Serving up Life in an Online World

Thomas John Watson Sr. was the president of IBM during its years of spectacular growth in the 1920s through the 1950s. It was during this time that he nurtured IBM's innovative management style, which, until recently, kept Big Blue at the top of the global IT league. Fast approaching 400,000 employees worldwide, IBM remains the world's largest IT employer; although, a couple of years ago, Hewlett-Packard overtook it based on total revenue (but not profit).

It was Watson's son, Thomas J. Watson Jr., who took IBM into the "modern-day" computer business after taking the reins in 1956. Previously, the company concentrated on building tabulating machines and cash registers, products that were to later be replaced by mainframes and personal computers. Thomas Watson Sr. was skeptical of the role of these "'new" machines -- still very much in their infancy -- and was reported to have famously said, "There is a world market for maybe five computers." There is considerable debate as to whether he actually say this, but looking at the landscape 65 years on, maybe he had a point.

Of course, history has shown us there was a much larger market for mainframe and personal computers, but had Mr. Watson said that the world could perhaps be run on five servers, then he might not have looked so out-of-touch.

Just look at Google, with its plans for online domination. First search, then online tools and applications that many believe will rival (and eventually replace) Microsoft Office as our main productivity tool. Even the mobile industry isn't safe, with Google's entrance via the Android platform late last year. The company has had an astronomical impact on IT, and, as with IBM in its day, it is blazing a trail with its innovative work and management practices. Suddenly, it seems, everything is moving online, and Google appears to be at the center, much to the concern of others.

Of course, an online world is something of a double-edged sword for users in the developing world. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, rates of personal computer ownership remain low, and many Internet cafes, particularly those in urban areas, thrive as a result. With mobile phones holding immense promise -- but so far failing to deliver an acceptable user experience -- personal computers remain the best option for many hoping to join the IT (and online) revolutions. It is something that hasn't gone unnoticed by organizations like One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), Intel and more recently Dell, which all have low-cost laptop initiatives aimed at these very markets. Intentional or not, many of these low-cost machines, with their relatively low storage and processing capacities, are ripe for this emerging online world, assuming, of course, that people can get online.

For now, computers in Internet cafe are more "public" than "personal," and having access to rich online tools -- such as e-mail, word processors and spreadsheets, and hefty amounts of online storage space -- is a huge plus. Personal computers no longer need to be personal. Multiple people can use them without worrying too much about privacy, where to save data or accessing the data if their first-choice Internet cafe is out of action. Hard as it may be for us to appreciate, these are real issues that many users face around the world on a daily basis.

With the growth of this online world, thin-clients -- "poor man's computers" to some -- are attracting renewed interest. In the days of mainframe computers, desktop machines acted as simple terminals, with little or no storage capacity and hardly any processing power or on-board memory. These 'dumb' terminals simply sucked down and displayed data on demand and sent it back if the user decided it needed changing. Terminals had smallish footprints, were simple, relatively cheap and could not do much if they were not connected to a mainframe. Today, the Internet is the mainframe, and many people find it hard, if not impossible, to work if they lose their connection. With our world increasingly served up online, the need for personal computers to be processor powerhouses with hundreds of gigabytes of storage seems less and less relevant. "Thinner client" machines being targeted at the developing world may well be just as relevant, if not more so. No doubt many of the innovative technologies developed by the likes of OLPC will one day make their way into our very own machines.

Imagining the landscape by the end of the next decade may not be that hard after all. Is it really so unbelievable to think that everything we do could be based on thin-client computing devices, maybe even mobile phones, the thinnest clients of them all? And that all of our digital assets could be held on five solar-powered mega-servers in Mountain View, California, home of Google?

Thomas Watson Sr. could have been a lot closer to the truth than he imagined.

Ken Banks devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world, and has spent the last 15 years working on projects in Africa. Recently, his research resulted in the development of FrontlineSMS, a field communication system designed to empower grassroots non-profit organizations. Ken graduated from Sussex University with honors in Social Anthropology with Development Studies and currently divides his time between Cambridge (UK) and Stanford University in California on a MacArthur Foundation-funded Fellowship. Further details of Ken's wider work are available on his Web site at