The Road Ahead
March 1, 2010
The Road Ahead, Part I
In 1995, my first book, Creating Killer Web Sites, was #1 at Amazon.com and stayed at that position for the entire year. That same year, Bill Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, and Peter Rinearson wrote a book called The Road Ahead, which explained technology to lay people and made many predictions about the future of technology. I consider my latest book, Pull, to be the continuation of that book, 15 years later. Bill and Nathan made a lot of predictions in that book. I’m going to highlight several of them and we’ll see how they turned out. I’m omitting page numbers, because there are several versions of the book. I have had so much fun doing this that it will take two blog posts to get through my selections, and will give a summary at the end of part II. Here is part I:
“Personal computers have already changed our work habits, but it is the evolving Internet that will really change our lives.” - This shows that even Gates and Myhrvold thought the Web would be more important than the PC. Indeed, it has turned out that way and we have much more to go. Eventually, the Web will replace our need for disk operating systems like Windows and Mac.
“You’ll be able to answer your apartment intercom from your office or answer any mail from your home.” – We have been able to do the latter for ten years already. The former is already do-able in places like Finland and is part of the semantic web.
“You’ll watch a [TV] program when it’s convenient for you instead of when a broadcaster chooses to air it.” – This is the pull principle, and it’s well on its way.
“Your nightly newscast will start at a time you determine and last exactly as long as you want it to, and it will cover subjects selected by you or by a a service that knows your interests.” - We are halfway there. The online data locker and the personal ontology will give you fully customizable news and content.
“Almost all information in the future will be digital.” - They nailed that one.
“The computer’s ability to provide low-cost, high-speed processing and transmission of digital data will transform the conventional communication devices in our homes and offices.” - We are 80% of the way there. Unfortunately, the telcos don’t provide much value today and are hanging onto their analog roles in our lives to get every last drop of profit they can out of their outdated networks. We need WiMax or some form of long-range digital signals, and it’s too bad that the telcos make progress in that area much slower than it would be without their legacy businesses. Eventually, though, digital bandwidth will win and the telcos will be unnecessary.
“At some point, a single wire running into each home will be able to sed and receive all of a household’s digital data.” We have been there for 7-8 years already.
“… we can no more imagine what the broadband information highway will carry in twenty-five years than a Stone Age man using a crude knife could have envisioned Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors in Florence. Only as the Internet evolves will all of the possibilities be understood.” – So true. This is why those of us working to make the semantic web a reality are working so hard. They couldn’t have seen the semantic web in 1995, but that evolution will revolutionize business and our everyday lives in a huge way.
“Cellular phones and pagers will get more powerful. Some of these special-purpose devices will find a place in the market for a few years, but in the long run almost all of them will give way to programmable, general-purpose devices – ‘computers’ – connected visibly or invisibly to the network.” - Forgetting the pager gaff, I still think this prediction is misguided. In 1995, Gates and Myrhvold knew about browsers. In fact, we thought the browser itself could be the interface to the PC (they tried it for a while and then canned it). So the idea of “computers” being the “information appliances” they talk about is different from the server-based cloud computing we will actually have, and the semantic cloud-based computing we’ll do in the future. Gates and Myhrvold correctly saw the era of smart phones but couldn’t see far enough to the era of dumb phones.
“A new kind of screen will be the digital white board: a large wall-mounted screen, perhaps an inch thick, that will take the place of today’s blackboards and white boards.” – This is close to what we will have, but once we have the semantic infrastructure, it won’t be free text, notes, and the data files we know today. I would give them an A- on this one.
“Telephones will connect to the same networks as the PCs and TVs. Many phones will have small, flat screens and tiny cameras.” – Sort of! Telcos are blocking this progress, but the general vision is right on.
“You’ll be able to keep equivalent necessities – an more – in an information appliance I call the wallet PC. It will be about the same size as a wallet, which means you’ll be able to carry it in your pocket or purse. It will display messages and schedules and let you read or send electronic mail and faxes, monitor weather and stock reports, and play both simple and sophisticated games.” – Whoops. Sorry guys. It’s going to be the phone. And the part about faxes is silly, but fun.
“Rather than hold paper currency, the new wallet will store unforgeable digital money. Today when you hand somebody a dollar bill, a check, a gift certificate, or some other negotiable instrument, the transfer of paper represents a transfer of funds.” - Yes, good call. It will happen on our phones, not in a special wallet, and the functionality will come in the form of i-cards and micropayments.
“… we can eliminate the bottlenecks that plague airport terminals, theaters, and other places where people queue up to show their identification or a ticket. As you pass through an airport gate, for example, your wallet PC will connect to the airport’s computers and verify that you’ve paid for a ticket. You won’t need a key or a magnetic card key to get through doors either.” – See Chapter 8 of Pull to learn how the semantic web makes this possible. By the way, the illustration of the wallet PC is just adorable.
“… the ultimate market for pen-based computers will be huge.” – At the time he wrote that, pen-based computing was all the rage among VCs. It didn’t happen.
“You’ll be able to program a filter to gather information on your particular interests, such as news about local sports teams or particular kinds of scientific discoveries.” - Yes, but by concept and topic, not by keyword. I think Myhrvold would agree that’s what they had in mind at the time, and they say more about machine learning later in the book.
“There will be a lot of disappointment in the short run among content companies struggling to make ends meet through subscriptions or advertising, though. Advertisers usually hesitate to move into a new medium …” – Not exactly. Advertisers rushed in and, as long as the economy was good, continued to rush in and pay too much for advertising. Now, 15 years later, everyone is struggling, looking for a new model. As I pointed out recently, the micropayment system we need still hasn’t materialized, so content producers are now struggling.
“A digitally stored document can be made up of photos, video, audio, programming instructions, animation, or a combination of these elements and others. We’ll be able to do things with these rich electronic documents we could never do with pieces of paper.” – They go on to talk about the power of databases and rich media. The problem is that this vision has come too true. Gates and Myrhvold failed to see the problems we have at scale, trying to find and use information that is now buried in all our rich documents.
“Ultimately incremental improvements in computer and screen technology will give us a lightweight, universal electronic book, or ‘e-book,’ that will approximate today’s paper book. … Any document on the network will be accessible from such a device.” - This is a great prediction in 1994. And we’re right in the middle of it. Another five years and the e-book readers will be a thing of the past.
“Within a few years the digital document, complete with authenticatable digital signatures, will be the original, and paper printouts will be secondary.” – I’m glad they had this idea about 6 years before I thought of it, but they don’t really say how it’s going to happen. In fact, I would say they had no idea how it was going to happen. I explain how in chapter 13 of Pull.
“Some kinds of documents are so superior in digital form that people don’t feel the need for a paper version. Boeing designed its new 777 jetliner using a gigantic electronic document to hold all of the engineering information.” – Excellent vision. Boeing has been working with Dassault Systemes for 20 years now, creating collaborative workspaces. I hope to make these workspaces much more open and truly collaborative, and I’ll write about that soon.
“As the price of technology comes down, entertainment simulators may become as common as movie theaters are today.” – They missed on this one. Even though simulators are now all the rage at amusement parks, they are hardly commonplace. Theaters are adapting 3D glasses, but it’s a far cry from their prediction. I am, by the way, completely in agreement that simulations are a great way to teach and should be a much larger part of our schools’ curricula.
“Clients will expect their lawyers, dentists, accountants, and other professionals to be able to schedule appointments and exchange documents electronically.” - Close. While it’s true that you can now fairly easily get your dentist to email you your x-rays, most medical providers are still stuck in fax and copy land. And coordinating appointments and schedules automatically is something we’ll only be able to do with the semantic web. It’s not here today because the systems can’t easily get the information necessary. Even today, it’s so difficult to get my Google calendar and my Mac calendar apps to synch that I don’t even try.
“Lots of companies will eventually be far smaller because using the Internet will make it easy to find and work with outside resources. Big is not necessarily good when it comes to business.” – Not only has this downsizing taken place several times since they wrote those words, but it’s about to happen again. Once we have the semantic web, most clerical and administrative jobs will be done by software. Once everything is on the cloud, including all our personal and work information, maintaining computers and software will take 5% of the workforce we use today.
“We’ll find ourselves in a new world of low-friction, low-overhead capitalism, in which market information will be plentiful and transaction costs low. It will be a shopper’s heaven.” – This is in a section where he talks about computers “haggling” and exchanging bids among themselves, which can only be done when the formats are standardized. Without knowing it, they are describing the semantic web, and they are severely underestimating the amount of time and effort it will take us to get people to change their ways to build it. Cutting out the middlemen will only take place when we have agreed on the data formats and make our offers findable. See chapter 8, Passive Commerce, in Pull for how we will get there.
“As software agents become common and voice simulation and recognition software improves, it will begin to feel as though you’re talking to a real person.” - We are still many years away from this dream of artificial intelligence. The reason is that the information online is too ambiguous. We really need the power of the semantic web to enable the agents all the science-fiction authors have been dreaming about. We can’t get there by scaling up our AI algorithms, because the amount of new, unstructured information keeps multiplying too quickly.
“Computers will enable the kinds of goods that are mass-produced today to be custom-made for particular computers.” - Yes, it’s true that “computers” will do this, but they haven’t done it so far because the information is scattered like roaches in a New York apartment building. We need common formats and the personal data locker before we can say hello to the era of mass customization.
“Important news stories will be both current and under construction at all times.” - Excellent. It’s true that reporting is becoming more layered, with most people consuming the top of the pyramid but with many levels down becoming available for those interested in more background or context.
“If you’re looking for a used car, you’ll send out a query specifying the price range, model, and features that interest you, and you’ll see a list of the available cars that match your criteria. Or you’ll ask a software agent to notify you when a suitable car comes on the market.” – Gates and Myhrvold correctly predicted that classified ads would be wiped out. They failed to predict that there’s no way you’ll be able to “send out a query” using today’s text and link web. We need to put the data into a format the search engines can understand before this really works.
“You’ll use software to filter incoming advertising and other extraneous messages and spend your valuable time looking at the messages that interest you.” – Too bad Microsoft isn’t in this game in the least.
“Music will be stored as bits of information on a server on the net. ‘Buying’ a song or an album will really mean buying the right to access the appropriate bits.” – Excellent prediction to make that far in advance. Congratulations, guys.
“Some people will be willing to pay a high fee, perhaps as much as $30, to see a movie at the same time it appears in the first-run theaters.” - Forgetting the fact that a single seat in a theater will soon actually cost $30, this turns out to be wrong, only because someone can open a little theater at home and allow 40 people in to see it. And people will. If you could have shown Avatar at home for $30 last December, you’d have thrown a party and invited your friends, wouldn’t you? The studios won’t do this because they can’t count the seats. Once the film goes to DVD, that’s another story. Eventually, no films will go to DVD; they will just go online, and you’ll pay for the rights to watch them.
“Copyright laws will need to be clarified to ensure that they work in an on-line environment.” - Good call. That’s why we have Creative Commons.
” … we’ll see electronic, on-line banks that have no branches – no bricks, no mortar – and low fees.” - This is a great vision, one I agree with, but we are still lightyears away. Laws and the dot-com bust have so far prevented this. Government efforts to make banking more transparent will probably hinder the formation of new financial institutions that exist solely online. Too bad.
I don’t have space to go into the rest of it. It’s still remarkably educational reading. I would give Gates and Myhrvold an A- for this book. Most of their predictions have come true. Yet for all their vision, Microsoft has been as much a part of the problem as it has been part of the solution. I think my book, Pull, shows in layperson’s terms the general outline of a plan to get us where we want to go. We have already strained the information highway too much by putting our 20th century documents on it and running our 20th century software. Now it’s time for the next great leap – from building the physical infrastructure to building a new data infrastructure that will give us 15 more years of intense innovation and progress toward living our lives effectively, rather than dealing with the headaches caused by computers and software. At that point, the next person will point the way and will look back on all my predictions – I hope to do as well.
My thanks to Bill and Nathan for putting it out there and helping people see what’s coming. I hope I’ve added a bit to that conversation with my book, Pull. If you liked The Road Ahead, I think you’ll enjoy Pull just as much.