I consider myself fortunate that my career has coincided with the rise of the computer as a business tool. Over that time I have seen a series of break-out technologies that have significantly changed the way computers have not only solved business needs but also transformed that way businesses can work. Each new technology has driven innovation and business opportunities. Technology companies such as Apple, CISCO, Microsoft, Amazon, and FaceBook have all shot to prominence catering to these new technologies while a great many more companies have benefited from a competitive advantage gained from exploiting these technologies faster than their competitors. And then there are the companies that were unable to adapt such as Blockbuster, Kodak, DEC, Polaroid, Circuit City, Blackberry, Border Books, and Tower Records. Each new break-out technology represents both an opportunity and a threat, which is why businesses always need to keep an eye out for the next big thing.
1981: The Personal Computer – Buy Your Own Computer
Note: The Personal Computer was not invented in 1981, but this was the year I first had hands on experience using of the technology as part of my job.
For me the first major transformation came with the arrival of the Personal Computer. I started my first full-time job at BP Australia in Melbourne in late 1980. I was still studying a Science Degree majoring in Computer Science and BP were good enough to give me a chance to work in a series of business functions before settling in to a role inside their Computer Division. While working for the Forecasting department my manager supported me going out and acquiring an Apple IIC with VisiCalc to assist in building financial models that predict demand for petroleum products. To the best of my knowledge this was the first personal computer acquired by BP. After I was transferred to the Computer Division to learn COBOL Programming, I took my new manager up to my old department to show him a Personal Computer, explaining this had the potential to transform the way businesses adopted computer technology. He didn’t get it at the time so I went back to write COBOL programs for another year. The personal computer has gone on to have a profound impact on the way most businesses operte. It gave rise to the large-scale automation of business processes well beyond the capacity of IT departments to undertake on their own with their finite resources and the constraints of what a COBOL program could do.
A couple of years later I transferred to a large retail company in Australia, GJ Coles. I joined what was known as an Information Centre (Australian spelling), which was a destination for people to go to share computer resources such as computer terminals and personal computers to build and run their own personal or departmental applications on a time-share basis. The department was not part of IT, who were still viewing personal computers as “toys”. When I joined we had three personal computers (a DEC Rainbow and two IBM PC1s) and three IBM 3270 computer terminals. Products such as DBase, Lotus 1-2-3, and Paradox soon started to have a big impact automating business processes. These applications were largely single-user but so too were many of the manual processes they were replacing. Most of these new applications were being created by business professionals and not traditional developers. At the time it was the only practical way to automate business processes too small, or insignificant to warrant attention from the IT department.
1985: Local Area Networks – Groupware
It was soon after this that I encountered what I see as the second major shift in the application landscape, the Local Area Network. Now, for the first time it became possible to connect computers together to provide remote loading of software and to share data in a central file store. For our Information Centre this lead to departments being allowed to locate their new personal computer within their own department. It was during this time that I first encountered Lotus Notes. An application that seemed to have a unique ability to share information between computers using a process known as replication and a sophisticated mechanism for connecting computers and servers using modems. In many ways Notes pre-empted the emergence of the Internet as a new application platform. While personal computers started to be placed under the control of IT departments, a large portion of the early adopters of Lotus Notes, such as me, were outside IT. Lotus Notes was being used to automate manual processes but it was also being used for a second generation of application solutions allowing spreadsheets and personal database applications to be replaced with new solutions in which many people could access and maintain the information at the same time, even from offices spread around the globe. Lotus Notes soon established itself as an innovative product for building software for groups giving rise to the term Groupware.
1995: The Internet – Find Your Own Data
I was first exposed to The Internet as a late-comer around 1995 when working in the Research Department of Coles Myer. Once again a new technology trend was being picked up and used by a business unit long before the resident IT understood its potential. We were already using Lotus Notes, but after playing with Notes 4.5/4.6 we saw the potential for these new web capabilities to distribute information held in Notes databases to people who did not have access to a Notes client. Some of our ideas caught the attention of companies such as Reuters and Andersen Consulting who encouraged us to form our own company, Knowledge Horizons. That was my first experience in becoming a Lotus Business Partner and an entry into the Yellowverse. Sadly, after a promising start it seems IBM never fully embraced Web browsers as the primary client for accessing Notes data. IBM remained focused on the Notes client as the application delivery vehicle creating an opportunity for other products such as SharePoint and Gmail to to emerge and slowly eat away at the Notes marketshare for Groupware and e-mail.
2007: Mobile – Bring You Own Device
In 2007 Apple released the first iPhone. The release got a lot of attention at the time, but it is doubtful many people were able to see the profound impact this device was to have. Shortly after joining GBS I remember making my first visit to their Atlanta office and watching Tim Tripcony play with with his latest toy, an iPad. At the time it simply wasn’t polite to turn up to a meeting with a computer device. Being a visionary, Tim was already well down the path of exploring how a tablet device could be used to add real-time information gathering and application usage into collaborative environments such as meetings. For application developers smartphones and tablets created a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Not only did we now have to design applications to run on smaller screens we also had to figure out ways to allow our applications to interact with users using a range on new gestures such as tapping, swiping and shaking the device. We also had the ability for the first time to tap into a range of new capabilities such as voice input, GPS, plus phone and map integration.
For Notes developers Mobile has been a frustrating experience trying to deal with the lack of support for mobile devices, gesturing, and native application integration. Some have found a way forward building HTML 5 applications via REST servers while to true IBM faithful have tried to work within the constraints of the XPages platform.
The mobile wave has had two profound impacts on application development. First the advent of Bring Your Own Device meant that applications were now being consumed on a large scale using devices that were not the property of the organization. Suddenly it was no longer possible to control the operating system, browser, screen size etc of the device consuming enterprise applications. It also gave rise to a significant blurring of the lines between work and personal life. The same device was increasingly being used to access information for work and private needs. There was a demand to use applications that overlapped into both home and work use.
Shortly after forming Red Pill Development (now Red Pill Now) we set about building a solution based upon XPages Mobile Controls that allowed existing Notes data to be viewed from a mobile device. We were already pushing the boundaries of what XPages Mobile Controls could do and sadly IBM never invested in the technology which meant we had to abandon this as an approach. While we have remained focused on finding new ways of modernizing Notes data this was the last time we based solutions on IBM’s software. Instead we have started to find that using best of breed Web developments software and tools can deliver vastly superior results even when the underlying data is held in Notes databases. It has meant we are no longer constrained to finding skilled developers with experience in Notes but can actually engage some very talented developers who have no knowledge of Notes/Domino.
2013: Social Software – Crowd Sourcing
Social represents a new way to work and interact with information. Primary adoption occurred in the personal space thanks to products such as Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and Instagram. With a growing portion of the world’s population living with a device at their side for the duration of the day we saw a growth in the desire to exchange and share information and experiences in real-time. This gave rise to new concepts such as the activity stream, shares, likes, favorites, and tagging as ways to share and process a growing amount of data. We also saw a growth in media formats being used. Data was no longer being exchanged in a text format, but also as images, videos, and voice.
While much has been made of social software and its impact, I feel we are yet to see the full potential of this technology within the business environment. The opportunities for social in a business environment are quite different from those encountered at home. In business I believe the biggest gains will come from exploiting social software to crowd-source solutions to business problems and opportunities. Traditionally computer applications have provided solutions based upon the formal organization structure. What we are starting to see is the capacity for social software to break down organization structures allowing a wider audience to participate in business issues based upon their skills, experience, and interest. This breaking down of organizational silos to unleash the hidden potential that lies within many organizations will change the way many modern organizations will operate.
After being something of a pioneer in its early days with Notes templates such as TeamRoom, IBM ultimately chose to focus its efforts on Connections creating a split between traditional groupware applications and social software. That split still exists today even though in many ways Notes was a pioneer of many of the concepts found in social software. Concepts such as Communities (Team Rooms), Files (Document Libraries), Persistent Chat (Discussion Databases), and Blogs were amongst the earliest applications built in Notes.
I was a late adopter of social. But it has steadily gown to become an integral part within my current company Red Pill Now. We have now employees located in four states within the US and four countries outside the US. Social applications have become an important way for us to stay in touch, share information, and provide feedback. So much so that e-mail is now used exclusively for communication with external companies.
2013: Cloud Computing – Bring Your Own Applications
Cloud is another emerging technology that is beginning to have a profound impact on the application landscape. It is important to application developers for two reasons. First, it is providing a way for software developers to market their services to employees in a way that bypasses the traditional IT purchasing process. All those mobile devices that are now looking to connect to your data usually come with a growing range of applications already installed. The cloud also bypasses the need for on-premise computer infrastructure to support departmental, or enterprise applications. Suddenly a business unit can install and download a cloud-based solution that runs on mobile devices that requires runs entirely in the cloud.
At Red Pill Now we have benefited greatly from the advent of cloud. In the past a company of our size would struggle to cover the cost of computer infrastructure and develop a comprehensive range of software to support its operations. But cloud also is evolving. much of the attention at the moment is on driving down the costs of hosting growing farms or computers and communications required to connect them. We should keep in mind it was the prohibitive costs of acquiring and maintaining this hardware/software that forced most companies to centralize these resources. The cloud now opens the door for business units to once again enter the computing business renting their application needs using SaaS without a compelling need to coordinate through a centralized IT department. I fully expect to see business units to once again get actively involved in selecting and operating their own applications in much the same way they first did when the Personal Computer emerged as a business tool.
Despite having lost significant market share, IBM were able to develop a cloud offering for Notes mail and Connections called SmartCloud. Notes applications however still continue to be left out in the cold due to limitations in the underlying architecture of Notes that presents significant challenges to running traditional Notes/Domino applications in a multi-tenant environment.
2017: The Internet Of Things – Connect Your Own Devices/Applications
While I have been hearing a lot about The Internet of Things for quite a while now it has only been recently that I have begun to understand its potential impact on the way we build applications. It has helped having a new home in Southern California and figuring out all the amazing things I can do to control the devices in my home. The need to connect a large number of devices and applications to each other posses some unique challenges. Unlike previous technologies it is unlikely we can ever expect that the world will settle around a single set of proprietary protocols to connect these together. Nor can we ever expect any one manufacturer to dominate the market to the extent that they can impose their own standards. I consider myself lucky that all of my family are happy to have Apple mobile devices, but I very much doubt all our lights, appliances, TVs, sound systems and cars are going to integrate with the one IoT hub. In fact, one of the unique characteristics of IoT is that a large number of small niche players are able to emerge into the market and provide solutions to a global market. Previous technologies such as personal computers, mobile, social, and cloud have all consolidated around a relatively small number of large players. What we are starting to see is a new way in which both devices and applications are connected. A new breed of software, the connector, is emerging that seeks to act as the glue for connecting devices and applications. This category includes products like IFTT, Zapier, CloudPipes, and Microsoft Flow. They provide the freedom for you to chose among a wide range of solutions without locking in to a single proprietary stack. This provides a challenge for companies such as MicroSoft and Apple who have long benefited from locking their customers into their stack.
What is also interesting is that the IoT has the potential to breathe new life into aging application platforms such as IBM Notes. Modern capabilities can be added to Notes data, not by enhancing the existing applications, but rather by making them available as part of the Internet of Things so they can be connected to a wide range of other devices, applications, and services. The Domino server seems well placed to take advantage of the IoT architecture. It boasts a sophisticated event engine, messaging, and a reliable NoSQL database server. By rearchitecting existing applications to support a MicroServices model it is easy to image a world in which Notes applications become integrated into The Internet of Things. Hey Alexa, what are the items requiring my attention? OK Google, approve Nathan’s vacation request. My car’s odometer reading could be sent to my fleet management application once every three months. Document libraries could be synced with Box giving me choice as to where/how I update and store changes to documents. Expenses I pay using ApplePay on a business trip could be uploaded to my travel expense system. A staff transfer entered into my companies HR application could trigger changes to the ACLs of relevant Notes databases. Personal contacts that I enter into Notes could be synced with my companies CRM. The opportunities are endless.
Over the next few years we are likely to see an explosion in the number of devices and applications that can be connected to The Internet of Things and then integrated. Programming is often not a requirement making this yet another technology that will not be driven by IT. Business users will have the same ability to interconnect their applications and devices at work in much the same way as they will do this at home. (IMHO) The winners will be those devices and applications that take the lead in making themselves easily accessible to The Internet of Things.
It is not yet clear if IBM will drive these opportunities for Notes data or if it will fall business partners such Red Pill Now to lead the way. At Red Pill Now we are already well down the path of developing ideas on how we can exploit the work we have been doing to take advantage of this break-through technology. Over the coming weeks and months we will explore in greater details some of the opportunities we see for leveraging Notes data into the Internet of Things.
Note: Red Pill Now is actively looking for Design Partners who have a large investment in Notes/Domino and see opportunities in connecting their applications to The Internet of Things.