PC, internet, smartphone: what’s the next big technological epoch? | John Naughton

ÖOne of the challenges of writing about technology is escaping what the Sociologist Michael Mann memorably referred to as “Sociology of the Last Five Minutes”. This is especially difficult when covering the digital technology industry as one is constantly being inundated with “new” things – viral memes, shiny new product or service, Facebook scandals (a weekly issue), security breaches, etc. The past few weeks, for example the industry’s enthusiasm for the idea of a “metaverse” (neatly dismantled here from Alex Hern), El Salvadors Flirt with Bitcoin, endless stories of central banks and governments worrying Regulation of cryptocurrencies, Apple’s possible rethinking of its plans to scan phones and iCloud accounts Child abuse images, umpteen ransomware attacks, antitrust lawsuits against app stores, the Theranos trial and so on apparently to infinity.

So how do you break out of the fruitless syndrome identified by Prof. Mann? One way is to borrow an idea by Ben Thompson, a seasoned tech commentator who doesn’t suffer from it, and whose (paid) newsletter should be a mandatory daily email for any serious tech observer. Back in In 2014 he proposed that we think of the industry in “epochs” – important periods or epochs in the history of an industry. At that point in time, he saw three epochs in the evolution of our networked world, each defined by its core technology and its “killer app”.

Epoch one in this context was the PC era, which opened in August 1981 when IBM brought its personal computer onto the market. The core technology was the open architecture of the machine and the MS-DOS (later Windows) operating system. And the killer app was the spreadsheet (which, ironically, was actually developed – as VisiCalc – on the Apple II).

Era two was the Internet age, which began 14 years after the beginning of the PC era with Netscape’s IPO in August 1995. The core technology (the “operating system,” if you will) was the web browser – the tool that changed the Internet into something non-geeks could understand and use – and the era was initially of a vicious battle for browser control coined a battle in which Microsoft destroyed Netscape and captured 90% of the market, but eventually faced an antitrust lawsuit that nearly resulted in its resolution. In this era, search was the killer app, and in the end social networks dominated, with Facebook taking the dominant market share.

Epoch three of Thompsons – the era we are in now – was mobile. It dates back to January 2007 when Apple announced the iPhone and ushered in the smartphone revolution. In contrast to the two earlier epochs, there is no single dominant operating system, but a duopoly between Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android system. The killer app is the so-called “sharing economy” (which is nothing of the kind) and messaging of all kinds has become the dominant communication medium. And now it looks like this smartphone era is reaching its peak.

When this actually happens, the obvious question is, what’s next? What will the fourth epoch be like? And here it is worth borrowing an idea from another astute observer of these things, the novelist William Gibson, who remarked that “the future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed ”. If this is as profound as I think then we should be on the lookout for things that bubble in incoherent and seemingly incoherent ways, like hot lava bursts in Iceland or other geologically unstable regions.

What can we see gushing in Techland right now? If you believe the industry Metaverse (plural) – basically designed as massive virtual reality environments – could be a big deal. This looks to this observer like wishful thinking for psychotics. At least at its extreme end is that metaverse idea is a vision an immersive, video game-like environment to keep wealthy people entertained in their air-conditioned caves while the planet boils and less fortunate people have difficulty breathing. In this sense, the metaverse could just be a way of avoiding uncomfortable realities. (But then, as a prominent Silicon Valley figure recently joked, the reality may be overrated anyway.)

Two other plausible candidates for future epochs are cryptography – in the sense of blockchain technology – and quantum computing. But an era in which these technologies are prevalent would embody a fascinating contradiction: Our current crypto tools depend on creating keys that conventional computers would take millions of years to crack. However, quantum computers would crack them in nanoseconds. In this case, we may finally have to admit that we as a species are too smart for our own good.

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