Friday, September 01, 2017

Early Indications August 2017: Reflections on 20 years

Twenty years ago, I went to work for a think tank run by Ernst & Young to lead research into online commerce. I had a robust travel budget and attended a lot of conferences: Internet World, Wall Street Journal Internet Summit, Vortex, Demo, and others. I wrote trip reports that developed a following among colleagues, so in October the Networked Commerce Update newsletter was launched. It was published monthly or twice-monthly, and featured book reviews, research updates, observations, predictions, and conference reports. It’s difficult to believe it’s been running, under various names, for 20 years come October.

So much of what we consider “internet” technology didn’t exist at the time. 

  • Google launched the following year; AltaVista was the “cool” search engine, while Yahoo was still curated by humans. 
  • Texting was virtually unknown in the U.S., though it was taking off in the Nordics. 
  • Consumer GPS was still a few years away. 
  • Wi-fi, MP3s at scale (Napster came along in ’99), and wireless cellular data were all moving from the lab into commercial reality. 
  • Digital cameras stood alone and had underwhelming resolution: the Sony Mavica stored 640x480 images on a 3.5” floppy disk but was a big hit among real estate agents. (Kyocera introduced a Japan-only camera phone a couple years later.) 
  • Wikipedia was preceded by Microsoft Encarta.  
  • Facebook and Twitter were, to a degree anticipated by AOL.
  • Computer monitors were heavy and large. The thought of whole cube farms with double 24” monitors was impossible due to both heat and weight.
  • Apple was essentially dead in the water; the stock was under a dollar.
  • Dialup modems (remember the sound?) were the primary means of connection in the U.S. 
All that said, 1997 had winners. Amazon IPO’d in May 1997: $100 invested then would have been worth about $64,000 at the 20th anniversary. eBay was cracking lots of codes followed by later success stories (including Uber) but had yet to IPO, nor had PayPal helped it scale. Mapquest was paving the way for later wayfinding services. Linux was alive and thriving en route to outlasting AIX (IBM), Sun’s Solaris, HP-UX, and others, becoming the free and open basis on which everything from a watch to a supercomputer could be built. Enterprise websites could already look to Cisco for the winning playbook; FedEx package tracking was one of the first real-time processes ported to a web browser.

Microsoft was such a big winner, particularly after Windows 95 proved to be the on-ramp to Internet browsing and email with its integration of the Internet Protocol communications stack, that the Clinton administration sought to break it up in the style of AT&T about 15 years earlier. The George W. Bush administration later reversed those filings, and the smartphone market eventually did what legal remedies did not: reduce Microsoft’s monopoly power.

Still, the winners are far outnumbered by companies that went away, got bought, or got bought then went away. 

-By 1997 Digital Equipment was in trouble even though they pioneered a 64-bit processor and their search engine was state of the art. Compaq bought DEC in 1998, only themselves to be bought by HP four years later in the wake of the tech-stock bust.

-Netscape’s superhero leadership team of co-founders James Clark (founder of Silicon Graphics) and Marc Andreesen (who cowrote the Mosaic browser at the University of Illinois supercomputing research center) and CEO Jim Barksdale (ex- ATT wireless CEO, ex-FedEx COO) was outmaneuvered by Microsoft’s bundling of Internet Explorer; it was also never clear what the browser business model was. Netscape was bought by AOL, which merged with Time Warner.  

-@Home was an early broadband provider launched by several cable operators in 1996. The company’s 1999 merger with the Excite portal (which had discussed acquisition by Yahoo a month prior) combined “pipes” and content in a disaster. The merged entity’s stock price peaked at $128 before dropping to $1 in late 2001. One of the company’s moves helped define the “Internet bubble” as it bought the online greeting card company Blue Mountain Arts for $780 million; that company was subsequently bought by American Greetings in 2001 for $35 million.

It really is hard to digest just how much of daily life is new since 1997: imagining a day without texting, Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube, smartphones, Apple IoS devices, glass keyboards, GPS, wi-fi, or flat-screen displays feels like harkening back to horseless carriages in 1930. 

What will be next? That is, what parts of life in 2017 will seem quaint and unimaginably primitive in 2037? I have two candidates:
  • I have said many times that the car will change more in the next ten years than in the last 80. Many automakers are declaring their intention to shift to alternatives to internal combustion engines, many cities are embracing bicycles seriously (Seattle is successfully slashing the number of single-occupant vehicles), and autonomous technologies will benefit from the leaps being made in machine-learning hardware and software. What that adds up to I don’t know, but e-bikes will be a pretty significant piece of the mix, I’ll wager, especially in the world outside the U.S.
  • Not only will the world be much more densely populated in 2037, en route to ~9 billion people by 2050, but it will be older as life expectancies increase on every continent. Thus I predict we will see new attitudes, accommodations, and applications of technology to the aging process. Exoskeletons, active prosthetics, and cognitive enhancements (possibly via augmentation similar to cochlear implants or pacemakers) will help address dementia, loss of mobility, and other consequences of long life. Rather than increase health costs with dramatic and expensive interventions soon before death, perhaps we will invest in quality of life over the longer term. I won’t go on the limb to predict the U.S. health care system’s blueprint, but do imagine that the current broken model will be replaced by something different.

Next month we'll take a closer look at those 20 years of newsletters, seeing where I missed big developments or made silly predictions.