Everything Can't Be A Revolution

Oct 18, 2014

Every time Apple releases something new you read articles where people decry that the new products aren't a revolution, that they didn't reinvent a whole category again.

Despite Apple being at the center of many revolutionary products in consumer technology in my lifetime no one would want to live in a world where everything was new all the time.

Imagine that each election would involve a whole new form of government. Or every time you buy a car it had a new number of wheels. Or you went into work to find the employees were all different, the company was in a radically new business, and your job had nothing to do with your skills. No one wants to live in such an unpredictable world.

True revolutions in "computer" technology happen rarely and that's a good thing. It's hard to know when a revolution starts and often you can only recognize it much later: the world is changed so much that before and after are clearly different.

I've been around long enough to see a number of these happen and in most cases you really had no idea how different the world would become when whatever it was first appeared.

The personal computer was the first one I remember. The whole idea that people could own and operate a computer was mind-blowing. In high school I took a class on programming where all we had was a teletype machine that talked to a time-share computer in another city. That was what a computer meant to people. Once the earliest computers appeared that you could buy and take home, from Apple, Tandy and Commodore, suddenly owning a computer and even programming at home which had previously been unimaginable was possible. The world was different.

The next revolution that I saw appeared on my desk one day when I got the Lisa that General Dynamics was playing with. Seeing a bit-mapped display and a mouse was so radical. The IBM PC/XT appeared around the same time and I had an early build as well as we were going to use them at GD and I would be involved in writing for them; I even got to visit the guys at IBM who worked on the hard drive driver. These two machines' features (and of course the Mac a year later) would eventually combine to form the basis of a modern computer we still use today: bit-mapped display, mouse, hard drive. It took longer for this revolution to take hold, although the Macintosh was the first platform of the modern age it took Microsoft another 6-8 years to build up Windows which eventually became the dominant OS. But that early period from 1983-1984 really set the revolution up. The computers/terminals I used before then with keyboard only and character displays vanished into dust.

The internet was a funny revolution, as almost no one realized how much change would happen. Of course it wasn't a single thing, it was the invention of the modern network stack, a whole host of smaller contributors and of course the invention of the web. The first time I saw the web it was a command line thing I played with and wasn't really impressed. Even Bill Gates didn't see it changing anything. I was working in Silicon Valley soon thereafter and I remember watching Netscape go public in the programmer's office next door not realizing what this meant at all. Revolutions often sneak up on you. I left the Valley after working at Apple briefly and still didn't know everything was changing. Even today I laugh at what a moron I was, leaving right before the revolution thinking nothing was happening I should stick around for (plus I figured Apple was going out of business).

Today it's hard to imagine a world with no web, no google, no interconnected world with instant communications, buying stuff without leaving home and having it appear a day later, knowing what's happening in the world almost before it happens. That's a revolution.

The iPhone was the most obvious revolution in that it was both clear to me anyway at the time, though perhaps not to everyone, and the world was radically different before and after. All of the dominant mobile phone companies before are either out of business or were sold at a huge discount and every mobile phone follows the same basic design as the iPhone. The iPad wasn't a revolution but an evolutionary expansion. To me the real revolution in the iPhone was the idea that you could use your fingers to interact with a computer, take the internet with you in your pocket, and be able to create whole new industries never before possible because you had no wires to tie you down.

One of those marketing phrases people love to use is "this changes everything". It should be some kind of law that when people say this horrible phrase it really means "this changes nothing". Real revolutionary change does change everything but most of the time it isn't obvious that it will when it first appears. When I got that Lisa and my PC/XT I didn't know it would be the basis of what I would work on for decades. The iPhone was a little more obvious, maybe because the internet existed already and I could actually see and read about it endlessly. People who weren't around in the early 80's don't know how little you actually knew about what was going on in the world of computer technology. Everything you read was months old and much happened invisibly to you. I was lucky in that my job happened to be at the center of the revolution. Today it's easier to have perspective and commentary and even trolls telling you what they think you should know; back then most people had no way to know anything going on outside.

Either loudly or quietly revolutions happen. But not everything is a revolution; often new ideas appear in a greater volumes than ever but most fade and die, while a few take hold and move change along. I do think that today revolution is much harder to do as everything knows everything everyone is doing and it's hard to think of something so different it doesn't already elicit 10,000 hits on Google. It's not the same world it was back in 1984. It's not the same world it was in 1994 or 1997.

Are there revolutions to be had in the future? For sure, every evolution of technology begats more and then at some point they all come together to go boom. But if boom was a regular event I don't think anyone would want to live in a world where change happens faster than you can deal with it. In so many countries in the world revolution is a common occurrence and all the people want to some stability for once. As a programmer I can't learn and master a new language every week; no one can. Yet I can't refuse to learn anything either, or my favorite metaphor the technology steamroller will get me. So having revolutions coming every decade or so is a good thing.

So what could be revolutionary in the future? None of the things I mentioned on this page (of course it's just a set I picked there are many more) were predictable even shortly before. When I started my first programming job I had an Apple 2 at home but it hardly compared to the big ones at work. Certainly I wasn't impressed by the first web browser I saw in 1994. Before Apple showed the iPhone prototype (which was the best Steve Jobs intro ever) I had a Nokia brick phone with a manual thicker than the phone that I found too horrible to even consider reading.

I do think that someday there will be a revolution in flexible displays with IPv6 connections and mesh networks, so that everything from signs to cellphones to refrigerator magnets will have connections to the outside world, be fully display programmable and even interact-able. Maybe they will come in boxes like tissue paper. Someday we will no longer even need real displays or devices, everything will be virtual in our head with a direct brain connection. Most likely something will happen I never even expected.

Whatever it the next revolution it won't come on a schedule and possible no one will even notice it at first. I look forward to whatever it is but I hope it doesn't come too soon; I'd hate to go to work and find myself obsolete and useless Monday. But if it comes later rather than sooner I won't be disappointed and demand more faster changes.

We all want a revolution and we all want to change the world but probably not today.