Riding the Wave

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, July 1993

I pause in my bike ride alongside the surfing beach. Like large black bugs, the surfers bob in a jagged line, inexplicably clustered in one small area of the formless ocean. The setting sun glistens on the backs of their wetsuits as they are elevated momentarily by a passing wave. Although it looks like a perfectly good wave to me, none of them moves or breaks his concentration on the random field of water to their front. Up and down they oscillate passively, watching and conserving their energy for the big wave that will eventually arise from the seeds of chaos stirring in the surface before them.

My own patience is quickly exhausted, and I turn to leave when suddenly most of the surfers begin paddling strongly towards the shore. They know more than I do about the ocean, for the black bugs are now metamorphosed into human surfers standing precariously in the curl of a large wave. Of course, "large" is relative -- this is New Jersey, and the dirty ocean is soon filled with random arms, legs, and boards. Only one black bug still bobs out in the distance, betting on an even bigger wave yet to come.

It occurs to me that most of us act in a similar manner with respect to technology. There are a lot of us electrosurfers out there, bobbing up and down, watching the tremors of technology and preparing to paddle when we believe a big wave might be forming. It is a difficult sport that only a few of us have mastered. Choose the wrong wave and you are unceremoniously dumped after an ungainly and abortive run. Start paddling too late and the wave passes you by, leaving you appearing lonely and inept as your more perceptive associates are swept triumphantly towards shore.

However, the prizes in electrosurfing are not necessarily for the longest or best ride. Perhaps what counts most is how many other surfers choose the same wave. Looking ahead at the rippling field of technology is not enough. Good electrosurfers glance frequently to their left and right, watching for signs that their fellow surfers might begin paddling. When the wave crests and most of your friends and competitors are standing on top, you must be there too. If you are left at sea, it will be fruitless to protest that you are awaiting a bigger wave. If that is your strategy, your wave had better be a lot bigger, and if you cannot convince many others to join you, no one will even notice your ride.

Not all surfers count equally. When a surfer with a "Microsoft" or "Intel" label on his back starts paddling, you have to take special notice. These people seem to make their own waves. Remember, however, your friends who followed the surfer from Wang, and who sank beneath the swill as the little wave died away. Take special notice also of the large surfer in the big blue wetsuit who seems to be floundering uncertainly. Laugh if you will, but ignore his strokes at your peril.

It used to be that the government had very special surfers. They would point in a direction and declare a wave by definition. ADA will be the main wave in software, they said. GOSSIP will replace TCP/IP for communications protocols. But the waves that followed didn't look so big. Maybe the government is just another surfer now, and perhaps they can't make their own waves. This means that government needs to learn to watch the waves and to sense the winds of the market with the rest of us. They too can bob in the ocean and guess where the other surfers will jump -- it is the essential skill of our time.

I often marvel at how things actually happen in technology. I used to believe that they came about from great invention -- like the great individual ride. The need to read the waves and to predict when they might crest was never in my mind. I remember years ago when one of my associates told me breathlessly about the terrific new microprocessor he had conceived. "Better than Intel," he insisted. Naturally, he wanted blessing and support. I think that I agreed with him that his chip probably was better than Intel's -- taking his word for it -- but I lamented that it didn't matter. When the other fellow has disappeared with the only wave around, it is pretty futile to start paddling on your own. I occasionally have friends that come up with new computer languages too. They are always supposed to be better than C or FORTRAN or whatever -- and maybe they are, but they just never start a wave.

There are counterexamples, of course. You can't ignore all the waves simply because not many surfers are paddling. I remember first hearing about the RISC processor chip. Neat idea, I thought, but no chance of attracting any surfers. Its later success just goes to show that if a technological wave is big enough, people will come. And sometimes big waves just seem to arise spontaneously from calm. Object oriented programming stirred restlessly for years. Then a few surfers started paddling in hopes of convincing others that a wave was approaching. Now there are throngs of hopeful surfers standing on their boards. It appears that a real wave is forming; otherwise a lot of hopeful surfers are going to look silly.

Often standards committees try to tell us where the waves will be. "ISDN," they say. Or maybe it is "OSI." Get on board, they insist. But standards only work when they convince all the surfers to start paddling, and as someone recently observed, most standards are dead on arrival You have to do your own assessment of when people will move; that is where today's skill lies. For example, it seems that ATM will be the great new communications wave. I'm out there paddling, and everyone to my right and left is paddling too. Occasionally I look back to see if a wave is actually forming. I think it is, but I've been wrong before. Please join me!

Well, it is time for me to remount my bike and pedal home before dark. I wish I had the skills that I admire in these Atlantic surfers. One thing is for sure, in technology now the surf is up. What we do with it -- when we paddle and how well we ride -- that is what separates the winners and the losers.

Robert W. Lucky