The First Tech Wreck

The pain in my bones from this winter’s chill reminds me that I’ve reached an age at which I can speak about some history firsthand.

Given that ages pass with the speed of thought in today’s technology space, reminiscing isn’t hard to do. The pace of change is always accelerating.

The first tech recession I remember came in the mid-1980s when the PC had already been Time’s Man of the Year. It had become a mass-market item with well-defined submarkets. There were the networking, desktop, and laptop spaces. The last of these was defined best by the TRS-100, a four-pound box whose 24K of memory and internal modem let any reporter create and send copy from the field.

But a feeling of “been there, done that” set in, especially at COMDEX’s miles of aisles. Sales growth actually slowed. The hobbyists who had driven the revolution evolved into white-shirted businessmen.

The problem was that the really neat stuff, such as desktop publishing and the Apple Macintosh, was also elite stuff. Apple was a sole source provider and priced its goods high. The mass market — the IBM PC market — was stuck with green screens and MS-DOS. So the pace of change in the mass market slowed, while behind the scenes the great Kabuki played out over a windowing interface between Microsoft and IBM.

As the pace of change slowed and the excitement seemed to die down familiar patterns set in. Japanese and then Taiwanese manufacturers seemed to figure this stuff out and made major inroads into the market. By the late 1980s the booths of companies such as SANYO and Sharp threatened to overwhelm those of U.S. companies.

The big changes were all under the surface. Microsoft’s programmers were readying Windows 3.0. Michael Dell was perfecting his production-on-order system. The mass-market Windows would create explosive demand for the newest hardware, and Dell’s shorter production cycles would supply that demand best.

Today’s present slowdown reminds me of the mid-1980s except that (as usual now) we’re in fast-forward. The upgrade no one can get isn’t a windowing interface but broadband. As with the Apple Macintosh, broadband is already around in schools and offices. But it’s an elite market and, in fact, a controlled one.

Many stories over the last year have been about bosses or administrators clamping down on the use of the resource. The biggest change happens when people feel totally free and excited about something.

So we’ll wait for mass-market broadband, and for a time we’ll think we have this Internet thing figured out. There will be a ho-hum feeling to conferences and trade shows. There will be a marked slowdown, an increased professionalism, and a belief among giant companies that the ground they build on is stable.

History shows, however, that another earthquake is coming. When broadband comes it won’t be just DSL or cable modems. It will be everywhere, from the palm of your hand to the fiber on your street. It will be a revolution with great fortunes being made and lost in its wake.

Best of all, it’s coming soon. You won’t need to wait for gray hairs to witness it. You can become an Internet old-timer before you’re 30. (Remember modems? Oh, yes, those were the days.)

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