CSETI, the Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, defines a “Close Encounter of the Fifth kind” as an event that involves direct communication between aliens and humans (a “Close Encounter of the Third kind” would be one in which an animated creature is present). So I think Spielberg misnamed his movie by two whole steps. We most definitely had some direct communication going on there, beginning with the iconic five tone sequence of B flat, C, A flat, (octave lower) A flat, E flat, progressing to the point where the technician announces, “We have a translation interlock on their audio signal – We’re taking over this conversation, … NOW!”, and the computers and the keyboard and the mothership go about their business without any further human involvement.
While it has been a couple of years since we passed the point where more than half of all Web traffic became non-human, mostly search engines, bots and spam, when it comes to the internet as a whole, video and media / gaming still holds sway at 50%+ of the transmitted bits. The peer-to-peer segment (P2P) currently comprises about 20% of the total, largely dominated by file sharing and financial trading, but masked within it is the fastest growing component: machine-to-machine (M2M), expected to grow by more than an order of magnitude within just the next five years. When it comes to the Internet of Things (IOT), the future clearly belongs to the Things.
There is a well-known saying that a stopped clock is right twice a day. I once heard the philosopher of communications Marshall McLuhan described as a clock that was only right once in a hundred years, but when he was right he was dead on (i.e. “The medium is the message” and the “global village” from “Understanding Media” and “The Gutenberg Galaxy” respectively). Ken Olsen, the founder and former CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation would probably fall somewhere in between.
Olsen is today most infamously remembered for his “snake oil” comments regarding UNIX, and, when taken somewhat out of context, his dissing of the personal computer. I worked for Olsen for eight years, and what gets left out of his PC comments was his vision for the future of information – “information as a utility” he called it. Combined with the standardization of Ethernet in the 1980’s, he foresaw people plugging into the wall for information just as they might plug into an electric socket or connect a home to water and gas utilities. Thus the ubiquitous VT220 terminal of the times, the smartest dumb terminal ever made.
Olsen’s vision was spot on, but his timing left a little to be desired. That time is drawing closer, step-by-step, piece-by-piece. We’re seeing components, such as the Cloud, the Web, the IOT and Analytics at the Edge, along with mobile and social technologies, grow, mature, connect and overlap. However, as the author William Gibson noted, “The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed”.
The Cloud is one of those currently unevenly distributed elements. I think the word itself will go out of non-meteorological use within a dozen years or so as information becomes more of a utility and cloud computing becomes a commonplace. Mentioning the Cloud will one day date you just as talk of rotary phones and punch cards (and VT220’s) dates you now.
Four years ago when I started chairing financial conferences for the IE Group, the primary concern when it came to the Cloud was data security. Four years later, CFO’s seem to have become more comfortable with the security issue, and now the reluctance comes from a different quarter. Half of the effort and cost for any large system or process re-engineering initiative occurs on the front-end: the data, documentation, admin and policy and procedure clean-up. You just can’t throw your mess over the wall and into the Cloud and expect it to work, and neither will your Cloud partner accept it. What I hear from these same CFO's today is that once they’ve cleaned up their act, they rather like what they see, and then proceed by keeping the back-end of the project in-house.
But in this uneven world in which we find ourselves, I think it’s going to be the security issue that actually drives businesses to deploy more rapidly to the Cloud. The Cloud providers, of course, will all insist that since it’s your data, the data security liability is yours and yours alone, but wouldn’t you rather be behind a firewall that has TEAMS of cyber-security professionals separately dedicated to the primary security threats, experienced cyber-security teams dedicated to threats emanating from China, Russia, India or even the U.S. (“Top Ten Hacking Countries”). With cyber threats becoming both more numerous and more complex all the time, it’s already tough enough for most firms to fill key data security roles, let alone compete with Google, Amazon, Microsoft and the NSA for the top talent.
Before information truly becomes a utility there are still some business and content creation models to be worked through, conflicting standards to be ironed out, and turf wars over gate-keeping and rent-seeking to be fought, but it does not appear that technology will be a barrier. Brian Arthur’s “digital economy” is already here (“The Second Economy”) with the advent of large, non-financial but also non-product enterprises such as Facebook and Google. Arthur’s digital economy continues to build out its nervous system, with the Things of the Internet not just talking to each other, but learning as they go (“Machine Learning”) – they are taking over this conversation, and they don’t care whether it’s cloudy or not.