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January 13, 1998

A Few Good Years

by D.B. Spalding

In the past few months, the San Francisco-based Last Saturdays symposium series has invited noted guests to discuss the possibilities that the next five, and twenty, years might bring to our now familiar computer interfaces, and the shared network called the Internet. The results have provided some intriguing ideas, but have also demonstrated that prognostication can be tricky business.

Founded by Bob Ayres, the Last Saturdays series is a respected monthly gathering of industry insiders to discuss pithy topics arising from the interactive and online markets. The Next 20 Years event in May 1997, and The New Networks event in December, 1997, both sparked my imagination because instead of talking about what's happening now, they attempted to shed light on what might happen next.

The Next 20 Years

To discuss the computer of 2017, Ayres invited VRML pioneer Mark Pesce, MIT computer scientist Michael Dertouzos and think-tank director Paul Saffo; CNN business news icon Lou Dobbs moderated the Next 20 Years round table.

Pesce imagined an "hypnetic" interface, in which data objects were not concise and in-your-face, but vague and fuzzy until the user decided to add interest and focus to the equation. Information, connections, and relationships would coalesce out of the stream of consciousness that the user wielded as a primary interface. This idea has some antecedents in the fiction of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, but hits the mark in the abstract. There will be some kind of super- intuitive interface that supersedes the clunky methods of today (keyboard, flat- surface mouse, and two-dimensional visual displays). Who knows, the idea of an "operating system" interface (be it MacOS, Windows, UNIX, or shell) may slip behind the more humane method of directly manipulating data. The interfaces of today come close, very close, to letting us forget the program and just handle the content directly.

Michael Dertouzos had a more realistic view of the next few years. He expected the workplace of information processing to become more robust, and the technology would slip into the background and become transparent. The humming of our refrigerators is no longer exciting. Moreover, information services would open up as the new computers, and new networks, allow people from around the world to interact with thousands of others, a motif that Pesce also asserted. Whatever the interface, the user would be able to reach out to more data, and more friends, with greater ease. And, according to Dertouzos, this would lead to greater prosperity and growth. Plenty of work for everybody,... a portrait that the business-oriented audience clearly appreciated.

Paul Saffo, a noted forecaster of the technological future at the Institute for the Future, had an intriguing detour to offer. He sees the growing miniaturization of components leading to a blossoming of sensors that perform all sorts of functions. In theory, we can have cameras, microphones and other sophisticated devices looking everywhere, linking everything. But this spells a provocative end to the "digital revolution." Sensors, you see, are typically analog devices. Accelerating technology will allow these new analog components to conquer the digital domain, Saffo said, just as digital transistors and integrated circuits spelled a temporary death knell for older, inefficient analog computer devices. Once we can put sensory organs on hybrid analog/digital (networked) computers, we can expect to seem them acting independently, even intelligently.

I have to take a contemporary view of what Saffo suggests. Even now, affordable microelectronic devices are allowing users to install automated routines that work while we're away. The processes may be as innocuous as system maintenance (my own systems scan, diagnose, defragment and backup data nightly, while I sleep), or may be more complicated. Enterprise systems are configured to provide a wide array of self-starter routines and responses while the administrator is away on more important business. Most IT specialists I know carry pagers; their systems will call for them if there's trouble.

I suspect that, in the 20 years to come, devices will get smaller, cheaper and easier to use (offering common interface elements, if there is still an "interface"). These devices will plug into others, they will automatically perform functions ... and the user will be able to determine how the device functions even when it's not at hand. Extended to networked and installed devices, those too will be working in the background according to the user's desires, and will do so with increasing scope and sophistication. Smart homes, self-driving cars, artificial intelligences ... will no longer be the domain of science fiction. To some extent, they'll only be so far away as our local consumer electronics boutique. Using them all will be easy ... the interface has got to evolve, and if it would only, please, evolve so that it can adapt to the user's actions, and begin to anticipate actions (self- configure), then we won't be dragging our way through manuals for each new home appliance.

The New Networks

More recently, Last Saturdays brought together some local celebrities to discuss The New Networks. The conversation was more down to earth, even banal, but some clearly opposed conceptions came forth. A venture capitalist type rather charmingly predicted that "the big guys" would take over the Web, consolidating content and providing centers of attraction. Blech.

Tom Abate, technology columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, took the pluralistic view, emphasizing that the Web, unlike TV or publishing, was two-way, and was not limited in the number of channels it could hold. As long as everyone had access, the "grass will grow wherever there are cracks in the sidewalk."

Milo Medin, no stranger to the Internet as the man who helped craft TCP/IP, is now making news as the network designer for @Home. As an admitted "UNIX geek," he continues to place his faith on open standards and common building blocks, which allow users to continue sharing information and resources in a way that TV and other mass-media can't quite achieve. Medin has become something of a cheerleader of the home user sector of the 'Net, partly because @Home is aligned to provide incredible bandwidth to so many people, via the innocuous in-road of cable. His expectations were bright, with more access points, and wider bandwidth for the folks at home. What home users do with it remains the domain of this grand experiment.

I believe in what Abate suggests, not because it's an attractive principle, but because it's already happening. After the seminar he provided me with his essay on "Cooperative Arrangement Networks," small business alliances of people who could make deals without ever meeting,... because the products that would be bought and sold were digital intellectual property. Such product can be created and moved across the Web instantaneously, without relying on Amtrak or interstate trucking combines. I see it happening now in some of the more interesting web sites I know. The Fray, Flabjab, Element, 54,.... are but a few of the great, not-for-much- profit sites that feature talented, young writers sharing their ideas via a direct modus operandi that's better than that of most sites the "big guys" will erect. A lot of these sites are much better designed, too -- lean, clean, sparkling with plenty of blank space that lets the words become clear.

The real voices on the Web aren't corporate, or commercial ... they're CERTAINLY not sending out e-j-mail. The real voices are enthusiasts who set up web sites that are both personal and insightful. As an example, Justin Hall has become something of a Johnny Appleseed legend. An early HotWired writer, he promoted the gospel of using the Web to publish personal accounts and expressions, even daily journals. Through his own personal site, and personal contacts during crosscountry travels, he preached a new use of the Web as a medium of very personal publication. More than any other early adopter that I know of, his example at http://www.links.net/ has inspired a whole wave of "personal publication" on the Web.

My own experience with mentoring young people has repeatedly demonstrated that Internet enthusiasts want to CHAT. Chat sites, IRC, The Palace, and AOL chat rooms are proof that when people go online, they want to meet and converse with others. As of this writing, AOL's "Buddy List" has become a rallying point for Internet development. Mirabilis' ICQ software was one of the "cool apps" of 1997, allowing users to "page" and then chat with friends, courtesy of the ICQ server. Netscape is developing, with AOL, Internet-based "buddy list" software. Most recently, Microsoft has proposed an open standard (RVP) for buddy list chat protocols that can be used in the business environment.

I myself chat with online friends, and collaborate with a few. But we still have to "go somewhere." My friends who use ICQ are fanatical about it, it's so easy and instantaneous -- "You gotta get it."

When buddy lists and immediate, ad hoc chat channels arise, it's only a matter of time before instant collaboration becomes possible. Tom Abate firmly believes that the "openness" of the Internet will give rise to "cooperative arrangement networks," business relationships that cross borders and time zones to exercise free trade in digital media and intellectual property. In essence, his model is already in place, as Web magazines and productions draw on people around the globe. As electronic commerce gains momentum for end users and consumers, legal firms are plying their trade to ensure legality of deals and agreements that operate across state, and international, borders.


The Internet as a marketplace, and a global village, has arrived. Just how it will be used, and will take new shape, remains to be seen. And that's where the crystal ball comes into play.

It's my belief that we've got a few more good years of having to learn interfaces, get excited about new technologies and devices,... before the whole interface/device thing starts to dissolve and we can get down to real computing, without worrying about the computer. Just as a good cook can whip up wonders in the modern kitchen without getting excited about the mixer, pans, oven and various sink accoutrements. An omelette doesn't taste better when you know what kind of equipment was made to prepare it.

The Last Saturdays' Next 20 Years series goes on the road in 1998. You can find out more at http://www.lastsaturdays.com/.

Links:
http://www.lastsaturdays.com
http://www.lastsaturdays.com/20yrs.html
http://www.sfgate.com
http://www.home.net
http://www.fray.com
http://www.flabjab.com
http://www.element.net
http://www.brassmonkey.com/54
http://www.links.net
http://www.mirabilis.com


D.B. Spalding is an infopreneur and consultant based in Marin County, CA. Many of his articles can be found on the World Wide Web at http://korova.com


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