The Next Big Thing: Blind Faith In U.S. Innovation?

By Larry Dignan Print this article Print

Typically, worries about the United States' future in technology are brushed aside by uttering four words: "The next big thing."

Typically, worries about the United States' future in technology are brushed aside by uttering four words: "The next big thing."

The next big thing will give displaced workers a new career and give them an opportunity to become wealthy if their jobs go abroad. It'll also keep the United States the most productive economy in the world. The next big thing, which can generate almost religious fervor in the U.S., will overcome the impact of whatever jobs are being sent abroad. Remaining executives, managers and staff will be putting their talents to new and better uses.

Sounds great, but if that next big thing is developed offshore will the U.S. benefit?

"The argument is something better will always come along, but that's blind faith to me. It's not clear to me what's next," says Ronil Hira, associate professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

By its definition, the next big thing isn't easy to spot. If you could see it coming it wouldn't be such a big deal. In information technology, it's likely concepts such as utility computing, Web services and wireless sensors tracking everything imaginable are just parts of what'll combine to create the next big thing.

"What is a big thing? A big thing can be constructed of a lot of little things," says Richard Hunter, an analyst at Gartner. "For the Internet, was the browser the killer app, or all the protocols that enabled it years before?"

Indeed, the next big thing may be sitting under our collective noses. Toss utility computing, the automation of technology, the Internet, offshore outsourcing and capitalism into a pot, mix well, and you can expect to see emerge a global supply network, where prices and services are compared worldwide from any executive's screen anywhere.

Picture it as the eBay economy on steroids. Want a C++ programmer in Belgrade? Click. Bucharest? No problem. Some nanotechnology from India? How about some bandwidth from the grid? Sure. All this is possible from your world headquarters—or your home office. From either locale, you could build a company from a dashboard on your desktop. Some elements of this network exist today. Procuring technology globally is commonplace. The difference with the future network will be the human element.

Welcome to the global job market where productivity and efficiency will reign. "The idea of global skills procurement is the next biggest thing," says Forrester analyst Stephanie Moore. "There are more ways to transfer knowledge than ever before."

If all the elements line up, computer languages may become the bridge connecting countries. Hunter says there would be a large cadre of technology resources available in other countries.

Hunter also envisions thumb-sized computers that'll translate any foreign language. "What would that do for the employability of the millions of people now who can't read?" asks Hunter. "Millions of people are effectively shut out of employment not because they're stupid but because they're illiterate. That alone would dramatically change human productivity."

Why is this global supply chain of everything a candidate for next-big-thing status? The seeds are already being planted by businesses, which are sprinting to procure global talent.

"We're willing to find rich veins of brains wherever they are, and that allows me to compete at a lower cost," says Ray Bingham, CEO of Cadence Design Systems.

For this uber-supply chain to fall into place, the Internet will have to be a rock-solid information grid. Beyond that, technology crafters will have to develop simpler ways to automate business processes, so bolting together different companies' applications, languages and ways of doing things are routine. And workers, from Gdansk to Mazatlan, will have to learn new programming and management skills. U.S. programmers may even have to learn foreign languages, for collaborative purposes.

A little more computing horsepower would also help. Gartner is projecting computers running at 40 billion cycles a second (gigahertz) as the norm in 2008. Two to three years later, 96 GHz desktops will be a reality. With horsepower like that, anything is possible.

But all the computing power in the world may not be able to handle the not-so-small issue of standardizing humans and how they do their jobs. Or how this global supply network gets fixed.

"Global provisioning is a great story, but the issue is knowledge transfer," Moore says. "It's great to switch over to Belarus if something goes wrong in India, but will the workers have the same knowledge and do things the same way? It's theoretically possible, but you'll have to be careful when dealing with labor—especially if in a reverse auction format. There are good programmers and bad ones, and you may have no idea what you're getting."

This article was originally published on 2003-09-05
Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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