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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Technological Revolutions Don't Happen Every Day
May 1st, 2001

Revolution is an overexploited word. People use it too often for just about anything. Business people, communications specialists and companies have a tendency to describe anything they invent or anything they bring to market as a revolution in its field. You buy a new piece of software? The company describes it as a revolution in productivity. A new router? It is a revolution in networking. If revolutions happened as often as people announced them, we would probably be living in the equivalent of the year 3001 today.

Regular use of the most extreme words, especially when the intent is to make something look more spectacular than it actually is, reduces the importance of the words used. In fact, can there be such a thing such as a revolution when everything is a revolution? Come on...

A prime example of self-declared revolution is the phenomenon of strange Internet Appliances. Everybody discovered digital media and hardware recently. Computer sales have been slowing down for a while, and many companies thought that the computer would fall down. Convinced with their new assumptions, hardware makers sought to replace it. A few manufacturers had the vision that the toy of the future was the Internet Appliance. This would be some sort of cross between the computer and the kitchen appliance, and it would connect to the Internet. Many companies got behind this and announced that Internet Appliances, above all other technologies, were the future of computing, computers being outdated.

I thought "BS" (without meaning Britney Spears) when I saw this, I still think "BS" when I look at it today. Sony delayed a Net Appliance not long ago, partially because companies have so far found it difficult to sell these devices. 3COM also understood the lesson and killed its Net surfing product called Audrey. Snippets from the article about "Audrey" are revealing:

"To date, almost all of these devices have failed to take off in the marketplace […] Intel and Compaq Computer have marketed Internet terminals as well, but sales have been fairly limited, analysts have said […] Microsoft's WebTV is probably the most successful non-PC Internet device released yet, but subscribers for that service hit a plateau at around 1 million […] Still, dreams die hard [...] 'The companies are not seeing the adoption rates that they hoped for a year ago,' said The Yankee Group analyst Milosz Skrzypczak."

Surprise!

It takes more than just a proclamation to start a revolution. Even if Internet Appliances had succeeded, the idea of a revolution, because of such an adaptation of the computer, could have been questioned anyway.

What does it take?

A revolution requires more than change. A revolution is an acute form of change. It happens very rarely and unlike the wishful thinking of dollar-hungry companies and inventors, revolutions arise without warnings. They take place without much planning, and spontaneity is one of their key characteristics. A revolution is sudden; you do not come up with one just because you want to. It is not the fruit of a few people's wishes, but the result of subsequent actions by the masses. Revolutions destroy resistance, a futile but ever-present obstacle.

Such criteria apply to commercial, industrial, military and technological revolutions. The Britannica encyclopaedia describes a revolution as "in social and political science, a major, sudden, and hence typically violent alteration in government and in related associations and structures. The term is used by analogy in such expressions as the Industrial Revolution, where it refers to a radical and profound change in economic relationships and technological conditions." This is nothing close to a simple product release, sir. Take note of the wording… major, sudden, violent, radical and profound. Also, remember that revolutions apply to more than just governments.

Allow me to diverge from the world of computers for a moment. The notion of revolution, to be fully understood, requires additional examples.

When I studied history, I had the opportunity to learn about many revolutions that shaped the world. When the French discovered steam and the British harnessed it, the ability to build steam machines and engines revolutionized the economy, and the results altered the concept of production in a previously inconceivable way. In the wool industry, one person's work day amounted to almost nothing when compared to the steam machine's work day. It was a radical unstoppable change, just as for any revolution!

Another important factor behind revolutions is that you sense when they happen, but you have no idea how far they will go. Electricity is a good example. "At first the full impact of how electricity would change the lifestyles was obviously not conceivable", according to The History of Electricity in Darwin.

This is typical of a revolution. You can see how it dramatically affects - or how it will one day affect - human life, but you have no idea where it will stop. You do not draw up a revolution and define how far it will go. Once the world adopts it or gives life to it, it gets out of hand. Just as Louis XVI saw the French revolution of 1789 get out of hand and make him its most important victim.

Revolutions in computing?

With that in mind, I believe that the concept of a revolution with computers is totally overused, if not absurd. Of course, there are exceptions such as the GUI and desktop publishing. However, constant changes in the software world amount to very little, even when a product introduces incredible new features. The same applies to hardware. It is not because chips, hard disks, buses and transistors improve by a little that we have a revolution. One can only laugh when developers claim to have done this much.

If you want accuracy about the progression of computers, operating systems and software, talk about evolution. This down-to-Earth term describes ongoing change better than revolution.

The Internet is one true revolution. It takes less time for my e-mail to make it from Montreal to Tokyo than for me to go to the nearest drop box to put something in the mail, and that is only one example. The Net changed, changes and will change the way companies look at their business. It broke down the barriers of communications, giving a worldwide instant reach to individuals as well as small organizations. It created a person-to-person and person-to-organization relationship beyond past experience. The revolution that takes place with the Net leaves us wondering when, where and how it will keep transforming our lives.

Now that is what you get with a revolution. You do not start a revolution just because you want to. It just happens... and you had better hope that it would not crush you while unfolding.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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