Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 6 (June 2001)

The Next Big Thing

There’s an old saying that there are two types of people who make forecasts: those who know they don’t know what they’re talking about and those who don’t know they don’t know. While that may be true, it didn’t stop forecasters at the recent National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference from making predictions about the future of communications technology and its potential impact.

Perhaps the way to make the most accurate predictions possible about the next big advances is to extrapolate from those that have taken place in the recent past. And looking back over the past four decades, John Mailhot of Lucent Digital Video Division pointed out in a panel discussion called "The Next Big Thing," the major technological developments were considered significant because they solved big problems and, as a result, dramatically changed the computer industry and how we used digital technology:

Indeed, going back to the 1970s, the big problem for computers was the lack of computer processing power, and our style of working was built around waiting for a central computer to process our batch programs. What changed all that-the big thing of the '80s-was that processing power suddenly became inexpensive, which paved the way for personal computers and allowed individual users to work on their own systems in a distributed environment.

The problem in the 1980s, however, was that PC memory was limited, which crippled users from working on anything beyond fairly simple applications. That problem was solved when both RAM and disk storage expanded swiftly-the big thing of the late '80s and early '90s-and standalone PCs were suddenly capable of handling significant applications, such as desktop publishing.

Then, in the 1990s, the issue was how to enable users of these more powerful PCs to work together. So in the late '90s, the big things were the advent of efficient desk-to-desk networking-which allowed users to collaborate on projects within an enterprise-and the emergence of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

Of course, in this decade the challenge lies in providing effective long-range networking of computers. And the next big thing will be ubiquitous broadband access to the Internet, which will enable high-speed connectivity from any computer to any other.

Unfortunately, broadband is taking longer to become universal than anyone expected. In fact, only 5 percent of households currently have broadband access. But broadband penetration will increase steadily over the next several years, noted Lou Dobbs, anchor of CNN's Moneyline News program. By 2003, more than 15 million households will be broadband enabled. And any company that isn't planning for it right now, he warns, is making a huge strategic mistake.

But how will broadband access change our way of doing business, working with computers, and interacting with each other? The boldest forecast was presented by John Sidgmore, vice-chairman of WorldCom. Here are some of the most insightful and intriguing predictions:

Dot.coms: We tend to make fun of all the Internet startups that came and went over the past few years. But the same thing happened in the early 1900s with the arrival of motorized transportation. In fact, between 1915 and 1930, a huge percentage of the new companies that formed had either "engine" or "motor" or the equivalent in their names. And most of those companies failed. But the ones that succeeded, such as General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Company, made up a huge percentage of the Gross National Product in the US over the last century. The same will be true of the Internet when broadband becomes more universal. Most Internet companies will continue to go out of business. But the few that succeed will be hugely successful and will be the drivers of the world economy over the next 50 to 100 years.

E-commerce: Today less than 5 percent of all sales transactions are conducted on the Web. But within three years, more than half of all orders will be placed over the Internet and will account for some $1.5 and $2.5 trillion in revenue. The reason is that the logic for using the Internet for e-commerce is truly compelling. Companies are desperate to put more efficiency into the way they handle their supply chains and go about distribution. And a fully functional Internet will provide a dramatically less expensive alternative to traditional business models for order processing and customer sales, service, and support.

Video conferencing: The notion of real-time videophones was the sensation of the New York World's Fair in 1964. But it has remained a dream ever since. With high-definition TV and video projection over broadband, real-time video conferencing will finally be practical-and useful. Indeed, research shows that this kind of real-time video interaction can replace a lot of on-site meetings. And as it catches on, we'll see a big move to telecommuting over the next decade as companies search for new ways to attract employees from wider geographic areas.

Active messaging: There's a popular notion that everyone is connected to the Internet. But this is a myth. Hardly anyone is connected. In fact, a recent study by Goldman Sachs found that only 26 percent of Americans are "regular" users, which means they sign on more than four times a month. And the numbers are much lower elsewhere: In England, the percentage of regular users is 15 percent, and in Germany, it's 8 percent. On one hand, this means there's a lot of headroom for growth. But on the other, it still isn't practical for people to be checking into various sites all day long. Therefore, the best way to provide people with information that they need when they need it is through "active messaging," whereby your system, which is always connected to the Internet, will send you timely and relevant messages. Imagine that there's a site called "" Although you'd want to know if your house were on fire, you wouldn't want to keep checking the site to find out. With a system that is "always on," such a site could be programmed to send you active messages on a need-to-know basis.

Voice browsers: Today, we interact with the Internet by signing onto a computer, going through a log-in process, and typing in commands. But this is too difficult or too much trouble for many people. Suppose instead that you have a wearable device with an intelligent "voice browser" that operates like a traditional browser, except it understands spoken commands and returns relevant verbal and graphic information. Now suppose you tell it you are driving from your office to the airport to fly to Chicago for your 1:00 meeting. The browser checks your travel route for you and discovers that a truck has overturned on the road ahead. So you ask it to find the best alternate route, call the airport to get you on a later flight, and reschedule your appointment.

Internet glasses: In the scenario above, after you ask your voice browser to plot a new course for you, you don a pair of Internet glasses, and are able to see-in perfectly registered augmented reality-a map highlighting the new route and directions superimposed over the road in front of you. Technology such as this to greatly simplify the way we interact with computers is right on the horizon. And we will dream up all kinds of useful applications to take advantage of it.

It may be hard to tell how accurate any of these projections will be, but one thing is certain. As the great cultural observer Yogi Berra once said, "The future ain't what it was."

Most Internet companies will continue to go out of business. But a few will be hugely successful and will drive the world economy over the next 50 to 100 years.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief