A Brief History of Digital Workplace Technology
By Nai Kanell
Director of Marketing
There’s no succinct point in time when digital technology became an integrated part of the workplace. Some argue it’s when the first Lyons Electronic Office (LEO) I computer booted up in 1951. Others consider it to be 1971, when Ray Tomlinson sent the first-ever email. Regardless of when the digital workplace revolution began, it’s led us to where we are today. The modern office is rife with digital workplace technology.
To understand how we got here—and where we’re going—we need to look back. How did the Apple I evolve into the modern laptops we use for telecommuting? What pushed the Internet from a simple relay network into a behemoth of cloud storage and applications? Most importantly, where is all this digital technology going to take us next?
Here’s a look at a brief history of workplace technology. Though we could arguably go back to the 1950s and 60s, we’re starting in the 70s, with the introduction of the personal computer. Truly, this is the best place to understand the workplace of the future, from its humble beginnings.
1970s and 80s: Computers enter the workplace
What is workplace technology without the personal computer? The laptops and workstations we enjoy today had much more modest roots—early Apple computers and IBM personal workstations.
The Apple I hit the market in 1976 to minimal fanfare. Amazing? Sure. Practical? Not a chance. It was the first of its breed, but a necessary commercial failure to pave the way for the Apple II just a year later. Laughable by today’s standards, it boasted a 6502-processor running at 1 MHz, with an 8-bit microprocessor chip and 48 kilobytes of RAM. But, in 1977, this was a truly viable computer—part of the “1977 Trinity” alongside the Commodore PET 2001 and the TRS-80, both of which had similar specs.
In 1982, International Business Machines (IBM) upped the ante, taking business computers from 8-bit to 16-bit. The first IBM PC nearly quintupled the speed of the Apple II, and boasted an 8088-processor running at 4.77 MHz. Apple responded with the Apple III and thus began the personal computer arms race. It was the start of computing in the workplace and the earliest inroad to digitizing work.
1990s: The Internet connects us all
By the 1990s, business computers had made their mark and every major enterprise had them. The next step in digitizing the workplace came in the form of creating the digital landscape. Thus, the Internet was born.
While the concept of the Internet was actually dreamt up and tested as far back as the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the World Wide Web as we know it didn’t hit businesses until the 1990s. Computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee created the concept of digital “destinations,” what we know today as websites. Businesses could finally host and share information, and even communicate digitally via email.
Internet adoption took off in a flash—perhaps too fast, judging by the Dot-Com Bubble of the late 1990s. It was a time when the ingenuity of business met the infinite possibilities of the Internet. The 1990s paved the way for everything from email to ecommerce, giving us a whole new way to interact with digital technology in the workplace.
2000s: The introduction of the cloud and big data
In the mid-to-late 2000s, workplace technology trends pivoted quickly to the cloud. Businesses realized that the more data they were able to collect, the more it informed their actions. As if overnight, major businesses started to digitize their data. Away went the file cabinets and dossiers, in favor of file archives and spreadsheets.
This is also the time when the physical workplace began to see change. With everything digitized and available in the cloud, employees didn’t need to always work on-site. The world began to shrink, in a sense. Jim could work on his project at the office, save it to the cloud, then pick up work at home, across town, across the country, or anywhere in the world!
Accessibility from anywhere fueled tangible tech. Smartphones and tablets became commonplace and extremely useful business tools, which led to another technological arms race. Today, competition is still astounding among smartphone and tablet makers, as well as cloud solutions providers.
2010s: Rise of the Internet of Things (IoT)
Coming off a decade of technologies designed to help employees work outside the traditional workplace, this most recent decade was equally as cathartic for those who prefer to work in an office. Workplace technology solutions of the 2010s came in the form of IoT devices. Beyond connecting laptops, tablets, and smartphones to the cloud, we’ve now connected anything and everything!
The workplace IoT exploded in recent years, giving way to better workplace data collection, automation, and an improved relationship between employees and their environment. Entire workplaces benefit from webs of sensors and beacons designed to simplify work, add convenience, and improve workplace governance.
From occupancy and motion sensors, to hardware and software integrations that enable complex workflows, the modern workplace is equal parts digital and physical.
2020s: The workplace of future
It all brings us to today: the year 2020. We’re on the cusp of concepts like quantum computing and edge computing, and we work in environments that blend the realities of digital tech and the physical world. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are exciting possibilities, as well—applications we’re likely to see in the coming decade.
Whatever digital technologies we experience in the next 10 years, they’re ultimately the culmination of the last 50 years. From the introduction of personal business computers to the rise of the IoT, the way we work has evolved significantly. It’s still changing today.
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