The Mercury News Weekend
Paradigm shifts of yesteryear, today and beyond
It doesn't happen often, but every once in a while there's a major technology paradigm shift with new products or services that vastly change the landscape or empower us to do things we couldn't do before. These paradigm shifts can also change how the tech affects our lives for better and worse and sometimes elicits both positive and negative attention from the public, the media and policy makers.
As someone who's been following technology developments since the 1970's I've seen them all, but whether something is truly a paradigm shift isn't always obvious until years later.
Macintosh and Windows
I'll start the clock in the late 1970s when personal computers were introduced. At first, very few people took them seriously, but by the time IBM entered the market in 1981, they were starting to reach critical mass. Offices
were starting to use them for word processing, database management and other important tasks. Some families bought PCs for things like keeping track of finances or for their kids to do homework. At that point computers displayed mostly text on the screen, but in 1984, Apple introduced the Macintosh, which represented the beginning of a paradigm shift. The Mac was not only easy to use, but its “What you see is what you get,” or WYSIWYG interface, made it a lot easier to create visually appealing documents with integrated text and graphics. A year later, Microsoft introduced Windows, which further reinforced that paradigm shift, though it took several years before PCs with
WYSIWYG interface became mainstream.
Other than that, there hasn't been much of a major paradigm shift in PCs unless you count laptops which are basically just portable PCs.
AOL and broadband
Although PCs were able to connect to online services like Compuserve as
far back as the late 70s, they were mostly niche products until the mid-90s when AOL started sending floppy disks to practically everyone in America, prompting millions of people to go online. That was cemented in 1994 with the introduction of Netscape, the first popular web browser.
The next paradigm shift happened mostly in the early 2000's when broadband began to take off. Before broadband, people “went online” by connecting their PC to a modem and dialing in. Broadband was not only much faster, but it was always connected, making the internet more integrated into our lives.
Cell phones, Blackberry and iPhone
Car phones had been around for decades but were rare and very expensive to own and use until the cell phone networks began to emerge in the early '80s. But it was handheld cell phones later in that decade that made cellular into a paradigm shift in the way many people communicated. But, until the Blackberry came out in 1999, cell phones were mostly just wireless portable telephones.
The Blackberry was a paradigm shift because it moved cell phones into the realm of handheld PCs with the ability to send and receive email as well as organize and share information. But the big paradigm shift came in 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone.
And even that wasn't a major paradigm shift until 2008 when Apple introduced the app store and the eco-system of third-party apps. The app-enabled iPhone, followed shortly by Google's acquisition of Android and its app store, had a huge impact on many aspects of our lives, putting enormous computing power into the palm of our hands.
It was a major paradigm shift. In some ways, smartphones have become portable terminals, remotely connected to very powerful computers and networks.
Today's AI and extended reality
Fast forwarding to today, voice enabled smart devices, like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, probably qualify as paradigm shifts along with cars that are on the verge of being able to drive themselves, but it's a bit too early to know for sure.
There are two major paradigm shifts that could be on the horizon. We don't yet know if they're paradigm shifts, but both extended reality, including virtual (VR) and augmented reality headsets and glasses, and artificial intelligence (AI) might have a huge impact.
I'm very bullish on AI, especially after experimenting with ChatGPT, which is able to write essays, poems and semifactual articles based on queries from users. I say semi-factual, because while the natural language engine gets a lot things right, it also makes mistakes. But based on the early prototype that I've played with, it's extremely promising and is only going to get better. It is capable of disrupting things, including my cherished profession. I'm not worried about being put out of work in the next few years, but it is clearly capable of writing some types of fact-based articles. Right now, its applications are limited, but it could have a major impact on all aspects of knowledge seeking, reporting and writing as it gets better, faster and more reliable. And that will happen, especially now that Microsoft and Google are among the many companies putting substantial resources into this type of technology
I'm also bullish on extended reality but not somuch on the bulky virtual reality headsets that exist today. I'm looking forward to affordable and powerful smart glasses that will be like smartphones that you wear. There are a few prototypes out there now, but the devices are still pretty primitive. But the day will come when information isn't just at our fingertips but, literally, in our face as we go about our lives.