Technology has come a long way since IBM announced the System/360 mainframe in 1964. But how did the connectivity we take for granted now come about? MARK WALKER attempts to answer this and gives his opinion on where to next.
It’s April 7, 1964, and while the Beatles are telling the world that ‘Money Can’t Buy Me Love’, IBM is attempting to convince the business community that it can at least buy you a decent mainframe.
The IBM System/360 – touted as the Big Blue’s most innovative iteration to date – had just been announced, and since then the technology industry has changed in extraordinary ways, shaping the way we live, work, and play. The impact on Africa has been profound, with the continent and its people now connected with each other and the rest of the world in ways that couldn’t possibly have been imagined only a decade or so ago. But how did the connectivity we now all take for granted first come about?
For 17 years after the System/360 launch, the world of technology was living its 1st Platform. In this world, mainframes reigned supreme, and just a few million enterprise users on the planet had access to them via terminals. Throughout this era and way into the subsequent one, all computer-related activity was restricted to the interaction between a person and a computer. However, such interaction was never of a personal nature.
This would only change after the end of the 1st Platform, although the event that made this transformation possible actually happened during that era: in 1973, to be precise – the year Bob Metcalfe broke new tech ground by inventing Ethernet at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center.
Fast forward to 1981 and the tech world was taking its first tentative steps onto the 2nd Platform. This was the age of the server-client model and the PC – the device that, together with the Ethernet and the local and wide area networks it made possible, brought about the personalization of IT. And when PCs started becoming more interconnected around 1983, we quickly moved into a world where one of the most incredible creations ever imagined – email – started being used to share company information online from different places on Earth.
From this point, we move 10 years into the future. CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) is set to redefine the whole world as we know it by creating a global hypertext system and making it available to the public as the World Wide Web. This exacted one of the most amazing leaps in technology: we went beyond sharing company documents with specific people to sharing personal data with complete strangers. Blogging was born, and was soon to be followed by a personal data generation and sharing revolution.
The 25 years of the 2nd Platform era were characterized by an exponential increase in the number of users and applications – users went from millions to hundreds of millions and applications went from thousands to tens of thousands. Still, the computing industry was focused on the enterprise, and personal usage of computers was secondary. Its progress would come as a result of advances in enterprise systems and applications.
And so we arrive at 2007, the year when the iPhone and Google Apps were launched and Amazon and Salesforce.com began offering their cloud services. At this time both Hadoop and Twitter were only around a year old, while Facebook had just become available to the general public for the first time several months earlier. These were the seeds of what we now recognize as the main trends in technology adoption today: mobility, cloud computing, Big Data analytics, and social media. Or in other words, the 3rd Platform.
The year 2007 also signaled an exciting new era of connectivity across Africa. In October that year, Rwanda hosted the ‘Connect Africa’ summit, with the aim of expanding the continent’s broadband backbone infrastructure and access networks. Pledges totaling $55 billion were announced during the conference, with national and regional interconnectivity initiatives taking center stage in a bid to ensure that Africa capitalized on the broadband and ICT opportunities already being taken for granted elsewhere in the world.
The upshot has been the proliferation of Internet exchange points and rural connectivity projects during the intervening years, while numerous major undersea cables have also entered operation. Spearheaded by the Kenyan government, the TEAMS cable began service in 2009, connecting the country to the rest of the world via the UAE, and in the following year the EASSy cable system brought widespread connectivity to the wider East Africa region, with landing points in nine countries along the coast and connections to at least ten landlocked nations. Three years later, West Africa got in the act with the WACS cable connecting South Africa to the UK via 12 landing points along the western coast.
Such developments have increased the availability of bandwidth enormously and brought about a significant decline in the cost of connectivity, factors that will prove crucial as African governments, businesses, and citizens increasingly look to embrace the endless possibilities presented by the 3rd Platform. Difficulties remain, of course, with the need to improve last-mile connectivity hampered by the limited penetration of fixed telephony across large parts of the continent, but Broadband Wireless Access solutions that can tap into Africa’s vast mobile network offer a more connected future for even the most rural of communities.
With IDC expecting spending on public cloud services in emerging African countries to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of up to 84% over the coming five years, it is clear that the 3rd Platform has well and truly arrived in Africa. The journey to this stage has seen the tech world move from computers the size of family cars to invisible cloud storage, and with applications increasingly escaping the corporate world to become a means of entertainment, self expression, and communication, the next 50 years are sure to be even more eventful!
* Mark Walker, Regional Director: Sub-Saharan Africa, IDC
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