The Internet: Assessing past and future communications revolutions
Excerpted Introduction (via Andrew Odlyzko School of Mathematics University of Minnesota
Predicting the evolution of the Internet is an error-prone business. An instructive, as well as amusing, exercise is to read the previous January/February 2000 Millennial Forecast issue of Internet Computing. The authors were all Internet luminaries with sterling records. Yet, although there were many perceptive and accurate comments in their essays, most of their predictions turned out to significantly miss the mark. In many cases this came from overestimates of the speed of change. That is a tendency that is almost universal among inventors and promoters of new technologies. As just one example, Bill Gates predicted that books would “go digital … broadly in the next five years.” With the arrival of the Amazon Kindle and other ebook readers, we are probably finally seeing the start of this transformation. But it now seems safe to say that a broad move towards digital books is at least five years further out, fifteen years after Gates made his forecast. Many other predictions seem in retrospect to have been completely misguided. For example, Eric Schmidt, at the time head of Novell, touted a secure worldwide “distributed directory service” as the “master technology” of the next wave on the Internet. Yet such a service is nowhere in sight. Instead, Schmidt at his current position at Google has found how to gain profit and influence through insecure statistical approaches that serve sufficiently the needs of the public and the advertisers.
The lack of accuracy in the previous forecast issue should not be a surprise. History is replete with examples of the difficulty of forecasting how quickly technologies will advance, and how society will use them. Hence the most that we can do is speculate, and this essay should be taken with a grain of salt.
Although accurate prediction is hard, there are some broad patterns that are likely to persist, such as “a continuation of current trends in bandwidth and connectivity” mentioned in Stephen Lukasik’s essay in the 2000 issue. And, based on extensive historical precedents, some major misperceptions will govern many decisions about research, development, and deployment of new technologies. What is not well known, is that people can be remarkably oblivious to massive moves that are taking place around them and affect their industries. In the previous forecast issue there is just one discussion of voice, in the prediction (in Jim White’s essay) that voice browsers would become widespread and important. Yet the big communications revolution that was taking place then, and has continued over the past decade, overshadowing the Internet all the time, has been the growth in mobile voice.