I consult, write, and speak on running better technology businesses (tech firms and IT captives) and the things that make it possible: good governance behaviors (activist investing in IT), what matters most (results, not effort), how we organize (restructure from the technologically abstract to the business concrete), how we execute and manage (replacing industrial with professional), how we plan (debunking the myth of control), and how we pay the bills (capital-intensive financing and budgeting in an agile world). I am increasingly interested in robustness over optimization.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023


I recently came across a box of very old technology tucked away in my basement: PDAs, mobile phones, digital cameras and even a couple of old laptops, all over two decades old. It was an interesting find, if slightly disturbing to think this stuff has moved house a couple of times. Before disposing of something, I try to repurpose it if I can. That's hard to do with electronics once they're orphaned by their manufacturers. Still, electronics recycling wasn't as easy to do twenty years ago, so perhaps just as well that I held onto them until long after it was.

In addition to bringing back fond memories, finding this trove got me thinking about about how rapidly mobile computing evolved. In the box from the basement were a couple of PDAs, one each by HP and Compaq; phones by Motorola, Nokia (including a 9210 Communicator) and Ericcson; and a digital video recorder by Canon. The Compaq brand has all but disappeared; the makers of two of the three phones exited the mobile phone business years ago; the Mini-DV technology of the camcorder was obsolete within a few years of its manufacture.

There were also a couple of laptops in the box, one each made by Compaq and Sony. The interesting thing about the laptops is how little the form factor has changed. My first laptop was a Zenith SuperSport 286. The basic design of the laptop computer hasn't changed much since the late 1980s (although mercifully they weigh less than 17 lbs). The Compaq and Sony laptops in that box from the basement are not physically different from the laptops of today: the Sony had a square screen and lots of different ports, where a modern laptop has a rectangular screen and a few USB ports.

The laptop, of course, replaced the luggable computer of the 1970s and early 1980s made by the likes of Osborne and Kaypro and Compaq. The luggable was a statement for the era: what compels a person to haul around disk drives, CPU, keyboard and a small CRT? Maybe it was the free upper-body workout. The laptop was a quantum improvement in mobile computing.

But once that quantum improvement happened, the laptop became decidedly less exciting. As the rate of change of capabilities in the laptop slowed, getting a new laptop became less of an event and more of a pain in the ass. Not to mention that, just like the PDA and phone manufacturers mentioned above, the pioneers and early innovators didn’t survive long enough to reap the full benefits of the space maturing.

And the same phenomenon happened in the PDA/Phone/camera space. The quantum leap was when these converged with the original iPhone. Since then, a new phone has become less and less of an event. Yes, just like laptops, they get incrementally better. Fortunately, migration via cloud makes upgrading less of a pain in the ass.

The transition from exciting to ordinary correlates to the utility value of technology in our lives: in personal productivity, entertainment, and increasingly as the primary (if not only) channel for doing things. There are, of course, several transformative technologies in their nascent stages. Somehow, I don’t think any are spawning the Zenith Data Systems and Compaqs making a future relic that somebody someday will be slightly amused to find in a box in their basement.