Transformative technologies for the 21st century

Innovations seem to have a natural economic life cycle: an obscure invention (say, electricity, or the internal combustion engine) sparks an entire constellation of industries, which grow exponentially for a while, then settle into a stagnant maturity.

You can think of the entire IT and networking industries as emerging from two innovations: the transistor in 1948, (which gave rise to the microprocessor) and optical fiber in 1952. The conjunction of these two inventions essentially created the entire computing and communications industries -- or IT as we know it.

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That means IT is about 60 years old. If it were human, it would qualify for AARP membership and be looking forward to Social Security. Not over the hill yet, but definitely heading towards the downward arc of the cycle -- right?

I'm not so sure. Yes, I think we've hit a lull in IT innovation -- which happens every decade and a half or so. After the development of mainframes, most folks were pretty sure that IT had hit maturity -- then minicomputers came along (remember Tracy Kidder's "Soul of a New Machine?"). And then PCs and LANs, client-server computing, and the whole networking/telecommunications explosion. By my count, we've been through at least three innovation ebbs in the IT space -- and each time, IT has bounced back stronger than before.

This time, I think we're experiencing the calm before the storm -- and when this particular storm hits, it'll be a doozy.

Have a look at just three technologies that have the ability to completely revolutionize IT from the ground up: memristors, nanowires and OLEDS.

Memristors are transistor-like devices made out of titanium dioxide that can remember voltage state information. They hold the potential for completely revolutionizing storage and processing technologies because they erase the distinction between processing and storage (you can do both/and on the same chip). More prosaically, they make it possible to create storage devices that require no power. How will that affect your data center?

Then there are nanowires: tiny wires no more than a single nanometer in width that can be conductors, insulators or semiconductors (albeit with weird quantum properties). These can form the basis for embedded intelligent networks -- sensor and control networks that are actually built into the materials and devices they control. (Take that, smart grids!)

Finally, there are organic LEDs, which have the interesting property that they can be printed onto things such as wallpaper at relatively low cost. Sony has developed OLED monitors, and GE is looking into OLED wallpaper. So in a couple of years, your new office (or home office) may come equipped with wallpaper that, at the touch of a button, can turn into a floor-to-ceiling high-resolution display. (Think of the bandwidth requirements).

Each of these technologies holds the possibility of completely reshaping IT within the next few years. And the conjunction of all three could make the conjunction of the transistor and fiber optics look like a warm-up act.

Bottom line: Stay tuned, the fun's just beginning.

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