One of the questions most commonly asked of technology journalists is, “What’s the next big thing in tech?”
The question that’s rarely asked – but one that really matters – is, “Why are they the next big thing?” There is a critical and common thread underlying all these emerging technologies that helps to understand if and how they might be as transformative as previous “next big things” like the internet, mobile, cloud or big data.
The real trend we’re experiencing – the fuel of the digital revolution – is the commoditisation of technologies that had previously been available only to corporations with big pockets.
The internet was the commoditisation of networking and communications. Mobile was the commoditisation of end-user computing. Cloud is the same for storage and processing power. And big data is the next step in the process, commoditising high-volume information.
A predictable trend
It’s a predictable trend, one that has repeated through history. The industrial revolution started when steam engines were commoditised; the age of the car began when Henry Ford first mass produced vehicles.
But an underlying facet of successive waves of technology commoditisation is that each was dependent on the previous stage. You wouldn’t have commodity mobile devices without the commoditised communications to make them worthwhile. The move to cloud couldn’t happen until mobile devices were near-ubiquitous to use the internet to access all that computer power. And without cloud, you would never have the capacity at an affordable price to process big data.
What does that tell us about the next big things? The IoT – the commoditisation of information about our surroundings – wouldn’t happen without big data, which provides the means to turn all that IoT information into something meaningful.
But the emergence of blockchain, AI and service automation represents a new phase in this evolution. These trends don’t represent the commoditisation of a technology – instead, they are the first examples of commoditising processes.
Blockchain promises to make the process of financial transactions and contractual interactions into a commodity. Transactions that were once only possible for huge, international organisations could, with blockchain, be open to startups and individuals. Service automation will make customer engagement processes a commodity – allowing companies to offer customer services previously only available to those who could afford access to a large call centre, for example. AI, it could be argued, further commoditises access to knowledge processes.
Forrester Research predicted this week that blockchain is about 10 years away from being mainstream. That feels about right. But for IT leaders looking to plot a course for how these next big things will benefit their business, understanding the underlying commoditisation of technologies, and then of processes, gives a valuable indicator of when and how to invest.