What does the future hold? Those who are fortunate or lucky enough to anticipate major social, economic or technical changes will generally be more successful than those who do not, though sometimes luck plays a role. The factors leading to change are manifold, and I am no expert in either economic theory or social dynamics. That leaves technology, and I am perhaps foolhardy enough to hazard a few guesses about what the future may hold.
Foolhardy, foolishly rash, unwisely bold, those are all operative, for the Brownian motion of component technology changes that together enable new products is complex indeed. It does not take a rocket scientist, though I was once a member of a rocket simulation team, to extrapolate the continued proliferation of mobile and embedded devices, the rapid growth of "big data," and the seemingly insatiable demand for more wired and wireless broadband capability. Beyond devices, big data and broadband, lie the challenges and opportunities posed by the Internet of Things, the dark silicon challenges beyond Dennard scaling, the rise of post-GUI natural user interfaces and a shift from explicit to implicit computing.
Dennis Gannon, Jim Larus and I speculated about all of these topics in the January 2012 issue of IEEE Computer in the cover article entitled, Imagining the Future: Thoughts on Computing. We also discussed the social and policy implications of new technologies, including the nature of privacy and security in a sensor-rich, big data world, the need for new approaches to adaptive spectrum allocation that respond more quickly to shifting demand, and social and technical expectations for new computing curricula.
All of us who are or have been researchers know that creating new technologies is exciting and fulfilling. Combining technologies to create viable products within a shifting policy landscape is a challenge of a different sort. When thinking about product and process failures, all of us would do well to recall Richard Feynman's telling denouement of human folly when serving on the review commission following the space shuttle Challenger's explosion, "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Marketing does not make successful products, at least not for long. Instead, they must have real and intrinsic value to the users, and they must operate reliably as advertised. Predicting user value is, of course, far more difficult than it superficially seems, else venture capitalists would have higher success rates, and major corporations would not be foundering on the rocks of technological change.
Nor is past or present success a guarantee of future profitability. Shot any Polaroids lately? Written any VAX assembly code this month for anything other than legacy systems? Still driving your Rambler to work? All three products were icons of the 1960s and 1970s, yet their parent companies are no more.
There are many reasons why initial success becomes the father of later failure. Sometimes designers cling too long to old technology, sometimes companies make ill-advised leaps to new and untried technology, and sometimes leaders cling to old business models when change is essential to survival.
As William Gibson famously noted, "The future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed." Though both pithy and true, it is hardly a guide to navigating the implied temporal mixing of present and future. Instead, I take more comfort from Søren Kierkegaard, "Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backwards."