Computing Opportunities Challenge Visionaries

February 2000
By Lt. Gen. C. Norman Wood, USAF (Ret.)

Never before has the potential for significant sociological change resided so strongly—and so clearly—in the hands of technologists. Computers already are redefining virtually every aspect of human existence. The onset of the year 2000, along with Y2K computer bug concerns, caused many users to reflect on the importance of these information machines in their lives. In addition to streamlining many duties and opening up new applications, the ongoing evolution of computers also is changing the way that businesses, governments and their militaries interact with the people they serve.

Now, roughly 20 years into the personal computer era, the information society stands at a crossroads. Individual computing is giving way to network access as diverse segments of users are linked together. Yet, the importance of personal devices is increasing as application-specific platforms begin to predominate in the market. A confluence of these two trends is looming with the advent of anywhere, anytime wireless network connectivity. Individuals will surround themselves with application-specific devices that communicate with one another through local and wide area networks that ultimately will link with the Internet or its successor.

Society’s major sectors have fully embraced the computer revolution. Government is well on the path to incorporating information systems to improve its service to the citizen. Agencies are tapping the commercial sector for systems to streamline procedures and improve information access. These technologies offer the luxury of both extensive market testing and public familiarity.

Businesses and the military, however, face computerization criteria dissimilar from those of their civil government counterparts. For vastly different reasons, the needs of these two sectors are time-sensitive. The military must be able to incorporate leading-edge technologies into innovative applications to ensure continued battlespace supremacy. The commercial sector is pressured by global business competition impelling its companies to maintain technological currency or go the way of the Pony Express. So, planners in both arenas must recognize emerging trends, avoid technological dead ends and speed new technologies into their operational environments.

Recent history illustrates how the headlong rush into the information age is not without peril. Businesses in the early 1980s were the first to discover the pitfalls of computerization without proper planning. Many firms rapidly committed large expenditures on hardware that ran proprietary software. Most of these systems quickly became obsolete or faded into market obscurity—in some cases, dooming the manufacturer as well and leaving the customer without any viable product support.

Now, however, most of these issues have been laid to rest. Computer systems are designed for upgrades, software is generated for a host of platforms, and the survivability of major hardware manufacturers no longer is in doubt. Instead, one of the key issues facing information system planners revolves around applications. Determining the computing technologies that users will embrace is the $64 billion question.

Some trends already are becoming apparent. Personal handheld devices represent the breaking up of the versatile desktop machine into application-specific units. Far from Balkanizing the industry, however, the proliferation of different types of devices will produce a computing environment that is greater than the sum of its parts. Networking capabilities will connect individual personal communication units with the Internet, office local area networks, regional traffic information centers, and commercial retail and service providers. Household systems ranging from heating and cooling to individual kitchen appliances all will be linked in a semiautonomous network that can be accessed remotely by the homeowner. Absence no longer will be an impediment to action.

The view beyond this scenario is considerably hazy, however. In its 50th anniversary commemorative issue of September 1996, SIGNAL collected predictions for the next 50 years from the top military and business leaders of AFCEA’s sustaining sponsors. Some of these predictions, such as the everyday use of 500-megahertz computer processors, already have come to pass in just over three years. Other forecasts, such as ubiquitous Internet protocol and multimedia networking, loom on the near horizon. One of these predictions, from Maj. Gen. John T. Stihl, USAF (Ret.), certainly sums up the current outlook for our computing future: “We all need to be prepared for the ever-accelerating rate of change and its impact on our lives … but the real question for all of us to ponder is how to use technology to better our culture and improve our civilization.”

Computers are to modern society what fire was to cave dwellers. While both tools are capable of positive or negative outcomes, their ultimate potential for sweeping change is beyond the imagination of even the best prognosticators of their times. For the government, the technology offers better service to, and access by, the public. For business, computers and Internet e-commerce are rewriting the rules of competition. For the military, information systems reduce the risk to personnel and materiel. And, for the individual user, the capability of global instant information transportation promises to change society.

Much of how these measures come to pass is in our hands—the information system professionals. It is no small tasking, but it represents an opportunity unparalleled in human endeavors. And, it is ours for the taking. As we chart an unknown course into the future, we must act wisely to fulfill this destiny. Plans formulated now, from the smallest semiconductor to the largest network, will have profound effects on the military, commercial, and geopolitical arenas for decades to come.