It's the end of the world as we know it, and we should feel fine

Honour thine ancestors, and move on


Column The death of Sir Clive Sinclair at the end of last week has seen an outburst of nostalgia. Understandably so.

His glory days at the start of the 1980s marked the beginning of the digital revolution. He'd already put the first affordable calculators into pockets, and his computers were often the first in many households. They set countless young geeks on their way to becoming the backbone of the tech industry, and gave many more the first dab of gaming addiction.

Since then, we've had nothing but more fun. What started with a 48k ZX Spectrum and a tape recorder has become the new global defining force. With our reality-synthesising desktop rigs, gigabit connections into the cloud, and uncountable storage and compute at our whim, it's never stopped getting better.

Only it has. The week that Sinclair died, Apple launch a new iPhone where the only new feature was the word "new". There was a relatively small Linux kernel update. There was the first new Java release in three years, and Microsoft tried hard to beat the drum for an incremental Windows 10 release with a +1 name and -1 interest. Across the industry, innovation is becoming innovation theatre. All the drivers for new, exciting experiences that the Children of Clive have come to accept as intrinsic to their IT lives are running out of steam. That's a good thing.

There was a lot to make better in the early '80s. From RS232 to printer configuration, from moving files between computers to making the memory in your PC work, much of the experience of using computers was dire. Standards weren't. Software was late, buggy, and ugly. Computers wheezed if you asked them to go up stairs. You had to know what an IRQ number was, and why it mattered. We forget because it was all new and the next version would be faster, more colourful, less irksome.

The IT industry constantly promised that the next version would work. At first, it never did. Then it did a bit. Now it does. Sometimes it was through slow iteration and linear hard work, sometimes it was through the application of industrial-strength irony. There's a case to be made that Sinclair's greatest legacy isn't inspiring a generation of geeks through cheap, simple, colourful computers, but because he made the QL so irritating that one young owner, Linus Torvalds, swore that there had to be a better way to do things. Sometimes things just fired off – like when SMS, an afterthought tacked into the GSM digital mobile telephony standard, was taken up enthusiastically by the public and made the industry realise that, hey, there may be something in this messaging lark.

We've fixed the problems. Not all of them, but the standards are settled, the memory and compute are more than adequate, the graphics as good as our eyes, and the software does what it's told. Like the dog chasing the car, now we've caught up and we're puzzled about what to do next.

As an industry, we're slow to accept this. All the learned dynamics of entire careers are changing, and that's the devil to digest. It should be a matter for celebration, that the promise has been achieved, it's a new period of stability where we'll be free to find new challenges. Few feel that way, yet it is and we are.

But if we're not chasing the upgrade, what shall we do? For the enterprise, it's a chance to re-examine what IT means to the organisation. If a platform is good enough, next time the refresh becomes due, don't spec for more of the old numbers. Ask for something that'll last longer, be more environmentally considerate, have longer support cycles – in short, something that fixes technology's abiding sins. Adopt platform standards that have longevity as a primary merit. Freed of planned obsolescence, we can spend our developmental resources in solving business problems, not wiping the bum of the IT industry. Why is LTS three years, not 10? Or 20?

There are plenty of areas where new stuff is happening apace. Big data is dancing with machine learning and who knows what'll turn up as a result. The business of making great apps that are robust, suitable to task and accessible to all is still advancing, as development and deployment techniques evolve. Google still can't create a sane unified messaging platform. And we still need a revolution in security, a calculus of privacy that makes sense, and regulators and laws which don't kow-tow to power quite so egregiously. And what about China and IT?

All engaging, important and fit to absorb our attention and drive our decisions for decades to come. They won't be solved without an understanding of technology and a willingness to implement new ideas. But none has anything to do with what we buy for our enterprise desktops, select as our primary platform, or the cadence of change we budget for. Those problems are fixed and we should move on.

The revolution has happened. We can honour its early leaders and learn from their failures and their successes. But Sir Clive's passing is a good point to recognise that much of the land has been made ready, the tools produced, and it's our job now to build upon it. ®


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