Monday, January 25, 2010

Early Indications January 2010: Do You Remember?

Looking back over the 30 or so years of the personal computing era, I'm struck by how easily we discard the past, how often we miss a revolution when we're in the middle of it, and how few moments stop us in our tracks, giving us reason to demarcate a historical transition. Everybody is different, of course, but I'll wager you may have some similar reactions to the thought experiment I played out over the holidays. Overall, I was struck by how few times I appreciated the historical importance of an event in the moment.

Do you remember . . . where you were when the Berlin wall fell?

I do not. As I argue elsewhere, 1989 marks a convenient beginning to the "modern" era of globalization, mobile telecommunications, and the rise of the Internet. After the 1960s, with the Kennedy assassinations, moon landing, and a "living room war," followed by the Munich Olympic terror and fall of Saigon in 1975, perhaps "culture fatigue" set in. For whatever reason (perhaps it was because I was on the academic job market, with dismal results), November 1989 does not register.

Do you remember . . . your first mobile phone?

This is much clearer. It was a Nokia 101 (still for sale here), used only "for emergencies." I had had friends whose wealthy parents had car phones, which were big, expensive, and exotic. As I was none of those, my pattern of usage had to reflect my station; the device was not to be used trivially. But it was still fun to know I could order pizza on the way home rather than arriving at my destination, calling, and setting out again.

Do you remember . . . the "video game war" in Iraq?

The incredible night shots, the 15 minutes of [U.S.] fame for Canadian Arthur Kent (aka the Scud Stud), and the television-centric news coverage feel like a very long time ago. After the USS Cole, 9/11, and Richard Reid, "asymmetric" warfare features extremely few visual highlights for the U.S. forces; our side has yet to see a positive iconic image of 21st-century warfare.

Do you remember . . . your first e-mail address? What about the second?

Here as so often, I was a late adopter. Teaching at Harvard in the early 1990s, I followed the lead of neither my Ph.D. advisor nor my students, instead getting e-mail pretty late: 1994, when I entered the commercial work force on the Lotus Notes e-mail infrastructure that was typical of consulting firms at the time.

Do you remember . . . the first time you saw the Web?

This was a lightning bolt for me, as vivid as the my first car. The CIO at my consulting firm showed me NCSA Mosaic (which looked like this), and all the stuff I'd been reading about WAIS, Archie, and Gopher faded as I heard from my Silicon Valley friends about this amazing startup called Netscape which was going to be even bigger than 3DO, the supposedly "can't miss" video game outfit. About a year afterward, I saw Pointcast, the way-ahead-of-its-time streaming service whose graphic intensity, profligate use of resources, and viral growth combined to make it a deadly network-killer. I still would love to see it again, for nostalgia's sake if nothing else: old browsers and web pages (remember the original gray with blue text?) can still be found. Pointcast exists only in [human] memory, I gather. (If you want to remember Windows 3.11, here's a brilliant rendition that runs in a browser, complete with Minesweeper.)

Do you remember . . . your first Internet purchase?

I don't, precisely, but would wager it was an Amazon book. Amazon no doubt knows that. The firm's status as a "gateway drug" to Internet shopping cannot be underestimated: because the navigation was good, because they delivered, and because the price/selection/convenience equation was so positive, Amazon initiated millions of consumers into behaviors they repeated in stock trading, travel booking, and medical care.

Do you remember . . . being misunderstood in an instant message or e-mail?

Both media are emotionally "flat," doing a generally poor job of conveying nuance. For someone with a deadpan mien and a frequent recourse to irony, they presented numerous opportunities for miscommunication and, when I was lucky, damage control. The development of new conventions with no real-life analog (haha, lol, emoticons) illustrates how human interaction adapts to the strengths and limits of the available media.

Do you remember . . . Windows 95?

Microsoft's ultimate launch was possibly the apex of the company's influence. Contrast the Rolling Stones to the Jerry Seinfeld ad of 2008, for example. People camped out at CompUSA stores (speaking of memory lane) to get their hands on the OS that unlocked the Internet for millions of users. Vista and even Windows 7, the best product Microsoft has introduced for a long, long time, have received only passing public buzz, the amazing launch party video notwithstanding.

Do you remember . . . your first text message?

This will vary wildly by geography. It's not so long ago that plumbers and doctors carried pagers, then mobile phones were essentially repurposed as interactive short massage devices. We now have the phenomenon of telephones (literally "sound from far away") that carry no voices.

Do you remember first seeing Google? If so, what search engine did it displace?

The clean, sparse interface posed a sharp contrast to the portal wars of the late 1990s. I heard about it pretty early, and as a heavy searcher, I was using a combination of Northern Light and Alta Vista at the time. Other companies you may have used, then forgotten, include Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, and Inktomi.

Do you remember . . . when a "conservative" investor sold after a 30% appreciation?

In 1998, I knew numerous friends and colleagues who were planning their life on the basis of a Netscape-like IPO (at the "-ents," for example: Scient, Viant, Sapient), saying sagely that "retiring at 40 really makes the most sense so that I can travel for a few years then give back to society, possibly by teaching."

Do you remember . . . your first flat screen display?

More important, do you remember your last CRT display? Here's a major change that took place so gradually, yet inevitably, that the CRT's demise was like a sinking ship slipping beneath the waves. LCD panels, meanwhile, continue on a march toward bigger displays, at lower prices, every year as new fabs come on line. I write this while staring at a display that's bigger than my first color TV, from about 18 inches away. And I'm leaning toward it, as if to crawl inside, rather than reclining or retreating.

Do you remember . . . the first video you saw on the Internet?

Before YouTube, uploading and hosting video online was a headache. Creating and editing it, meanwhile, was non-trivial. As if overnight, cell phones and cheap HD video cameras are capturing decent to excellent image quality. Editing can be done on any number of platforms, while Cisco a) draws steep graphs of traffic growth and b) holds the enviable position as prime supplier to a perpetual network upgrade to accommodate all this multimedia.

Do you remember . . . your last landline phone bill?

Whether replaced by a cable company's triple play or mobile substitution, the fixed Bell company telephone is in rapid retreat. Whereas the first cell phone might be a landmark, few of us pay much attention to letting go of an outdated technology. After the USB stick became ubiquitous, overnight it seemed, I can't name the last time I saved a document to a 3.5 inch floppy. More relevantly, neither can I remember archiving each generation of storage to its replacement.

Do you remember . . . your last roll of photographic film?

Once again, the seismic transition is accomplished one defection at a time, and those moments happen when the cost-benefit equation no longer makes sense (in this case, the price of a roll of Kodak or Fuji film, the cost of developing and printing even the worthless photos, and the difficulty of sharing the good ones). In other instances, the shrinking user bases make the economics of scale unattractive from the seller's perspective, meaning price increases, quality sacrifices, or both, and again, the customer may be driven away by vendors who may feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. The same dynamic seems to hold for newspaper subscriptions.

Do you remember . . . when GPS navigation was exotic?

Last week's announcement by Nokia that it will supply turn-by-turn directions to its smartphones obviously countered Google's foray into mobile hardware. Caught as collateral damage in this contest, meanwhile, are the standalone GPS makers like Garmin or TomTom, who not that long ago offered something clever and soon to be essential. In a matter of months, navigation on the mobile platform has become a commodity, table stakes in competitions for a global audience of hyperconnected nomads.

Do you remember . . . your first cross-generational "friend" on Facebook?

As the massive social network grows larger than the U.S. population, it has moved beyond its initial cadre of college students and recent graduates. Preteens join regularly, as do parents and relatives of teenagers hoping to a) stay relevant to or b) monitor their kin, as the case may be. Going forward, persona management for multiple publics will become second nature as the tool set increases in ease of use and flexibility.

Do you remember . . . when retail store replaced CD racks with vinyl?

This has been fascinating. Whether for reasons of its resistance to Limewire redistribution, or its purported fidelity, or the richness of cover art, or contrarian retro-hipness, the phonograph record is one of the few analog revivals in the digital tsunami. It is not impossible to envision turntable sales outpacing CD players, if not Blu-ray machines, within five years. For more, see this story in the New York Times from December 2009.

What will be next? Domestic robots (not just anthropomorphized vacuum cleaners)? Battery-powered cars? Implanted communications devices? Heavier reliance on analog storage methods like paper, for fear of snooping, blackouts, or cloud computing bankruptcies? The vinyl situation suggests that in some instances, analog may not be completely supplanted by digital competitors, so the 2010s will likely see some more surprising instances of both/and.

It would appear that we cut our ties with the past without much thought or regret, while true breakthroughs do not always capture our imagination: in November 2001, Apple Computer was struggling, and to suggest that its expensive, idiosyncratic MP3 player would eventually sell more than 225 million units would have been delusional. Somewhere, some entrepreneurs and inventors are similarly disregarding conventional wisdom and against all odds will be the heroes of January 2020.