen the birth of a whole range of new devices with PCs, laptops, mobiles and tablets leading the charge. It has all been about finding new hardware, new devices, to enable us to access information, in one form or another, faster and more conveniently. The change we have seen in the last couple of years is that the focus is no longer on the device – it is about what we can access and do through it. This year in particular has seen the rise of wearable tech and the arrival of the 'Internet of Things'. The significance of this is that suddenly it's no longer about creating a new way of interacting with information, but about revisiting old ones.
Let's look at the car for example. The car has been a critical part of most of our lives for over 50 years. This is a device that we are already using, a ready made platform if you like, that now, with the arrival of the Internet of Things, can become a whole lot more than a machine that takes us from A to B. The same can be said of the watch, of glasses, even our clothes. Suddenly the ability to access information and interact online is going to be all around us.
So what does this have to do with start-ups and apps? The point is that start-ups have become too focused on devices. The obsession with ensuring that content is accessible and viewable on small mobile devices has narrowed our thinking.
Let's imagine for example that cars become automated. We don't need to imagine it in fact – it is already happening. The final goal here is that you will be able to get into your car, type in your destination, and off you go. The result is that you will no longer need to concentrate on driving when you are in the car. Imagine the possibilities for that windscreen? If you don't need to be able to use it to see where you are going what would you use it for?
The car is just one example. The issue is not that we are going to move from the mobile to the car – it is that the device could soon be just about anything. So the focus needs to be now on developing speech, gesture controls, automation and especially self-learning, highly personalised interfaces that surface information you needed or did not even know you needed. We are not going to be able to say with any certainty how people will be using or accessing an application, a service or a data feed in the future, never mind the impacts on people's lives from the IoT. From a development point of view, this is both terrifying and incredibly exciting.
In a world led by the consumer the CIO cannot ignore the change that we are about to see. I am not suggesting that 2015 will see employees demanding access to spreadsheets via their spectacles but businesses do need to consider that an application or a service that they build today needs to be future proofed to ensure that by designing it for one device today doesn't mean restrictions and barriers to entry further down the line.