% fortune -ae paul murphy

Benefits from Space

As an industry we're at a cross roads, a point of transition from one set of technologies to another: IBM's cell has enormous potential, so does Sun's CMT/SMP - and Apple's iphone points directly to the future for mobile computing and indirectly to the end of today's personal computer technologies.

If you listen carefully to IT buzz one of the things you might notice is the sound of silence from big chunks of the advanced PPC and embedded processor industries - look, for example, at the run time dates for many recently posted results on the embedded industry benchmark consortium web site and you might think it's still early to mid 2006.

So why? well, you may not have noticed but there's a boom going on in autonomous battlefield tools aimed at everything from mine clearing to suborbital weapons interception - and a lot of impossible starwars technology is suddenly becoming reliable enough for deployment. What those things have in common is computing: you can't build a high altitude interceptor capable of front-ending an incoming ICBM without unbelievably precise quality control on all the things that go into that weapon - and all of the manufacturing behind products that work to the precision needed depends on computing.

Bear in mind that the first microprocessors didn't come from Intel, they came from two guys building a flight control computer for the F-14. Similarly, almost everything "high tech" we do today - from the materials and machining that go into automotive engines to the switching technologies empowering your cell phone - is ultimately traceable to knowledge gained during cold war activities including the American space program. Basically the world's reward for putting a man on the moon wasn't what those men accomplished while there, it was the knowledge gained during the effort to get them there and back.

And that's another source of silence in parts of the IT community: we're in the early stages of just such a knowledge explosion again - driven, as in the fifties, by military necessity and change building on change as things that were impossible become off the shelf. The big difference this time, I think, is that key economy players understand the importance of what's going on - and are planning a downstream transition to the Man on Mars program in the full knowledge that what counts isn't getting the team there and back, but what we learn through the effort of doing it.

So what's going to come out of all this? I've no idea - but I do know two things: first that there are people out there right now thinking about the things that will ultimately prove foundational for our future, and secondly that the limiting factor is always information - and that's what we do, right?

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.