Everything seemed to move into high gear when the pocket-size, internet-connected, multifunction cellphones arrived.
The little beeping, blinking – some might say “infernal” – machine has moved us so far, so fast that it’s quaintly prehistoric to recall the early ‘90s when “portable phones” were the size of your foot, fax machines were the rage and U.S. Vice President Al Gore had not yet claimed to have “invented” the internet.
Today, the given wisdom is that the computing power used by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1969 to put Neil Armstrong and Apollo 11 on the moon is less than that inside a 2017 cellphone.
According to ComputerWeely.com, the Apollo Guidance Computer “was more basic than the electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons.”
Quora.com says compared to Apollo 11, an iPhone has 130,000 times more transistors, is 32,600 times faster, processes instructions 80.8 million times faster and overall, is 120 million times faster.
“Apollo 11 was landed on the moon using a computer that had 1,300 times less processing power than iPhone5s,” said ComputerWeekly, while Britain’s “The Guardian” weighed in that Apollo 11 had “less computing power than a washing machine.”
Corporate embrace of technology
The moon landing was 48 years ago. Private, corporate embrace of technology came virtually at the same time, locally in 1966, according to executives at Flow.
A three-member technical team, joined by Managing Director Victor Salgado, said “Cable & Wireless” started in 1966 with five-digit telephone numbers, switchboard operators and a single analog “handset” serving an entire residential neighborhood.
“People came around to your house to use the telephone. It was usually the same people that had the television” centrally serving nearby residents, said Senior Product Implementation Specialist Reynaldo Ysaguirrie, Customer Experience Director Daniel Tathum and Technology Operations Manager Jonathan Martin, preferring to speak collectively.
Significantly, this nascent network predated Cayman’s financial services industry, illustrating a familiar synergy as emerging technology shaped a fledgling industry, and that industry in turn shaped the technology.
“We laid the undersea ‘Cayman-Jamaica Fiber System’ coaxial cable to Jamaica,” the engineers said, “allowing us to call outside the country. Telex came later, in the late-’70s, early ‘80s.”
The cable boosted banking and business, they said, quickly compelling legal acceptance of the products of those communications. Facsimiles were still in the future, and mail “took weeks and weeks,” driving development of telex, which quickly “appeared in every office, maybe a couple of hundred in Cayman.”
“Telex service,” the team recalled, “was assigned by a number code for access.”
Fax finally appeared in the ‘80s, transmitting on analog telephone lines using a dial-up modem, disabling any calls while data moved.
Furious pace of development
As crude as the technology appears in retrospect, the furious pace of development was – at least initially – driven by financial and legal services. The pornography industry drove secure payment platforms, enabling companies like Amazon, Napster and eBay to thrive, encouraging general economic development.
Author Don Tapscott coined the term “digital economy” in his 1995 book of the same name, subtitled “Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence,” speculating on the explosive economic effects created by convergence of digital platforms across telecommunications and computers.
Six years later, the U.S. Census Bureau identified three main components of a digital economy: the hardware, software, telecoms, networks and human capital necessary to e-business; the processes by which e-business is conducted on those networks; and the actual transfer of goods.
Today, estimates of the digital economy range wildly from $3 trillion to $16 trillion to $20 trillion, according to a report completed as long as three years ago by Oxford Economics, quoting Massachusetts-based research group International Data Corporation.
“The size of total worldwide e-commerce, when global business-to-business and [business-to]-consumer transactions are added together, will equate to $16 trillion in 2013,” the Oxford report said. “When added to the global market for digital products and services – which IDate, the French technology research firm, estimated at $4.4 trillion in 2013 – the total size of the digital economy is estimated at $20.4 trillion, equivalent to roughly 13.8% of global sales.”
Even at the low, $3 trillion end, the sum is 30 percent of the S&P 500, six times the U.S. annual trade deficit or more than the GDP of the United Kingdom, all generated in the last 20 years.
The figures are startling, underscored by Flow’s Salgado, Ysaguirrie, Tathum and Martin, noting that cellphones did not even appear until the ‘90s, followed by carphones and a 1994 “CJFS” cable upgrade to fiber.
Old and slow analog systems, however, largely restricted cellphone coverage to high-population areas and crowded frequencies, though ultimately driving investment in an island-wide network of towers, further evidence – were it needed – of industry and technology driving each other.
The arrival, however, of “TDMA,” time-division multiple access, enabled users to share a network by separating signals into different time slots and transmitting them in fast succession, one-after-the-other.
TDMA was quickly incorporated into the new and wider frequency GSM – European-originated Groupe Speciale Mobile, later renamed Global System for Mobile Communications. The digital-standard GSM replaced old analog networks, and this, said Flow, broke the logjam.
“It allowed smaller phones that could fit into your pocket, and because more manufacturers produced more phones as a result of demand, prices went down,” the team said.
Lighter, cheaper, faster phones
Lighter, cheaper and faster phones meant more sales and exponentially more calls. At the same time, Internet technology began to spread, bringing “elementary websites and the first web browsers,” and the start of interface between cellphone and Internet.
GSM enabled the “asymmetric digital subscriber line,” a single line to handle computers and telephones simultaneously, followed by General Packet Radio Service, creating “2G” and “3G” networks.
And now, said the technical team, “we have LTE,” long-term evolution, which isn’t so much a form of technology as a path to 4G, and even, the group said, “advanced LTE and 4½G.”
The telecoms business is both wildly competitive and constantly moving, the group said, “and with technology development in the last decade, anything we do will be obsolete in about five years,” meaning Flow has “about 3½ years to go before we start talking about 5G.”
In the last decade, Flow has invested $150 million in infrastructure, a pace that will remain undiminished for at least another five years.
“The possibilities are endless,” said Salgado.
Endless possibilities are, in fact, what has driven local computer networking company Netclues, founded in 2008 by sales executive brothers Kartik and Jay Mehta.
Kartik himself refers to those early “elementary websites and first browsers,” saying “people did have websites, people did know what the worldwide web was, but people were not aware of the potential of the Web.
“Big corporates and companies did have websites, but [they] only meant a presence for the company. They did not talk to the visitor, they did not interact with the viewer – they did not engage the viewer,” intending only to inform, he says.
Only in 2009 and 2010, he says, “things started changing, and this was around the same time when mobile phones entered the mainstream consumer market and started becoming readily available to people.”
This, he said, “was the tipping point which revolutionized the IT industry.
“People started browsing websites on their Blackberry phones and in no time, people started connecting with each other via the internet, and the world became a small place.”
Like Flow – on a smaller scale – and very like Alice in Wonderland who recognized that “we must run as fast as we can just to stay in place – and if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that,” Netclues struggled to stay abreast of a fast-moving market.
“We started with a team of web developers only as they were enough to meet with what was required in the website. But with this change brought by cellphones, there was increasing pressure on interacting with the website visitor – to give them more than just information … when they visit your website.
“With growing demand from our clients and from industry norms, we added a special graphics team with senior designers who had experience in working with not only websites, but also in other varied areas of graphic design and animation.”
Mehta observed that the new team itself faced rapid evolution of graphics and animation software, which moved seamlessly into the websites themselves, again marking the mutual development of technology and the industries it served.
The convergence conditioned how graphics and websites engaged viewers; and viewers realized the power of the Internet and interactive possibilities.
“As the world started becoming smaller and smaller, people started realizing that there are others out there that were looking for them, their business or their services. Everyone was waiting to discover something or someone out there,” Mehta said – and Netclues added two teams of programmers, working 24/7.
“We realized at this point the importance of customer care and after-sale services, so we added a customer-service team,” he said.
More changes arrived in 2009 and 2010, he said, as Google took over the world. Clients started treating websites as investable assets and demanded “SEO,” search engine optimization, by which their site would head Google results. Netclues had to maximize SEO functions and place ads across the worldwide web, sparking another iteration of “corporate tech,” digital marketing.
“We could foresee that people would slowly move away from traditional means of marketing and spend money on digital marketing,” Kartik said, conceding that while traditional advertising remained effective, digital was attractive because “everything is highly and precisely trackable.”
A digital marketing team comprised SEO and Google-trained experts, he said, and “after that, it has been a constant uphill climb.”
You can almost hear him sigh.
A website has become a virtual office and marketing tool, he says, connected to social media, customer relationship management systems, accounting systems, “even your bank account.”
This, says the Flow team, is 5G, “the internet of everything.”
“What is coming,” Salgado says, “is that every device in your home will have connectivity. Your fridge will tell you when you run out of milk – and will place an order for more. 5G will make every device able to connect to a system, much like technology made Uber successful.”
Every device connected to every other device sounds like infinite connectivity – and that sounds like science fiction – and Flow is determined to be ready.
The 5G potential for business, Salgado says, is just one concept. Another is “broadband-based infrastructure,” and that relies on larger “pipes” to move ever-larger bundles of information ever faster. A technology called multi-protocol label switching enables users to download 50 full-length films in one second.
“One thing is quite certain: The future is digital,” Mehta says, contemplating the arrival of that science fiction: “Artificial intelligence is slowly and steadily taking over the various walks of life. ‘Siri’ and ‘Alexa’” – not to mention “Watson,” “Cortana” and newest voice assistant “Bixby” – “have already entered our houses and people are asking [them] for information and to connect to businesses.
“It won’t be long before we all have a personal AI robot who talks to us, takes care of us and our family and becomes one of us. It’s scary to think,” he says, “but future means growth and technological advancements – so I can’t complain. Only time will tell how much we will grow, but we will add to our expertise and make sure we walk hand-in-hand with the world and with the latest advances in technology.”