10 Years on, Software is Still Hungry
| By: Florian Pestoni, CEO, InOrbit Inc.
Sometimes, in order to look forward, you need to look back. Ten years ago today, Marc Andreessen published his famed blog post “Why Software is Eating the World”. This prescient article outlined the state of technology across various fields and industries of the day, surveying the disruption that was transforming traditional sectors. It’s an inspiring take on the evolving role of software, and it remains a great read. A decade later, we take a look at what’s changed and ask ourselves: what will software eat next?
Disruptions are messy and nonlinear. A decade ago, Andreessen pictured a world in major upheaval; much of that is still at play today, but tech dominance has accelerated. In 2011, none of the Fortune 10 companies were in technology; today, three out of 10 are. Moreover, the 47 tech sector companies on the Fortune 500 make almost as much revenue as the 94 financial sector companies on the list. Tech is also the third-leading employer of all sectors represented. This may still underestimate the impact of software, as most leading companies have embraced digital transformation to address labor shortages, improve efficiencies and move the business forward, effectively setting software free to eat them from the inside.
It has been suggested in some quarters that this is not enough. Software is still hungry and will continue to impact every industry over the next 10 years. Rather than being limited to pushing pixels on a screen, which ultimately is what Facebook, Google, Netflix and other tech titans of the last decade have accomplished, software is now growing arms and legs as well as wheels and wings, in the form of autonomous robots, cobots and drones enhanced by computer vision and AI that can change the physical world around us.
But before we get to that, let’s take a look at some of what Andreessen got right and what he got wrong.
- Content digitization. Much of Andreessen’s post discussed how books, movies, television, music and games would be digitized, and he definitely got that right. Furthermore, the world went from owning digital copies to purchasing subscriptions for the right to access almost everything digital.
- A growing infrastructure. It’s encouraging that some 4.66 billion people worldwide (59.5% of the world’s population) can access the internet. Many developing countries now have infrastructure to support technology in place that didn't exist a decade ago, and some countries have been able to leapfrog past infrastructure requirements for example giving satellite driven telecommunications opportunities to much of Africa.
- The continued rise of Amazon. Currently ranked by Fortune as the 2nd most valuable company in the world, Amazon is confirmed by most metrics as one of the most successful companies ever. A decade ago, Marc Andreessen contextualized Amazon as the slayer of traditional bookstores like Barnes & Noble (who?). Last year, Amazon outsold Walmart, the long-term holder of the #1 position on Fortune’s list.
- Machine learning and AI software. This is a big one that got no mention 10 years ago, but has had a massive impact on software. Working in concert with faster processors and cloud computing improvements over the past decade, the use of AI has accelerated our ability to have software make key decisions based on the massive amounts of data being collected. In fact, the ability to gather and leverage data, driven by the tools to process it, and the sophisticated analytics to generate business insights has become a holy grail for many businesses trying to adapt and keep pace with the changing world.
- Democratization of content and rise of misinformation. Interestingly, the growth of smartphones led to the democratization of content creation, especially video and pictures – think TikTok, SnapChat, Instagram. The rise of the social media influencer was enabled by some of Andreessen’s observations 10 years ago, but took it to a new level. At the same time, social division, alongside government or technocratic strong-arming, has led to an emergence of both imposed and willful siloing of information to select people, such the echo chamber seen in the social platform Parler. Additionally, misinformation and calculated disinformation is more prevalent than ever now that all of us cyber-inmates can run the asylum.
- Online education and remote work. Yet another area Marc predicted was due for a major disruption. However, no one would have predicted that technology-driven online education would necessarily begin as abruptly as it did when the COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, forcing schools around the world to move in large part to an online format. Similarly, while remote work has been around for longer than a decade, the pandemic took this to a new level. Most would agree that a lot of work is still to be done.
Perhaps most significantly, around the world and across all industries there are pockets where almost nothing has changed: the screwdriver and hammer have yet to be disrupted by software. Most change comes slowly, and 10 years from now we may look back to realize that new and unexpected parts of our world have been swallowed whole by emergent technology, but that may be the best thing that could have happened.
Internet of Things was still a nascent concept 10 years ago; Andreessen talked little of consumer electronics and connected lifestyle products. The community had only begun to think of the possibilities of a connected vacuum, or lawnmower, much less a Wi-Fi enabled t-shirt. As minor as these additions may seem, the normalizing of integrated technology in everyday items is significant.
One important thing not mentioned heavily in Andreessen’s post is the drive towards automation. Over the last 10 years, we have seen the emergence of digital assistants, and chatbots, as well as autonomous physical robots.
Automation is still in its infancy, but the deployment of robots into our lives – at work, at home, on our sidewalks and roads, or in the air – will grow dramatically over the next decade. Software and data will be the drivers of physical hardware to get things done, touching almost everything in the physical world: food, healthcare, e-commerce, construction and other industries will add even more software-driven capabilities to augment their labor force.
The idea of robots controlling our fates has been around for 100 years, ever since the term ‘robot’ was first used in a play. Hollywood loves to play on these fears, but we feel the ultimate goal of considerate automation will be to work in harmony with humans. Working with software and data, robots will do the dirty, dull, and dangerous work people don’t want to do. Like the rest of the digital revolution, automation should give back to everyone. It should give us time, capacity, entertainment, education, and the ability to do more of what we want.