Bill Gates and the Massively Disruptive 'Sea Change' in IT

Last week, Bill Gates said the information technology industry is experiencing a "sea change" that will be massively disruptive. He was speaking of the move to online software and services, from the traditional software-in-a-box model of sales and distribution. He says that, like "The Internet Tidal Wave," the title of his famous memo of 10 years ago, we are about to be hit by a tsunami "services wave" that is quite threatening to a lot of how Microsoft currently d'es business.

I think he's right.

Gates called what's coming a massive and disruptive sea change in a memo to Microsoft top executives a week ago. The Associated Press got hold of a copy recently. He's done this kind of warning thing before, and this one is clearly coming from his perception of threats by Google and other online services, such as Backpack.

I've been using Backpack, a lot. One of the coolest things it lets me do is have the pack of bright, young University of Michigan undergraduate work-study students here at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) work collaboratively on Web mining that is automatically published. For example, although one student is mentioned on this page about Campus Design as managing the page, at least four students are contributing to it.

A month or two ago I noticed a new feature in Backpack called Writeboards. You can tell how busy I have been, with work, volunteer stuff, family, and travel, by realizing that I saw the link to the new feature hundreds of times over weeks before I felt I had a moment to click on it and check it out. It is really cool. For composing text for reports, essays, and the like, it has within a week replaced Microsoft Word for me. Thus, I do understand Bill Gates' concerns. (Aha! I just realized that Writeboard can't give me a word count, so I have to paste this stuff into a blank Word document to get that. But I am sure that's coming soon to Writeboard.)

I've grown to dislike Word in the past year or two. It's clunky, slow, and d'es quirky things that I find personally disruptive. Sure, it may be the way I have it configured, but I am a user and my perception is king in this market. So, yes, even though Writeboard is designed for multiple author collaborations, I am using it instead of Word whenever I can. But it is the collaborative aspects that are the most promising.

No doubt you have worked with one or two (or more) others on a Word document. Someone drafts it. Sends it to others. They make changes using "track changes" and send it back and forth and around and around. Eventually the numbering system on the evolving file g'es funny, or someone d'esn't get the email with the Word attachment, or loses it to their spam filter. The original author might get back four files that have to be conflated into a single document and that is a real pain in the you know what. Writeboard acts like a word processor with wiki-type functionality. You create a document, invite others to edit it with you. The functionality sends them invitations with a password so that they can view and edit the document. Each time someone makes changes and saves them, a replica of the document--as it currently is saved--becomes the latest link in the right-hand column of saved versions. Of course, you can tell who made which set of changes. And even better, you can compare any version with any other version (or versions) and get a view that shows the original and changes in a single window. After multiple changes by multiple authors, that window is pretty strange looking. However, it is in fact easy to see what the changes have been and who made them.

The latest use I am making of it is to draft a call with Chris Davis, of Baker College. He and I are co-editing a special issue of _Inovate: Journal of Online Education_ on the Net Generation/Echo Boomers and we're using Writeboard to draft the call for papers.

But, enough of my thrill at playing with this new tool and back to the sea change. That phrase seems particularly apt when you realize that it is Shakespearean, from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.


Obviously, Gates is worried that "thy father" could eventually be Microsoft, when the core platform that software uses is fully Web-based and uses the browser instead of an operating system. A Wharton professor writes, in a recent article title Why is Microsoft Afraid of Google, that "As the Internet becomes more of an essential part of the computing experience, if anything else from a network becomes a central link in the user's (that's me) experience, that poses a challenge to Windows and software programs like Office, which has higher profit margins than Windows itself." Yup.

This user is turning from Word to Writeboard. I haven't researched it yet, but I am sure that the online equivalent of Excel is out there also. Once I can start using that, I may not ever need Office on my laptop again. Disruptive change, indeed.

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