Friday, April 3, 2015

3 innovations that change how we think

I recently discussed "innovation" with a colleague, and in our discussion we highlighted three innovations that change how many of us approach technology and view the world. I'd like to review them here:

1. Free Software and Open Source Software

Since the computer was first introduced as a business tool, an industry sprang up around the computer to sell new systems and software to go with it. This was proprietary software, a business model where customers could only get improvements to the programs by purchasing new versions from the vendor.

In the early 1980s, Richard Stallman had an idea that software should be free—not free as in “zero cost” but free as in “freedom.” In Stallman’s vision, everyone should have the ability to modify computer programs to add new features or to fix old bugs. Core to this idea was releasing the source code, the instructions that define the behavior of computer software. In 1983, Stallman launched the GNU Project, an effort to produce software that was free for everyone to use, modify, and share. This was the genesis of “Free Software.”

The GNU Project focused on replicating Unix, a specialized operating system. Since Unix was often used in universities and laboratories, both filled with capable programmers who were often equally eager to see new features in the software they used, the GNU Project gained adoption.

While many people used GNU programs, others created new programs that filled other niches. Not everyone agreed with Stallman’s definition of “free as in freedom,” and distributed their programs using a slightly different but similarly free model. In 1998, Eric Raymond coined the term “Open Source Software” to describe any program where the source code was available to end users. But under the Open Source Software model, programs could be sold or shared under conditions that were more flexible for commercial businesses.

Free Software and Open Source Software aren’t technical innovations; they are cultural changes rooted in technology. Through the Open Source Software model, many programmers can work together to improve computer software: fix problems, add new features, and make the program more efficient. This cultural exchange means that programmers can improve software at a pace previously unheard of in the computer industry. Without the innovation of Free Software and Open Source Software, computing might still be stuck in the era of DOS or the mainframe.

Much of our modern technology is built on Free Software and Open Source Software, although we may not realize it. The popular Apache web server supports most popular websites. Google’s Chrome web browser and the Firefox browser are both based on Open Source Software. Windows and Mac OS X use components derived from other Open Source Software programs.

2. Smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices

Mobile phone companies provided phones that incorporated “Personal Digital Assistant” software since the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone that the “smartphone” market became what we recognize today. In 2010, Apple followed up the success of the iPhone with the iPad, a tablet computing device that used the same software and apps as the iPhone. Other smartphones and tablets using the Android operating system also compete in this market.

The mobile device innovation has changed the computing landscape. We see this cultural shift at the University of Minnesota Morris. Two years ago, only a few of our students used iPads or other tablets in the classroom. Today, they are everywhere, and their numbers are growing. My campus estimates about two-thirds of our students use a mobile device to interact with the university. This trend is reflected in other institutions, too. According to a November, 2011 study by research firm Nielsen, two-thirds is typical of mobile device adoption with 18-24 year olds in general.

3. Streaming media

It wasn’t too many years ago that the usual way to watch movies at home was on VHS tape, played in a VCR. The DVD replaced VHS in the mid-1990s. Offering higher quality and greater longevity, the DVD quickly became the de facto standard for buying movies to watch at home, and many of us re-purchased our favorite movies on the new DVD format. The Blu-Ray released some ten years later provided essentially the same experience as the DVD, but in HD resolutions. Again, many consumers invested heavily in Blu-Ray to watch their favorite movies at home.

Today, the industry is shifting away from content based on plastic discs, moving to streaming media. Many of us are already there. Networks now provide sufficient bandwidth to stream high definition content over the Internet. Movie studios are embracing this trend, at least in terms of releasing streaming media ahead of disc-based media. In September 2012, Fox released the movie Prometheus three weeks ahead of DVD and Blu-Ray.

I feel the impact of the streaming media innovation in my personal life. For example, even if I have a movie in my personal DVD or Blu-Ray collection, I often choose to re-watch the movie via streaming media (Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Instant Video) rather than locate the plastic disc from deep in my entertainment center shelves.

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