If a week is a long time in politics, 20 years is an eternity in tech. Unlike politics though, tech gets better with age; today is the best day in history from a technological point of view. And tomorrow will be better.
In 1996, we were just at the start of the world wide web (the internet itself had been around since the 1960s), and by the end of the year the number of users had doubled to 36m worldwide. By 2000, this had increased to 361m, by 2005 1bn, by 2010 2bn and today just under 4bn. These are statistics that highlight how far off the IT director of the old Healey & Baker was, when quoted in the then print-only Estates Gazette as saying the internet was “a solution in search of a problem”.
The first internet bust was in 2000, when a spectacular bubble blew up, with the likes of Boo.com imploding, having worked its way through £125m in six months. However, with the addressable audience now being 10 times the size, many of the companies that blew up were really just ahead of their time. No end of e-commerce websites died that year, whereas today the press is endlessly discussing whether today’s variants are killing off the high street.
Likewise, billions were invested in “video on demand” platforms to no avail. Now when you sit on a commuter train half the carriage is watching videos on their phones and tablets. The difference? Sixteen years of Moore’s Law (basically, processing power in computers doubles every two years), ubiquitous high-speed broadband, and smartphones.
And on top of increases in speed and power, the cost of technology has plummeted: 20 years ago I budgeted £100 a month to save for a new computer every two years. Today, two decades later, it would be hard to spend £2,400 on a mainstream computer.
The past though is a poor guide to the future in technology.
The growth in capability and decreases in cost we have experienced over the past 20 years will look meagre when we look back in another 20 years’ time, because exponential industries, which tech is, have a growth profile resembling a hockey stick. Doubling every couple of years from a tiny base means you don’t get very far for many years and then, boom, growth hits the uptick and that very same doubling becomes transformational.
We are now just turning that curve from near horizontal to near vertical, and that has profound implications for real estate.
Three technologies in particular are making great strides, loosely all under the banner of artificial intelligence: machine learning, natural language processing and computer vision.
The first is where computers can autonomously learn what actions to take, independent of human instruction, the second involves computers being able to understand our requirements just by listening to our spoken words, and the third covers computers understanding what it is they are looking at. This is the basis of facial recognition, which computers can now do better than humans.
Twenty years ago the real estate industry could, and largely did, ignore the internet. The small audience meant it was a sideshow. Twenty years later, many in the industry still have that “it’s a people business, go away” attitude, but today many of their customers are used to running much of their life and businesses asynchronously, remotely, and via their phones.
The old way of working is dying; give it another five to 10 years and it will be unrecognisable, not least because virtual and physical face-to-face interaction will seem equally “human”.
In five years’ time, 5G will arrive providing mobile connectivity of 10GB per second or even more. For many, that is 1,000 times faster than today. And with 2bn smartphones being sold each year, the component parts (including a wide range of sensors) are becoming almost free, meaning our built environment will be awash with real-time data feeds. That will enable a whole new world of services.
Does everything really change over 20 years? Well no, it does not. In 1517, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that “men have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions”. Some 500 years later the same holds; the difference being that if you embrace technology, you can meet and match those passions in ways not possible by your predecessors. You can do more, with less, for more people than ever before.
Happy birthday EGi: here’s to the next 20 years.
First published in Estates Gazette 14th July 2016