Skip lunch today – Watch the “mother of all demos” about the future of productivity apps

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If you’re going to spend 1 hour of your life and are related to the technology industry in any way, you might as well watch “The Demo” by Doug Engelbart.

I came across Doug Engelbart’s work from the Stanford Research Institute only recently, and to say I’ve been stunned to see it is an understatement.

Ok enough hyperbole: here is why I am stunned.

This demo is a presentation made in December, 1968

Doug’s team is describing a “conceptual” computer terminal that you could own and use all day to be productive. To put this in perspective, the earlier personal computers by Apple etc were made in the late 70’s, but Graphical interfaces and Mice were only made mainstream by 1983 onwards and the world only became introduced to these concepts then –yet here, 15 years before that, Doug is demoing Graphical interfaces, mice, a presentation tool that’s better than powerpoint, a semantic programming environment and more.

It shows a demonstration also of their NLS system (oNLine System) — which was perhaps the first or earliest version of a corporate intranet. Again, you would have to note that the intranet and internet became mainstream in the 1990’s but in this demo from 1968 their team demonstrates collaborative documentation, shared development environments, video conferencing and more!

In fact, this demo is so far ahead of its time there are STILL things that haven’t been implemented in the mainstream that they show (such as some of the semantic stuff) — if you need to see where the future of productivity applications could be check this demo out.

An interesting sound-byte from the demo “We are also looking forward to participate in the ARPA computer network that should be coming online next year, where they are going to connect 20 nodes together…”.

What CEOs can learn from this demo
Even though this is mostly a demonstration of research work, somewhere in the gold-rush to building software businesses I always feel that we’ve lost sight of when and why software actually allows people to transcend into higher levels of productivity.

I’ve always argued that productivity is NOT a result of “meeting customer requirements” — infact that’s a historical fact where most IT investments in custom software solutions will yield very low appropriation and ROI.

That’s often because customer requirements for an automation system are the result of a well-defined description of processes that are already running — productivity therein is then described in the same manner as production of tangible units. “We are more productive because the system allows us to process 20 claims while we were doing 15 claims before the system came along”.

These are minor wins — from the point of view of the software product vendor, investing your time and money in minor gains is a highly risky undertaking. At best you will only remain a small niche player that will continuously struggle to survive. Most likely you will be run over by the next guy aiming for minor wins.

This is a dillemma that has already hit our industry — most of the talks about “industry leading companies” or highly successful firms are based on a yardstick that measures “who is still going to be in business next year”. I’m not sure how or when but we’ve come to accept that as a measure of success of a company but it is the unfortunate reality you’re seeing around you from making risky investments on low-return business lines.

What this demo should allow us to remember is a time when technology didn’t just meet a customer requirement, but was designed to inspire the customers and people to imagine newer, better, faster ways of working that they had never thought were possible before

It is such use-cases or requirements, created not because of what the customer knows and can define today but the ones that emerge out of a completely unprecedented way of using the system, that makes good software investments, good being something that can help you grow rapidly and put your company on a sound stable roadmap for the next 5-10 years.

There used to be a time when software design was focused on finding ways to inspire people to be more productive, and THAT yardstick defined productivity solutions. We need to find those design principles again.

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