'Everything-as-a-Service' goes way beyond technology

The cloud and Software-as-a-Service are being driven by a much larger socio-economic trend toward delivering everything-as-a-service.

Uber Airbnb sharing economy
Credit: Zach Miners/IDG News Service

Without a doubt, Everything-as-a-Service is one of the most dominant trends in technology today. These days, you can buy computing cycles, software applications, security, or even IT on an as-needed, pay-as-you-go basis rather than a discrete, owned product. The trend is growing so fast that analysts have to work overtime to track its progress.

Some of that is due to technological progress and innovation, including faster processing, more powerful devices, more pervasive broadband and mobile connectivity, not to mention more sophisticated software capable of analyzing and managing the associated complexity. 

But if we step outside the comfy technology bubble, we can see that these changes are being driven by a far-larger societal shift away from ownership and accumulation of objects to placing more value on experiences. Looked at that way, the real driver here is not the technology enabling these services. Instead, the need and desire to deliver these services is promoting that technological innovation.

Cyber Monday is old news

In this light, the media's Holiday season obsession with Black Friday and Cyber Monday feels a bit old-fashioned. For years, decades even, increasing numbers of people have been focusing more on what they can do and enjoy over what they can buy. Some credit the public's loss of interest in mindless consumerism to the financial meltdown and the Great Recession, but whatever the reason, it's hard to deny its existence.

It plays out in both technological and non-technological ways, in what people choose to do with their wealth, time, and attention. People still have to buy stuff, but the buy-buy backlash is well underway, with many stores choosing NOT to open on Thanksgiving and spurning Black Friday sales and promotions. REI famously decided not to even open on Black Friday!

Beyond the holidays, the historic rise of “sharing economy” companies like Uber are changing what transportation means and pulling the rug out from under competitors. And I'm not talking about taxi companies, I mean automakers terrified that fewer and fewer people—especially young people—want to own cars when they can get where they're going without having to buy, maintain, and insure a 4,000-pound boat anchor. (On the other hand, an Uber credit code doesn't have the same visual appeal as a new Lexus in the driveway with a giant bow on top.)

After Apple, what? 

Sure, companies like Apple still make billions selling lust-worthy devices, but that's increasingly the exception. After all, when you can buy a powerful computer for less than the price of a sandwich (see Raspberry Pi), it shouldn't come as a surprise that more and more of the big winners are the companies whose products aren't objects at all, but services and experiences. Google may make a few actual things, but its crown jewels still depend on delivering a great search experience—and then selling that experience to advertisers. Facebook has wisely refrained from trying to get consumers to buy stuff at all.

Among countless other examples, this movement is ultimately what forced HP to break itself up, and what made IBM dump its PC business and focus on services.

Heck, no one even wants to actually hire workers any more. More than a third of the U.S. workforce is now “on-demand,” according to Workday.

Who's driving the bus? 

I don't think we're close to reaching the outer limits of what can be delivered as a service. A few years ago, no one in their right mind would have let strangers use their cars or stay in their homes. Now that's business as usual. 

The same is true in technology. There are still plenty of people and companies who can't imagine letting go of their IT infrastructure. But bit-by-bit, service-by-service, company-by company, that mindset is becoming old-fashioned. The future, and the smart money, is on the continued devaluation of ownership of manufactured objects in favor of “Everything-as-a-Service.” Fight uber-trends like that at your own risk.

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