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Forward to the Future!

April 9, 1998
by Zac Belado

The latest issue of PC Computing, in order to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the magazine, has created a computer time capsule (of sorts) which compares the top hardware and software from 10 years ago with the current "must haves". Accompanying the article are insights and predictions from industry leaders looking forward to what the future will hold for the computing industry to come.

I can't remember where I read it but someone once said that the minute you try to predict the future you are invariably wrong. You only have to look back to Popular Science magazines from the 50s to see that the typical predications for our bright futures are usually so far off that they are laughable. Futurists are the literary equivalents of snake-oil salesmen, more valuable for their entertainment value than any real insight that they give.

So it should come as little surprise that some of the predications are, on the positive side, a bit vague and, on the negative end, total jokes.

The most amusing prediction comes, not in the article itself but, in Paul Somerson's column which serves as an introduction to the time capsule article. Paul writes:

"A decade from now we'll have always-on connections a mile wide"

Nature abhors a vacuum and a computer abhors unfulfilled bandwidth potential. Open the pipe up wider and we'll always find some application of playback scheme to fill it. Have ADSL? Well why not try multiple live streaming audio sources playing in the background while you play Quake II with a few friends? Or try popping a movie onto your other monitor while exchanging video edits with a friend?

All I have to do is think back a few years to when the design firm I worked at finally got the Ethernet network up and running. Within a week we were already taxing it to the limit and complaining about how slow it was. We always find a way to fill any available capacity and we always get used to things far too quickly. Bandwidth will always be an issue.

Craig Barret, CEO of Intel, sees:

"...communication devices that can anticipate your information needs, seek and retrieve those needs via the net, and do this prior to your asking for the information."

I don't know what my information needs are; how the hell is my computer going to know them?

Certainly, we all have patterns to our information browsing. Every morning I always check out SlashDot, Wired News and Macintouch. It's feasible that I could have a small background app that would, after a while, know my habits well enough that it would just open those web pages up for me and have them ready when I went into the office. (In fact I remember an app that attempted to do that very thing which was available for the Mac a few years back). Nevertheless, what app or device would foresee my desire for information on pepper spray or Linux?

A person's potential information needs are -- unless the person is a drooling idiot, TV executive or Windows NT quality assurance worker -- open-ended. What we need more are smarter search engines and retrieval systems and fewer pipe dreams about "communication devices" that fetch us our slippers and morning news.

Fred Forsyth of Iomega has the far fetched opinion that:

"The floppy will be obsolete in ten years."

Ten years! The floppy drives on my Mac and PC might as well be welded shut for all the use they get. I haven't bought a floppy in over two years (thanks in no small part to AOL) and I have not received a piece of software in the same amount of time that didn't ship on a CD. In fact, the Mac version of Masters of Orion shipped on a CD despite the fact that it could have fit on three floppies, purely for economic reasons. If you have a floppy in your house in three years, it will be a miracle or a treasured museum piece.

Bill Gates, you know the guy, commenting on software says:

"The price of software is coming down even as it's been improving."

All I can say is that this comment must be coming form a man who secretly runs WordPerfect 5 for DOS on his own computer. Word 6 was so bad that Microsoft continued to sell Word 5.1 for years after it was supposed to have been supplanted by the newer version. Office 97 is probably the primary reason for the surge in sales of 2GB hard-drives. And Visual Basic 5 creates such bloated applications that there is a net based group working on creating slimmed down versions of the OCXs that VB uses for its primary functionality.

Alex St. James wrote in terminal issue of Boot magazine that the comparison between PC and Playstation development shows what constantly increasing machine specs do. They make programmers lazy. The Playstation hasn't had an "upgrade" in over three years and yet the games get better and faster. The PC is in a constant state of technological flux with constantly increasing machine specs and yet the software continues to get slower and more bloated each year.

And it hardly ever seems to get cheaper Bill.

The rest of the "predictions" in the article are mostly just wordy, technical versions ways of saying that the sun will rise tomorrow. Hardly startling and nothing that the average octogenarian couldn't come up with after reading the table of contents of Wired.

But to be fair, and to open myself up for public ridicule, here are three of my own predictions for how the computer industry will look in ten years.

  1. Microsoft will be split into three units (OS, applications and content). This will be done not only because continued advancement in computing requires it (Microsoft has, in my opinion, done more to hinder the advancement of computing than anything short of a meteor hitting Silicon Valley) but also because Microsoft cannot continue to generate the revenue it does. The giant that is Microsoft cannot continue to exist as a single unit unless it generates enormous amounts of cash. Win98 is not going to be anywhere near the success that Win95 was. Windows NT 5 is going to make even less of a splash. There isn't enough innovation left in Redmond to make the money Microsoft needs to survive.
  2. Information technology and expanded bandwidth will further the gap between rich and poor by making access to information a prerequisite for social and financial advancement. Paul Somerson, always a treasure trove of quotable material, makes mention of it in his column when he refers to "backwater hellholes like the Midwest and the South". Economically "backward" areas will continue to be so (and may even have this process accelerated) by their inability to keep current with hardware and software.
  3. Magazines like PC Computing will continue to whine, bitch and complain about how crappy Windows is without having the guts to actually suggest that people spend their money on alternatives. Commentators like Somerson, Dvorak and PC Magazine's Jim Seymour have been feeding from the MS trough too long to actually give people the advice they need.
Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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