Disruptive Ideas

ClearPath Forward3 minutes readSep 6th, 2012

A recent success story published by Unisys is about connecting a ClearPath-resident application to mobile users. It’s one of a number of cases where the ClearPath ePortal has been used to provide access to applications from devices such as smart phones and tablets. Mobile employees like the sales force can better serve their clients and hence their employers by having access to up-to-date data in real time. And customers have much greater flexibility if they can access services such as checking balances and paying bills from mobile devices.

Allowing access to systems at any time and from anywhere, and from a variety of user devices, is recognised as a disruptive trend in IT, labelled consumerisation. Disruptive trends – intelligent analytics is another – open up new ways of doing business. Those who cannot respond will fall behind the market.

Reading the success story got me thinking about the origins of disruptive trends. I don’t believe they just spring up out of nowhere but rather are the result of earlier ideas which have taken time to mature. But how far back should we look? Are there some truly original ideas which provide the source of the trend? I thought it would be entertaining to look at two ideas which could be considered the source of the consumerisation trend.

Consumerisation requires two things: instant communication at a distance over a network and powerful but affordable devices at each end. Let’s look at each.

Communication at a distance has been a goal for millennia. Runners, smoke signals, chains of beacons and other techniques tried to reduce the time to communicate. Mechanical telegraphs took a more systemic approach – old telegraph towers can still be found in various parts of Europe. But none enabled rapid communication over long distances.

The seminal idea was the electric telegraph. For the first time the essentials of e-business were in place: more or less instant communication to exchange information and execute transactions. Since then, progress has been increasingly rapid: telephones and data communications followed, finally developing into today’s high performance global digital networks and the Internet.

If electric telegraphy was driven by highly practical goals the other key idea was not. It arose out of a puzzling scientific discovery right at the beginning of the 20th century. Scientists were studying black body radiation, which is emitted from a black object or small hole in the wall of a furnace. Observations of the energy of the radiation as the temperature rose could not be explained by the laws of physics as understood at the time. What was the explanation?

In 1900, Max Planck advanced a revolutionary idea: energy comes in little packets, which he called quanta. And so was born quantum theory. Einstein, Bohr and others found immediate uses and a comprehensive mathematical framework – quantum mechanics – was quickly developed.

Although the theory was advanced to answer scientific questions and not with any application in mind its practical effects have been astonishing. It has been estimated that about 30% of the US economy is a result of the discovery. In particular it led to semi-conductors, creating the basis for the entire micro-electronics industry.

Without these developments, the computer and networking industries would be shadows of what they are today. There would be no Internet, no modern servers such as ClearPath systems and the ClearPath ePortal to host applications and no mobile devices for users to access them. Take a look at an old vacuum tube computer and try putting that in your pocket!

And of course there would be no blogs!