The next really big thing

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Dear Phillip,

I have here in my hand a copy of Business Week. It is from January of
1995. It is a special issue that they published, the cover has a
headline that shouts, "21st Century Capitalism!" The whole issue is
devoted to making predictions about how the second half of the decade
will play out and where capitalism, and the world, will be at the
dawn of the 21st century.

I keep it around because it is a constant reminder to me of the
danger of prediction and the ease of missing the next big thing, even
when you're looking for it.

Reasonably enough, the magazine spends a lot of time on non-computer
issues. The rising importance of bio-technology is highlighted. There
is a lot of world wide demographic information offered. The magazine
mentions the Internet twice and the Information SuperHighway a few
times. It also, briefly, mentions the proprietary online services
like Compuserve, Prodigy, Eworld, and America Online. Nowhere does it
mention the World Wide Web.

That year the World Wide Web exploded onto the international stage
and the media took note. The Web had been building up for at least 2
years, but now it was finally seen by the public as the next big
thing. The proprietary services, such as AOL and Compuserve, engaged
in a race to be the first online service that could offer access to
the web. I remember I had an AOL account back then, and it was around
about May when they finally hooked their system up to the web so I
could finally go see it.

The early 90s felt like a long recession, though by the GDP numbers
the recession wasn't that long, but they felt like it, and there was
a lot of painful restructuring. When that phase of the business cycle
ended and the economy finally started to roar, the thing it roared
around most was the Internet and the Web. We're in another recession,
or at least another stretch that feels like one.

Here's my question: when we come out of this and the economy picks
up, what do you think the next big thing will be? What is small and
relatively unknown now that 2 years from now will seem exciting and
full of promise? Will it be a new kind of technology? Will it be a
new use for an old technology? Will it have anything to do with

-- Lawrence Krubner, July 18, 2001


That's definitely amusing. The Web, of course, was fully 5 years old at the time of the Business Week article you cite.

In the world of gizmos, I think the biggest changes will come from expressions of two existing technologies: (1) global positioning system (GPS), and (2) wireless Internet connectivity. Our gizmos will know where they are. Our gizmos will be able to use that location information to query the Internet. Imagine being able to point your mobile phone at a building and ask "When was that built and who designed it?" Or point your mobile phone and ask "Show me a view of that building's roof" and the phone is smart enough to find a nearby Webcam, then bring the image back to your phone's screen. My friend Henry Minsky notes that this will be the death of privacy unless you're at home inside your personal Faraday cage. But such is progress.

I'm really not qualified to talk about the world of biology and medicine, though obviously this is the most important area of change.

The world of business will be exploded with the wiring of the planet. Once you can get 6 Mbits point to point it becomes really easy to collaborate with someone at a distance. This puts pressure on companies to figure out how to harness the creativity and productivity of people on farflung continents. I've always hated video conferencing where other people appear in a little box (a TV). But when the other people are projected lifesize on a wall it seems very natural. This requires a high-speed connection or maybe super fancy yet-to-be-developed compression technology. But it will be available and then you'll be just as happy to have your coworker 2000 miles away as right next to you.

I think that there will be a lot of innovation in the travel industry. People have more money and less leisure time so they'll want to make the most of it.

Personal finance will become more sophisticated with the kinds of tools currently available only to big money managers trickling down to the average person's desktop. For example every mutual fund knows its portfolio risk (e.g., that owning both GM and Ford is a bad idea because it has the same reward potential as GM and Merck but much higher risk because GM and Ford are both vulnerable to a turndown in autos). But consumers haven't had access to portfolio risk data.

Those are my predictions!

-- Philip Greenspun, July 18, 2001

I just want to mention that mobility in the future will be everything-- time and space will continue to shrink, and not just wireless internet, which obviously everyone will have and use, but also in availability of goods and services-- this has been a trend since refridgeration and aviation-- but I think there is even greater potential. This will in part be aided by the internet of course, but dont think it will be anything like it is today. I think Philip is right about pointing a wireless device at a building and knowing everything about it-- but the future mobility I am talking about is having that same function in sandusky Ohio, or ordering a hunk of cheese from Florence and having it delivered to someplace like Lincoln Nebraska in 24 hours. People too will move greater distances more often. Workers will relocate to continents like they do cities today. Any industry that propels this kind of mobility will grow, and those that cannot keep will shrink. (needless to say I dont think investing in say, Ford Motor Co. will be very beneficial, but Boeing certainly).

-- Ian MacAllen, July 24, 2001

>>>>> but the future mobility I am talking about is having that same function in sandusky Ohio, or ordering a hunk of cheese from Florence and having it delivered to someplace like Lincoln Nebraska in 24 hours. People too will move greater distances more often. Workers will relocate to continents like they do cities today. >>>>>

To order cheese from Florence there would first have to be changes in the law - US import regulations, Italian VAT taxes, and US health and safety regulations. For people to move easily from continent to continent would require a relaxation of nearly every countries immigration laws. Even wiring the US, as you suggest, may require changes in the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

All of which reminds me of the least predictable element of future progress: whether the laws will change to allow it. We can see clearly what the technologies might allow, we cannot see what will be made legal and what won't. Free immigration seems unlikey, there is too much fear of the outsider, both here in and in Europe. Reforming the reforms of the Telecommunications Act will require political will power.

Nor is all the reactionary sentiment in the government, the private sector is at least as bad: We've all seen what file sharing allows music fans, and we've all seen that the music industry is more intent on crushing new opportunities than looking for ways to profit from them.

Vast economic change demands cultural and political change too. The birth of capitalism brought with it the Reformation and later the English Revolution. It might be that before the full benefits of the Internet can be developed we will need a minor revolution in our culture and our politics.

-- Lawrence Krubner, July 31, 2002