As the Consumer Electronics Show takes place this week in Las Vegas, everyone will watch with barely-controlled nerdy excitement as each cool new piece of tech is introduced (and yeah, that includes me). But while we all experience multiple nerdgasms, one thing we need to keep in mind is that consumer technology is rarely the source of real innovation and transformation. 

Believe it or not, the truly cool innovations usually come from that extremely boring business and data center technology. Don’t believe me? Let’s roll the tape.

The PC – Took off almost completely as a business tool. The first killer app for the PC? A spreadsheet called VisiCalc. In the 80’s and much of the 90’s, people regularly argued that there was no reason to have a PC in your home.

Smartphones – The first Apple iPhone may have been called the “Jesus Phone”, but the device that started the mobile revolution was the Blackberry, which, despite being designed almost totally for business, was so necessary for many people that they called it a Crackberry.

The Dynamic and Agile Web – All those cool websites you use to run your life? They owe everything to the boring business-centric web applications and web services plumbing that makes them possible. After all, the first really successful web-based application was Salesforce.

The Internet of Things – So cool! All these neat little gadgets connecting to the Internet to heat your house, track your health, and help you buy things. But people in manufacturing and other service fields yawn and say, “We’ve been doing machine-to-machine tech for years. Nothing new here.”

And that’s just a few of many examples. Almost every truly transformative technology starts out helping businesses and organizations get things done before it starts to impact consumers and home users.

One technology I fully expect to follow this trend is Software Defined Networks. Right now it seems like the most under-the-hood plumbing technology out there. Really, who cares about networks?

But SDN makes networks programmable in much the same way as applications. And there is almost no technology that’s had a bigger impact on our lives than software development. One can make a convincing argument that much of our economy is based on it. SDN could launch whole new career categories for people who can program networks. And it can totally change everything about how networks operate.

For example, imagine a smart network powered by an intelligent, Watson-like artificial intelligence. Could it be infinitely smarter about how traffic runs? Could it allow better traffic over slower networks? Could it make it possible to deliver fast and seamless service anywhere in the world over very small pipes or wireless connections? Can you imagine the impact such technology could have?

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. So while you wig out over the cool consumer tech, keep an eye on the boring stuff on the business side. That’s what will really change your life.

Though some of those digital displays at CES look pretty sweet.

Image Source (Creative Commons): Scott Swigart.


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