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The commoditisation of web tech

The commoditisation of technology can boost innovation, argues Mo Morgan, but danger lies ahead

Ideas are fascinating. All human innovation starts with an idea, but ideas don’t come from thin air. We’re intelligent creatures with an incredible capacity for learning and improving things. We are armed with an instinct to see something, evaluate it, and see how it might be improved. We don’t even have to try very hard to do it. But this instinct is fed by several factors—even eureka moments don’t come about in complete isolation. Such ideas are quietly influenced by our previous experiences and learnings—sometimes our own, and more often other people’s.

While several legal mechanisms exist to protect ideas as intellectual property, there’s an aspect to ideas that can’t be constrained: the influence that idea will have on others. Once an idea is in the world, it affects everyone it touches—it reframes reality for them. Ideas turn the impossible into the possible. Nowhere can this be observed more acutely than in the rapid pace of development in science and technology. Looking around us now, every innovation in our lives began with an idea based at least in part on thousands of previous ideas.

Artist Thomas Thwaites brought this into sharp focus with The Toaster Project, wherein he purchased a £4 toaster and set about seeing if it were possible to build one for himself from scratch—not just assembling parts, but manufacturing them too. His finished toaster cost more than £1000 to create and assemble, but also exposes just how many ideas are contained within a humble appliance. The big idea behind a toaster is to grill bread, but underpinning that idea are thousands more, like electrical resistance causing heat, electricity itself, stainless steel, plastics for insulation, coiling wire to form springs and store kinetic energy… the list goes on and on.

Each of these innovations is an idea, and a technology, in itself. Some may seem basic, but they strongly influence our world, our thoughts and our ideas. If you set out to make a thing and needed a way to store kinetic energy, this would not be particularly challenging for you because you know springs exist. You’d probably just get yourself a spring without giving it a great deal more thought. If you’re brave, you might elect to make a spring yourself (probably from pre-manufactured wire), but they’ve been around for so long and have such broad use that it’s cheaper, easier and more reliable to buy one from someone who makes millions of springs for a living.

Many technologies we now regard as simple are also commoditised to the point we no longer need to tackle the original problem, or recreate the idea, without very good reason. The influence of these ideas being in the world allows us to draw upon them like the ingredients of a recipe. Thus, technologies layer upwards with increasing complexity.

In web technologies, many layers are already in place. But these layers, particularly the one at the top, are under constant scrutiny by millions of people. All these people are instinctively finding ways to make these technologies easier, cheaper and more scalable and reliable. Thus, the top layer becomes commoditised and a whole new layer of innovation is placed on top.

Amazon Web Services and others prove that web infrastructure and platforms (innovations in themselves) can be commoditised. The use of the plethora of available development frameworks such as jQuery show it’s no longer necessary for developers to keep reinventing the wheel. And open-source hardware such as Arduino allows things to be brought into the world, even in a simple prototype form, with unprecedented rapidity.

Building blocks such as these take much of the pain, and expense, out of the development and production of new products, services and technologies. In and of themselves, they are ideas influenced by previous ones. An interesting characteristic of all these examples is that they allow the masses to make things that would have previously been too arduous or expensive even to attempt (very much in line, and most likely influenced by, the ideas underpinning the internet and the web). In effect, they are the self-raising flour, tomato pure or custard powder of the age.

Just as toast, electricity and more led to the idea of a toaster, so the toaster led to the idea of a Pop Tart. But in reality, the influencing effect of ideas is not so linear. If we were to take the time to map all the ideas that influenced each innovation, we’d end up looking at an extraordinarily complex web.

This commoditisation of resources at our disposal in the web industry is bound to continue at pace, not just in terms of technical building blocks but also services—some already exist, such as federated identity management, and others are just around the corner. Any aspect of product or service development that can be made less painful by commoditisation is likely to get pulled in this direction. But the long-term danger is that we begin to lose touch with the core technologies that underpin all of these, to the point where if the commoditised offering can’t meet a specific requirement, it effectively can’t be done.

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