Of course, when IBM first revealed the PC, not many people thought it would change the world. Indeed, the theory known as innovators dilemma looks at how the disc drive industry was disrupted with the changes in computers — at that time 5.25 inch disc drives for PCs were seen as little more as toys, to support ‘the toy’ called a PC. History shows they were wrong — Bill Gates realised his dream of a computer on every desk — the technology cycle had swung to centralised.
The next switch to distributed began with the internet but gained momentum with the cloud. The cloud turned IT from an overhead requiring a large upfront investment and which was hard to change, to a variable cost, easy to change, easy to turn up and down. The cloud was a vital enabler in creating the start-up and agile work practices we know today — the technology cycle swung towards distributed.
The shift was partly created by the Internet of Things — the massive explosion in devices, all with their own processing power. This processing power was often under-utilised. The swing in the technology cycle to edge computing has also been driven by privacy concerns — the ability to store personal data on individuals’ own devices, rather than somewhere in the cloud.
The key shift, though, in the technology cycle towards Edge computing has occurred because of all that spare capacity created for other purposes. The CapEx has been funded. We have already paid for smartphones, wearable tech, sensors, computing power in cars, cranes, and in time in traffic lights, car parks…the list goes on.
In time, the technology cycle may swing again from edge computing — distributive — to centralised. Quantum computers, for example, may never be cheap enough for us all to own one. Many can only operate at minus 273 degrees, hardly technology to sit in our back pocket. Likewise, 5G may help solve the problem of bandwidth.
But the technology cycle never swings to extremes. Mainframes didn’t die in the age of minicomputers, dumb terminals were still used by many organisations even in the heyday of the PC. Just as the technology cycle swinging towards edge computing is unlikely to spell the death of the cloud, the swing back to centralised, supported by 5G and quantum, will not kill edge computing. No matter how fast the internet connection, it will always be constrained by the speed of light. For applications requiring thousands of instructions a second, or processing of data in milliseconds, the proximity between the data, processing and application matters. The Internet of Things revolution is only just beginning, all that CapeEx going into devices is begging for utilisation. Privacy is set to become an ever more important issue and that means processing on the edge.