Driving this change is a profound technological shift in computer science. For the past 20 years a client-server computing architecture has dominated digital infrastructures. Expensive PCs ran complex software programs and relied primarily on proprietary protocols to connect to bigger—and even more expensive—mainframe servers. The data and the power lived in these computers and their operating systems.
Today we live in the clouds. We’re moving into the era of “cloud” computing, with information and applications hosted in the diffuse atmosphere of cyberspace rather than on specific processors and silicon racks. The network will truly be the computer.
Sophisticated browsers and technologies like LAMP or AJAX—not neon lights or Greek heroes but simple building blocks that enable people to produce and distribute content—are critical in this new world. They are the kind of technologies that transform audio, video, text and digital data into intuitive, easy-to-use services. They make Google, MySpace, YouTube, Gmail, Yahoo! and Microsoft Live possible, and they haven’t even entered adolescence.
Cloud computing is hardly perfect: internet-based services aren’t always reliable and there is often no way to use them offline. But the direction is clear. Simplicity is triumphing over complexity. Accessibility is beating exclusivity. Power is increasingly in the hands of the user.
These trends have three important consequences. First, most new applications can be created using existing software and protocols. Reinvention can be even more powerful and pervasive than invention. Mash-ups—websites that use existing online content to create something entirely new—are becoming the norm. Take a look at environmental champion Jane Goodall’s blog: she has used Google Earth to give people keener views and insights into the nature of nature.
Second, competition has increased and intensified. That stimulates innovation and ensures that products improve faster and become cheaper. If they don’t, users go to a new entrant offering free or better versions.
Third, the creation, consumption and communication of content have increased exponentially. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley estimate that the world generated five exabytes of data in 2002, double the output in 1999. To translate that into something more familiar, absorbing five exabytes of data on TV would require sitting in front of a screen for 40,700 years.
The lesson is compelling: put simple, intuitive technology in the hands of users and they will create content and share it. The fastest-growing parts of the internet all involve direct human interaction. Think about the blogging phenomenon and social networking sites like MySpace in America, Bebo in Britain, Orkut in Brazil, CyWorld in Korea and Mixi in Japan. In 2007 the virtual communities so prevalent in Asia and among students will become mainstream. Political pundits may claim that society is becoming atomised, but online communities are thriving and growing. The internet is helping to satisfy our most fundamental human needs—our desire for knowledge, communication and a sense of belonging.
Trend is not destiny, of course. But as a no-nonsense sports writer once wrote during the depth of America’s Depression, “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet.” We’re betting on the internet because we believe that there’s a bull market in imagination online.
An interview with Eric Schmidt about this article is available here.