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Teching Order

Somebody just told me there wasn't any Internet in 1977...and no productivity software suites...and no voice mail...e-mail...cell phones...bar codes--how did entrepreneurs compete with big business before technology leveled the playing field?
May 1, 2002
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/51062

To understand where technology is today and find out where it's going in the future, we have to first listen to Barbra Streisand and look at "the way we were." Flash back to 1977: Fax machines and land-line phones were the cutting edge of business hardware. The Apple II computer was introduced the month before the launch of this magazine. With 64K of memory and a 1 MHz processor, it heralded the beginning of the PC era. Kay Kienast, Internet veteran and vice president of marketing with advanced networking start-up Solid Technologies, remembers it well: "People thought 'This will never last.'"

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The road from the Apple II to today's Internet-cruising, flat-screen 2 GHz business PC is paved with innovations and milestones. In 1981, with Apple and Tandy ruling the market, IBM released the 5150 PC, which sported a 4.77 MHz Intel processor. Mike Ravagnani, director of technology consulting firm Revolution Software in Worthington, Ohio, says, "The first IBM PC really made businesses sit up and listen. Before that, it was all kids' toys and research." Then came Microsoft, and the revolution was really moving.

Add the Web to this recipe in 1990. Shake well for 12 years, and look at the ways technology has changed what it means and what it takes to be an entrepreneur. The idea of launching a competitive virtual global business from a spare bedroom would have sounded like an H.G. Wells story 25 years ago. But it's possible today.

Wireless technology started a hundred years ago when Guglielmo Marconi transmitted a signal across the Atlantic. We've made a few advances since then. Experts point to wireless as one of the biggest tech stories for the next 25 years, and the onward march of technology is unsentimental. We'll watch pagers fall like floppy disks by the wayside, as mobile phones rule and wireless LANs become some of the hottest hardware around.

Add wired technology to the endangered list, and expect all devices to be completely wireless down the line. The Handspring Treo mobile phone/PDA combination is a prototype for wireless devices in the future: small, capable and multifunctional. But security issues will continue to haunt wireless and other technologies. On the positive side, Ravagnani notes that biometrics and security research are shaping up as high-growth areas for entrepreneurs.

·Technology:First it leveled the playing field. Where's it headed now?
·Money: Capital was scarce 25 years ago. Here's its state today.
·Management: Trends are multiplying fast. What will stand the test of time?
·Marketing: Technology and personalization will rule this arena.
·Franchising: Get ready . . . the golden age of franchising is upon us.

25 Years of Entrepreneur: A timeline of the forces that have shaped entrepreneurship through the years

The Fate of PCs & ASPs

What about the fate of our desktop companion, the PC? What goes around, comes around. "We started out with a completely centralized hosting model in the mainframe," says Ravagnani. "Essentially, over the past 25 years, we've been getting back to that model." The "computer as an island" concept is disappearing with the growth of fast and easy wireless networking. Ravagnani anticipates interchangeable generic hardware devices will be used to access data and applications from a central source. Employees will just grab a device from the pool.

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The way Kienast sees things, many businesses won't even need an office. If you think you and your mobile phone are inseparable now, wait until you're videoconferencing from the comfort of your completely wireless office in your networked home. For service businesses, employees could be based anywhere and still be seamlessly connected to you and each other. The need for business travel will decline dramatically.

We all know it's high time to put more emphasis on the "user" part of "user interface." Your keyboard and mouse will be replaced by much more natural and comfortable audio and visual interactions. Move your eyes, and sensors will track where you're looking and follow along, for example. Today's speech-recognition software only hints at the possibilities. Look at projects like IBM's BlueEyes for the latest advancements in redefined user interfaces.

They may not be as glamorous as jet packs or microchip-embedded clothing, but ASPs are the true wave of the future. Everything from customer relationship management software to accounting and data storage will move to the Net. "In the future, small companies will have access to everything they need [from] service providers," Kienast says.

Looking ahead, one intriguing technology possibility is too tempting to not mention. Wearable PCs are already here if you don't mind looking like a Borg. But companies like Xybernaut have grander plans, including smaller designs, lower costs and access to fully functional PC software. Given enough development time, they'll be a practical portable alternative.

THE TECH SET

Hop on one of the hottest innovations of the last 25 years and use the Web as your own personal time machine. These sites will take you back to the past-and send you forward into the future of technology:

Apple-History.com: Everybody's favorite fruity computer gets the "This Is Your Life" treatment at this expansive Web site. Follow the timeline or read up on a model-by-model basis.
Computer History Museum: Exactly what its name suggests. Start here to get a solid grip on the ghosts of computing past.
Intel's Future of Technology: Get a glimpse of 20 GHz processors, light-field mapping and other future technologies courtesy of Intel.
Institute for the Future: Visit the Emerging Technologies section of this site for an overview of the institute's forward-looking research.
Segway: Home of the Segway Human Transporter. You may well be buzzing to work on one of these cutting-edge scooters within the next 10 years.

The Future Is in Your Hands

We can talk about the future of technology until we're blue in the monitor, but actually doing something about it is even more important. "The best thing small businesses can do now is leverage the hosted technologies that they're starting to see," Ravagnani advises. "It gets them ready to take advantage of the global network we're going to have in the future because they'll already have their data centrally located."

You don't have to wait around for cutting-edge technology to develop. Hooking up with service providers and implementing wireless technologies are two things you can do today. Streamline your business and reduce your ownership costs while preparing for the next wave of innovation. We guarantee business technology 25 years from now will look as different as a Palm VII would have in 1977. But don't worry. As Kienast says, "We're all going to like it."

FLASHBACK: 1982

When Entrepreneur interviewed a 12-year-old computer whiz kid about the future of computers in 1982, one of the questions asked was what the ultimate computer would do. The kid replied, "Transfer information like the mail system, and the post office would become extinct. Just stay home and talk to the computers, and the teacher would be at home and give you all the problems from her house. Do your grocery shopping, keep your financing and pay your bills." Remember, this is pre-Bill Gates and pre-Web.

Now 20 years later, we caught up with our young whiz kid, now-32-year-old Mark Waldenstrom. With an information systems degree under his belt, he's working as a project manager for Libertyville, Illinois, Allscripts Healthcare Solutions, an application development company. We asked him how computers have changed since we last spoke. "They've been demystified. You look back 20 years ago, and they were these things that everyone sort of feared and never saw being intertwined in our lives as much as they are now."

He's not programming space games like he predicted when he was 12, but Waldenstrom does sometimes put 10 hours per day into Intel systems, servers and large databases. He foresees a healthy future for computers and software refining the way we work in business and industry. But with a 1-year-old son of his own, his perspective has also changed: "The important things are no longer plugged into the wall."

One statement the young Waldenstrom made still stands strong today: "A computer is only as good as the person who inputs."

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