It was a cold Thursday afternoon in Malmo, Sweden. I was enjoying the cocktail reception at the Oredev.org conference -- or at least trying to enjoy it -- when social theorist Alexander Bard, the keynote speaker, appeared on the very large television next to me.
I did not attend the keynote session. My goal was to schmooze. Then I heard Bard say, "The Internet is the opposite of what you thought it was. The Internet is about ruining your business."
Suddenly, he had my attention.
The Internet is devouring everything
Rebel in Chief
You can watch Alexander Bard's speech, "The Rebels Come Out Online: What if the Internet is something much bigger than we think?" on this video.
Bard -- a renowned Swedish artist, music producer, and writer -- started by talking about brick-and-mortar travel agencies. Remember those? They acted as the gatekeeper for travel and collected a premium price for it.
Today, we can use Google. Or Kayak. Or Travelocity. Where there used to be thousands of companies, now there are about six. It's a good living if you work at one of those six companies, but those thousands of travel agencies they replaced used to each have a back-office IT operation. Each had a helpdesk, an IT ops team, database administrators, and even, in some cases, programmers.
Now they are gone.
Remember the independent bookstore? Pretty much gone, slayed by one-click ordering from home, complete with free shipping. Waldenbooks, while not independent, was the last big survivor; it died in 2011 with the bankruptcy of Borders.
Netflix killed the video store (Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010); iTunes caused the demise of the music store.
The Internet is eating the world.
In perhaps the most bizarre bid to remain relevant, Amazon risked its own paper book-based business model to stay relevant, and created the Kindle.
So the Internet is swallowing retail. It allows us to immediately consume any media and, at the touch of the fingertips, makes retail companies redundant. But that's just communications media, which are so easily transferable. It can't affect my job, right?
It is not just the Internet
To make predictions about the future, Bard took a step back, and asked about the printing press. In 1420 money, it took about €150,000 (or US$200,000) to produce a book. Once the printing press was invented the price dropped to about 30 cents, which, among other things, meant a large number of copyists, scribes, and monks found themselves suddenly out of a job. Technology certainly has that effect on people.
What's interesting is what happened next: Because books were cheap to make, they became affordable to buy, and literacy became something that was practical and achievable, not something limited to the handful of aristocrats who were running society. Whereas the Middle Ages had made very little technological progress, the printing press suddenly turned society upside down.
Once Bard mentioned this, I started to see connections in our world today. Tablet computers just made personal computing affordable to many; Skype and Google Hangout have made videoconferencing free.
The next 20 years
When I was a youth, a well-advanced 12-year-old had the tools to write a program in BASIC or LOGO. Today, these youngsters can download an open-source tool, write a native iOS application, and upload it to the Apple store. Thanks to remote desktops and computer-based training, anyone can be a network engineer for the price of a few hundred US dollars.
In a future where we can all work from home, all the time, location will be a much smaller career differentiator. At the same time, society's overall general technological skill is increasing. The trend is toward fewer larger companies that need a shrinking number of technologists to support the work.
What can we do?
We could use these tools to create own products (becoming your own company is cheaper now, too) or become so valuable, understand the business so well, that we have more value than the competition.
If you have a third or fourth way, I'd like to hear it.
— Matt Heusser is principal consultant of Excelon Development.