High-tech products are everywhere in the modern age, and "intelligent" machines seem to be getting smarter every day. Scientists and researchers are working together to create more user-friendly computers and software applications that work more like the human brain. Two decades after the birth of the personal computer, no one knows for sure just what role it will play in our everyday lives in the years to come. But one thing's certain: There's never been a better time to launch or expand an innovative computer-related business, because computers have never before been as appealing to customers and small-business owners as they are today.
"Entrepreneurship is the whole key to the future of computer-related businesses," explains Arnold Brown, chairman of Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., a New York City-based firm composed of trend analysts who research business futures and help organizations manage change. "In the coming years, everything's going to be computer-based, so the idea of talking about businesses being computer-based is like talking about businesses today having people working for them. Everybody's going to be using computers, so we'll see many more people jumping into the entrepreneurial arena, carving out a niche for themselves."
Brown believes that the future is bright for computer-related ventures, especially because computers have become more powerful and more attractive to all sorts of people. "There are a lot of reasons that people are embracing computers today. The main one is that the computer is a tool, and all tools are leverage," he says. "Whereas all previous tools have leveraged human muscle, the computer is the first tool that leverages the human brain. That means it amplifies or substitutes for human thinking. So now we have something that can make our brains more effective, or that can do the work our brains don't necessarily want to do. I think this is the number-one aspect that makes the computer revolutionary. It's the equivalent of the gun, or the wheel, or the plow, or any other great invention that has transformed the world."
Jennifer Jarratt, vice president of Coates & Jarratt Inc., a Washington, DC-based firm that specializes in researching and predicting what the future will be like, is equally impressed with the potential of modern computers to transform the world as we know it. "Information technology is one of the key enabling technologies of the future, so it crops up in everything and is having a profound effect in many different fields," she says. "Still, computers are not yet that attractive to everyone, because they have not yet come close to achieving their full potential. Helping them to do so is what will make the coming decades so exciting--and so profitable--for cutting-edge entrepreneurs."
According to Jarratt, computers are engineer-designed tools that only engineers, rather than regular people, are able to use to their fullest potential. "People probably thought that the computer would be an easy path to giving each individual enormous power, but it hasn't really worked out that way," she says. "It's given us many tools that are quite attractive, but in itself, it's not yet a very easy machine to manage."
Jarratt believes that the introduction of any new technology proceeds gradually through a series of three stages: substitution, adaptation and revolution. So far, she feels that computers are stuck in the second stage, and that the big opportunity for entrepreneurs will come as computers enter the third, revolutionary stage, which can happen any day.
"Technology, when it comes into being, goes through several stages, with the first one being substitution. For example, if you have a manual typewriter and electric ones become available, you trade your old device in for the new technology because you think it can do the task quicker or cheaper, or at least that the increased productivity will make the extra cost of the new technology worthwhile. In this stage, people buy new technology to substitute for older tools," Jarratt explains. "The same is true for the computer. It replaced a whole lot of tools, yet it's a lot more expensive than almost all of them. In the substitution stage, people basically do the same things that they did before, only they take advantage of the new capabilities of a new tool to do them faster, and perhaps better.
"In stage two, people begin to do some new things with the new technology that they didn't do before, things that the capabilities of the new technology make possible. With computers, that's where software comes into play, because the software then begins to give people the opportunity to expand the use of the new tool that they've got. So, for example, a computer spreadsheet program enables people who have no mathematical ability to do complex mathematical calculations, or a simple accounting program enables people who never before could balance their checkbooks to actually do so.
"And then, in the third stage," Jarratt concludes, "people basically throw out everything they did before and start to rearrange not only the task they're doing but also the entire process that it stems from. This is the point at which you get the revolutionary change, after people have explored the possibilities and have begun to really apply the capabilities to the work that they do. The problem with computers is that, because they're so complex, it's taking us quite a long time to work through all of their possibilities. There are many places where they're still being used as just improved electric typewriters; we're not yet at the stage where a person's job is being completely rethought based on the use of the computer. But I would say we're right on the brink of getting to this exciting third stage. In the coming years, we'll see many pioneers forging ahead and being very creative in their development of computers and computer-related businesses."
Brown agrees with Jarratt's assessment. "The key to entrepreneurial success in the coming years is not simply going to be establishing a business centered around a computer in some way," he says. "The real key will involve figuring out how to use that computer to benefit the customer, so that the customer sees it as an advantage to his or her life. Take, for example, the failure of computers at the supermarket. All of the big supermarkets now have computers. Their check-out lines are all computerized. But the fact is that if you stand in one of those check-out lines today, you don't get out of that line any faster than you did 10 years ago. That's because the computers exist in those stores for the benefit of the stores themselves, not for the benefit of their customers. Always remember that the customer is key. It's not the computer itself that will determine the success of a business in the future, but how creative individuals use the computer to establish positive relationships and meet the needs of customers and clients."
Futurists and industry experts predict that computers will be everywhere in the not-too-distant world of tomorrow--in our workplaces, our homes, our schools, and perhaps even in our briefcases or pockets. Already, computers are helping individuals to analyze complex data, offer predictions, discover trends and trouble spots, and present viable business and personal options. Soon, all of a home's audio-video devices, telephones, intercoms, security monitors, lighting fixtures, and heating and cooling devices will be linked to centralized, computer-controlled automation systems. Visionary scientists foresee a future filled with general-purpose, computer-controlled devices for the home that will do everything from preparing meals to weeding the garden. Artificial-intelligence researchers and roboticists are getting closer to perfecting robots and other smart machines that have "bodies" and that experience the world directly, just as humans do. And many of the early pioneers in the computer field agree that the prospects for entrepreneurial success in computer-related businesses have never before been this great.
"Today's computers are a tremendous development. They're creeping into every facet of our lives, and they're capable of helping people do more incredible things than have yet even been imagined," says Ken Becket, who has remained on the cutting edge of computerized electronic publishing since its inception. In the early 1980s, with $1.5 million in backing from an investment capitalist, Becket and a partner launched a desktop-publishing venture about five years before anyone had even heard of desktop publishing. Becket has spent much of the current decade teaching electronic-publishing fundamentals to junior high and high school students in California and Oregon, and he recently accepted a position heading up a new educational marketing program for a computer company based in Portland, Oregon.
Still, Becket believes that today's computers offer even greater prospects for small-business success than did those that were around when he was first starting out in the field. "The power of the modern computer offers people with a distinctive concept or a unique idea for launching a new business a vast array of tools that puts them on a par with large corporations, which means they can now successfully compete with the big guys," he says. "In this sense, the computer of the late 1990s has become the great equalizer."
Steve Epner, founder of the Independent Computer Consultants Association (ICCA) in St. Louis, shares Becket's optimism. "I started out doing computer programming and system design in 1976, the same year I launched ICCA, and back then there were no such things as personal computers. There were no terminals. Everything was done on punch cards. The computer world has certainly come a long way in the past two decades," Epner says. "The good news is that, because of the technological advancements, as the young people in America today graduate school and enter the workplace, they are going to demand the technological tools that they've grown accustomed to using in their schools. The result is that there will be plenty of work available trying to make all of the resulting system and requirement changes occur. Since there will not be enough in-house staff to make it all happen, most organizations are going to turn to people on the outside, which means the demand for qualified computer consultants, technicians and trainers will soar."
Epner believes that another big appeal of computers to budding entrepreneurs is their relatively newfound portability, which enables many computer-related workers to telecommute to work. Telecommuting is an electronic mode of doing work outside the traditional workplace, such as through a computer terminal linked by modem to a small office in your home. "The advent of the `virtual employee' has made computer-related employment even more attractive," Epner says, "because now many people can establish themselves as consultants, live in the mountains or on the beach, and just telecommute to wherever they need to be."
Jarratt agrees: "Miniaturization and portability certainly improve the attractiveness, because it means that people can have their office with them--they can take their work anywhere they'd like. This means that, more and more, people will begin to blur the lines between when they're working and when they're not, and they'll more frequently take their work on the road or to other places they find more appealing for work."
Nevertheless, despite all of their positive attributes, computers do come with at least one very important drawback: They can at times render human workers obsolete. "One of the biggest drawbacks we're seeing currently," cautions Brown, "is that we're reaching a point where it's cheaper to use computers than it is to use people, and wherever machines become cheaper than people, they ultimately replace people."
However, last year, in an article entitled "92 Ways Our Lives Will Change By the Year 2025" for his organization's bimonthly magazine, The Futurist, World Future Society president Edward Cornish addressed this concern when he wrote, "Often, infotech does not totally eliminate the need for humans but greatly reduces it," also acknowledging that the computer age will place a high premium on entrepreneurship, which translates into unprecedented opportunity for those individuals with state-of-the-art skills and dashes of creativity and motivation.
"A fast-changing society poses major dangers for people who have difficulty adjusting to new situations," Cornish explained, "but it is a wonderland for entrepreneurs--those imaginative and energetic self-starters who can recognize emerging needs and create ways to fill them." In other words, what are you waiting for? Your entrepreneurial wonderland awaits.
Steve Epner, BSW Consulting Inc., 1050 N. Lindbergh, St. Louis, MO 63132, (314) 991-8505.
Coates & Jarratt Inc., 3738 Kanawha St. N.W., Washington, DC 20015, (202) 966-9307.
Ken Becket, Enterprise Marketing, 15455 N.W. Greenbrier Pkwy., #240, Beaverton, OR 97006, (503) 629-8585.
Weiner, Edrich, Brown Inc., 200 E. 33rd St., #9I, New York, NY 10016.