Stuart Feldman could easily be mistaken for a technology pessimist, disillusioned after more than 25 years in the business of bits and bytes. As a veteran software architect, the director of IBM’s Institute for Advanced Commerce views programming as all about suffering — from ever-increasing complexity. Writing code, he explains, is like writing poetry: every word, each placement counts. Except that software is harder, because digital poems can have millions of lines which are all somehow interconnected. Try fixing programming errors, known as bugs, and you often introduce new ones. So far, he laments, nobody has found a silver bullet to kill the beast of complexity.
But give Mr Feldman a felt pen and a whiteboard, and he takes you on a journey into the future of software. Revealing his background as an astronomer, he draws something hugely complex that looks rather like a galaxy. His dots and circles represent a virtual economy of what are known as web services — anything and everything that processes information. In this “cloud”, as he calls it, web services find one another automatically, negotiate and link up, creating all kinds of offerings.
Imagine, says the man from IBM, that you are running on empty and want to know the cheapest open petrol station within a mile. You speak into your cellphone, and seconds later you get the answer on the display. This sounds simple, but it requires a combination of a multitude of electronic services, including a voice-recognition and natural-language service to figure out what you want, a location service to find the open petrol stations near you and a comparison-shopping service to pick the cheapest one.
But the biggest impact of these new web services, explains Mr Feldman, will be on business. Picture yourself as the product manager of a new hand-held computer whose design team has just sent him the electronic blueprint for the device. You go to your personalised web portal and order the components, book manufacturing capacity and arrange for distribution. With the click of a mouse, you create an instant supply chain that, once the job is done, will dissolve again.
Visions, Visions Everywhere
All this may sound like a description of “slideware” — those glowing overhead presentations given by software salesmen that rarely deliver what they seem to promise. Yet IBM is not the only one with an ambitious vision. Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun and a raft of start-ups are thinking along the same lines. Unless they have all got it wrong, companies, consumers and computers will one day be able to choose exactly what they want from a huge cloud of electronic offerings, via the Internet.
The reality will take a while to catch up; indeed, it may turn out to be quite different from today’s vision. But there is no doubt that something big is happening in the computer industry — as big as the rise of the PC in the 1980s that turned hardware into a commodity and put software squarely at the centre of the industry. Now it looks as though software will have to cede its throne to services delivered online.