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The future
of computing

What do you want first, the good news or the bad news?

or My Viewpoint and Welcome To It,
by Daniel Will-Harris

(Predicted as of May 96 and updated November 1998) The future is an ever-changing target. Just two years ago no one predicted the explosion of the Internet. No technology has taken hold so widely so fast. Because the Internet changes distribution, always one of the most difficult and costly parts of commerce, it changes the world. And it changes it faster than anyone would have dreamed. What seemed like a logical chain of events ten years ago now looks quaint or even stupid.

And while predictions are a dangerous business (it's too easy for people to tell when you're wrong), I've been predicting computer trends for years, and have almost always been right (while simultaneously almost always being wrong about high tech stock fluctuations). So I'm not going to let the danger stop me.

Net Work

It's a client/server world. The big companies are the servers and we become their clients in more ways than one. Oracle and Sun's push to cheap "net stations" is only ostensibly about cheap access to the Internet. Look ahead more than 12 months and you see it's really about a radical change in personal and business computing. It's about a change from "automobile"-like computers which all run on their own to mass-transit-like networks where everyone shares resources (which, in the case of information, can provide more power and freedom than it does in the world of transportation).

It's about a change from a large expenditure up-front for hardware and software to a continued expenditure to "rent" your software (and even your hardware).

It's also about stripped down client computers that force their users to be dependent on a few large, multi-national server providers. Nothing's ever free, and while these changes will have advantages, they'll come at a price. Here's what I see happening in the not too distant future.

Good News:

  • Most people never buy a computer, they use their TV and a rented network box.
  • If you do buy a computer, it will be small and cheap.
  • Instead of paying a large sum up front for your software, you pay a subscription fee every month, as you do for your cable TV "programming."
  • Your software is always the latest version.
  • Your files are always available to you no matter where you are (even when you don't have your own computer).
  • Files will all share a handful of common file formats so they're always compatible.
  • You can use any new software at any time - because you're merely renting it.

The Bad News:

  • The low-cost, low-power hardware makes you dependent on outside network systems. If you get a busy signal you can't even write a note. If their system crashes and they lose your work they're not liable. If one of their networks goes down, millions of users are simultaneously without computing power. If your phone line goes down you're out of luck.
  • Most users won't even have disk drives to store their personal data, which means that privacy can become a problem, even "secure" systems are not as private as your own computer with the modem turned off. Being international, some governments may have the right to read and index the files of their citizens-or even anyone on the system, creating countries that do for demographics what the Swiss now do for banks, or countries that do for illegal data what illegal arms dealers now provide.
  • Most users may end up with fewer software choices because the big three networks are not unlike the big three TV networks-each network has more power over what software users get to use.
  • The bills never stop--networks will try to charge you by the minute or the byte--there'll be as many subscription choices as their are phone plans, with 1,000 times the small print. Businesses may actually find this new method more expensive than the old one, as site-licenses are less attractive for networks than they were for boxed software vendors.
  • The three major networks will fight for your business the way that phone companies do now. This will be great for competition and annoying at dinner time when salespeople interrupt meals with video phone calls. It will also be confusing, and eventually expensive, as some people feel compelled to join more than one service to access the various programs they want.

The Players:

Three computer "networks" replace software stores as we know them. Here's what could happen.

  • "msn" the Microsoft Network will remain number one because of MS's expertise in consumer software and marketing. Microsoft will buy small software companies the way you and I buy bread at the market, and this will give them an enormous library for their users.

    Microsoft will also have been smart in its "entertainment programming" connections, and its deals with NBC and Speilberg's "DreamWorks SKG" will give it the edge in entertainment. Because Microsoft's stated goal has always been "a computer on every desk and Microsoft software on every computer," their pricing will be so aggressive that they will always be the least expensive service, making up the difference in volume.

    Windows will become scaleable from the wristwatch to the desktop, with everything including microwave ovens in-between. Don't laugh. ActiveX is just the prelude to apps that can run natively on the desktop and remotely via client/server and it's a modular strategy that will prove highly effective by allowing the company to move in almost any direction, and many directions at once.
  • WOL: (November 98) - If AOL and Netscape really do merge, there will be a new on-line giant that covers both the web and a proprietary service. WOL (World OnLine) will have to also get ino the set-to-box market and fast, but it has the resoures to do so.
  • "The Oracle" will be number two in subscribers. Oracle will work closely with cable and phone companies to try to make their technology ubiquitous. They could purchase the Newton division from Apple and make it the core of their WebStation technology. It's small size and light weight, combined with it's infrared port made it the perfect web interface/TV/Cable remote control device. The lack of a keyboard and good handwriting recognition will be a decided plus a mass market where most people can't type.

    Adobe will merge with Oracle to combat the ever powerful Microsoft. Motorola will take over Apple bit by bit to ensure that there is still a big market for their chips. Motorola then works closely with Oracle to fight Intel and Sun.

    Then with Adobe's publishing expertise, Apple's marketing expertise and Claris Software for application, Oracle will have a total package of experience in home, school, and consumer software which they otherwise lack. Apple's long-touted "ease of use" advantage becomes a non-issue as all systems become more point-and-click. Instead, the Oracle will work hard to make their system faster (if more expensive) than Microsoft's, and Apple's famous Industrial Design know-how will create web station hardware that fits every decor, from Colonial to Star Trek. The push will be a class-based "up-scale" approach to try to make their system less "plebeian" and more exclusive-the Lexus of computers.
  • "The Sun" will be Sun's network for users who are currently using workstations. It's still faintly possible that Sun will buy the Newton, or all of Apple, in which case they will do what I've just said Oracle will do, in which case Oracle will focus on cable TV and video-on-demand services.
  • "IBN" is the International Business Network, run by IBM. Their expertise in business solutions serves them well in the business market, which they've focused on because of their lack of experience in the home market.
  • "M" and "O" - Both Microsoft and Oracle will offer premium-price, premium-performance options for business customers who may end up paying by the second for neural-net-super-computer power and performance. Both companies will spend years trying to trademark single alphabet letters.
  • "3PO" is the Third Party Organization, an open Internet-based group of small commercial and shareware groups that can't find a place on a major network. 3PO helps foster new software and gives narrow vertical market software an outlet. These programs are mostly written in Java, but because this network isn't as fast as the commercial networks, many of these programs require more memory or processing power on the host web stations, meaning they're out of the reach of most of the mass market.

File formats

Because each network wants to make it harder for you to switch to a competitor, each network will use their own file formats. All three will support VR.

  • Ole! Microsoft will use an object-based OLE container with an icon that looks like a bullfighter and support for the new Olfactory-OLE to tap the sense that other VR systems have ignored.
  • Juggler. Oracle will use OpenDoc enabled Acrobat with a very cute animated icon that can have your own face on the juggler and support their proprietary adults-only "sX".
  • Matrix. IBN uses an OS/2 container called Matrix with a logo that looks not unlike Novell's new node logo, since IBM will have purchased Novell.

The good news is that to make it easier for people to switch, each network will work very hard on their format converter so that, eventually, conversions will be accurate. The bad news is that the file formats will be ever-changing in an attempt to block the competition. Your files stored on their network will automatically be updated to the new file format (without you having to do a thing), thereby continuing to make it harder for your to switch services.

The Options

Just as in life, not everyone will fit neatly into the categories that the networks will provide.

Home Users

  • Color ink-jet printers will be the #1 accessory. With cues from high-end ink printers like Iris, the best home printers will become photo-realistic. Epson's new printers already fit this description for under $300.
  • "Zip drives" will be the second most popular peripherals, with each major service licensing their own brands that all share a common format to aid in compatibility.
  • "Kits" will be shorthand slang for "VR Kits" which include VR add-ons that are lightweight and unobtrusive. Glasses will be the size and weight of current eyeglasses. Gloves won't be required (as hand placement can be sensed by sensors), but high-end touch-gloves add feel-feedback. Oracle's sX Kit comes up with stimulating new uses for feel feedback system.
  • Parental Control: Parents will be able to see a log of everything their kids have done, and read their digital diaries the way they now read their written ones. Parents will love this. Kids will hate this, especially because it requires retinal scans which are difficult to get past. When kids do get past (or visit the station of a friend with obliging or uncaring parents), their own parents can still see a log of their activities, since they're based on an individual, not a terminal. As always, kids will tend to know more about all this than their parents, so more than a few parents will lose their homes to bad investments made by their kids without their knowledge or consent.
  • Peripherals will mostly come in the form of PC Cards (formerly known as PC MCIA) so they can be added without having to open the computer.

Professional Users

  • Some users will still require high-powered, self-contained workstation computers for scientific and graphic design work. These workstations can work self-contained, or can distribute data processing between their own multiple processors and the external network.
  • Ultra-high-res LCD and Plasma screens will provide increased workspace and resolution. The CRT will be mostly obsolete because of its size, weight, power consumption, and magnetic radiation.
  • SecureCards. Professional users will be especially security sensitive, and all their transactions on the net will be super-encrypted using custom chips. This will require special net subscriptions (at an extra charge, of course).

    While the Supreme Court will rule that computer data can only be decrypted if a search warrant has been obtained, a 12-man ultra-conservative group called "The Dirty Dozen" will try to pass the same legislation every year that would require the FBI to constantly decrypt, scan, and index all data from all citizens. Similar local rules have been consistently found unconstitutional, so the 12 are working on a constitutional amendment.

Finally, anytime I say anything remotely positive about Microsoft I receive hate mail telling me I'm everything from an idiot to a dupe of Satin. I'm neither, I just give credit where it's due, and would never underestimate a company I not-entirely-jokingly call "The Borg."

For a November 98 update on this, click here.

Why Microsoft
wouldn't die:

Most companies are corporate "institutions." Microsoft is more like a corporate organism. Institutions have a rigid, self-perpetuating organization. Microsoft is more like a natural organism in that it has a constantly shifting organization designed to perpetuate the company, not the individual departments of the organization.

In an institution, a single department can bring down the entire unit because they're looking out for their own good, not the entire institution's. In Microsoft, individual departments are expendable if they are not working in the best interest of the entire organism.

Institutions become ingrown and outdated because they loathe change. Organisms are constantly eating from the outside and digesting the results, making the outside world a part of them. This keeps them outward looking and constantly changing, based on what they've taken in from the outside world.

When institutions hit the top of their field, they tend to rest on their laurels by saying, "it's always worked in the past." But like other organisms, Microsoft's goal is continued life, through whatever means are necessary. Kill or be killed if necessary. It can never rest or depend merely on what worked in the past. It constantly has to be on the offensive, if not predatory.

Love them or hate them, Microsoft is a new kind of company that's not going away in the foreseeable future (unlike those who underestimate them).

November 98

In the past, Microsoft seemed invincible--both because of their technology, and because of their marketing prowess.

But in the past few years, Microsoft's intense fear and paranoia have worked against it (and the consumer), and instead of working to make their products better and prices lower, they've worked to destroy their competition. In doing so, they've hurt themselves, as well as the market.

Windows98 is a prime example of where Microsoft went wrong. Microsoft claimed that adding the Internet Explorer to the interface was creating a more seamless integration between the customer's computer and the internet.

But the reality was that putting IE on top of the Windows interface just added another layer--both of complexity and things that could go wrong.

One example of how truly un-integrated it is can be seen when you try to edit one of the custom "web pages" that IE can create to display the contents of your hard disk. If you choose edit, you're thrown into the plain ASCII, non-WYSIWYG notepad to try to edit the complex JavaScript. It's ridiculous--and even advanced users can't figure it out. If you try to use the WYSIWYG editor that's included, it can't properly edit these files either, and the results then no longer work and can make your files seemingly disappear.

This is not integration, this is not streamlining, this is not a true "inovation" or improvement in the interface or user experience. This is Machiavellian marketing manipulation, designed to help no one but Microsoft gain market share.

Unless Microsoft puts it focus on better products that really help the customer (not just helping Microsoft), then it's going to lose it's lead just as IBM did to Microsoft.

Finally--Microsoft has to start being more honest and less disingenuous. Microsoft's current whine of "innovation" rings hollow. Yes, Microsoft has innovated in the past, but it's also done a lot of borrowing. And Windows 98 is a perfect example of how totally devoid of innovation they can be except in the marketing department.

If Microsoft truly did more innovation and less whining about how "we must be free to innovate," then everyone, including Microsoft, would be better off.

November 2001: Totalitarian

Lately Microsoft has been treating its own customers like enemies. XP's new "activation" system which requires to register, and re-register when you change your computer hardware is nothing more than a blatant copy-protection scheme.

The only one that's protected is Microsoft, who can now charge people almost $100 per computer to upgrade their operating system. In the past, people could buy one copy and install it on multiple computers (important, since many people now have several home computers). They can't do that now. They can just get Microsoft's "generous" discount of around 15% per additional copy.

In the era when new computers can cost $500, Microsoft's pricing is totally out of whack with the rest of the market. And Microsoft's strong-arm tactics in trying to force corporate customers to upgrade, at huge expense, will, in the end, backfire on them.

Software is important, but why pay a fortune for Microsoft office when you can get the compatible Star Office for free. Businesses can't continue to fork over unreasonable sums of money to Microsoft when they can get the same thing for free. First it's Office, then Windows itself can be replaced by free Linux.

What's important to Microsoft?

One thing that's clear is that security is not important to Microsoft-they've proven this repeatedly.

Clearly Microsoft's own security was important enough with XP for them to institute the "activation" feature (basically forced registration--though some marketing person should win an award for coming up with the term "activation.") And so they got that feature done.

But what about their customers' security? Not very secure, even their credit card numbers. Here's an example.

I'm sure all the smart programmers they have could have made things secure if someone higher up had said, "Hey, guys, this is absolutely vital." But clearly no one did, because it wasn't important to their bottom line.

Microsoft seems to only try when it has competition. XP's TV ads are all about music and video editing, as if many people did these things. Few people do, but the Mac ads all featured this, so Microsoft felt it must be important and was able to copy it. MSN is there to compete with and try to squash AOL. MS doesn't seem to like trying as hard as it must when it has competition. It's much easier just to kill off the competition and then coast.

The thing is--as much as tech people complain about AOL, AOL is actually very user-centric. They have free 800 tech support that's easy to reach and good. If they were giving away their service and charging $23 a month for tech support that alone would be worth it. My niece uses AOL and I had questions when I was helping her, so we called and it was among the best tech support I've ever seen.

And that's something MS refuses to copy. Why? Because they really don't give a crap about their customers. AOL may be big and getting a little bit scarier every day, but they do care about making customers happy, because they see this as the key to their success and growth--which it is. And when they buy web sites, which they do regularly (like www.mapquest.com and www.moviefone.com ) they actually make them better. Why? Because they'll make more money that way.

Microsoft's vision doesn't appear to be about about pleasing customers so that they'll buy more and MS will make more. Lately Microsoft has seemed more totalitarian, like Communist countries that didn't want to let citizens outside their borders, for fear they'd run away.

That's just what MS does. It tries to trap customers within its borders because it's pretty sure they would run away if given a chance. And what kind of attitude is that? It's totally one-sided and self-serving, and in the end it just makes MS get more and more desperate to prevent choice because all they are thinking about is their own survival.

I think that, in the end, just as most communist countries fell apart, so will Microsoft. You can't trap people forever. Sooner or later they will see something better and take the risk required to escape.

Copyright 2001 Daniel Will-Harris, www.will-harris.com