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<The foreseeable future
   of computing>

    By Daniel Will-Harris
One of the more interesting things about technology is that you can never be quite sure where it will go. Yes, we expect computers to get faster and software to get more powerful (though we haven’t really seen it get a lot smarter).

Just when you think that something is set in stone (which it can’t be, because we’re not talking about the “real” world, but the digital one, which is by its own nature, ephemeral), something happens and everything changes.

The Internet is a great example of this—it was around for a long time, but no one I know (including myself) predicted how widespread it would get, or how quickly.

So now I’m putting myself out on a limb and saying where I think things will go in the next few years. Not everyone agrees with this prediction, but it seems pretty clear to me. As with all prognosticating, only time will tell.

>Set top boxes, the final frontier
(at least for a while)

Recent news coverage of AOL buying Netscape always includes this: “AOL will use Sun's Java programming technology to offer AOL services on what the company calls "next-generation Internet appliances."

Now, you’ve probably read about the Internet-enhanced refrigerator which includes a bar-code scanner so you can scan products as you run out of them, then the refrigerator contacts the grocer and orders replacements for you. Uh huh.

That’s not what “Internet appliances” will be (well, eventually maybe some). What they’re really talking about are new ways to connect to the Internet without a computer. Of course, it will be a computer, it just won’t look or act like today’s computers.

The first glimpse of this is WebTV. People laughed at it when it came out, but it’s selling well, and for $99-$299 you can get on the web for browsing and e-mail easier than you can plug in a VCR. That’s a lot easier (and less expensive) than buying a PC and learning it.

You can read more of my computing predictions on my personal web site.

>Free web access and appliances

But it will go further than that. I could imagine AOL giving away free Internet-connected wristwatches just to get “eyeballs” (the lovely term the industry uses instead of “visitors” or “viewers” or the Disneyesque “Guests”) to tune into their hard-coded entry portal first.

According to the NY Times, being wired is a "comparatively elitist activity," with only 25 percent of U.S. households online and 5 percent making e-purchases.

A “net-appliance” that’s as easy to use as a toaster (I personally think that many microwave ovens are too complex for many people!) would raise that percentage.

Or how about this—a free web box, sponsored by, guess who, sponsors, who would show you their ads each time you turn it on (or all the time at the bottom of the screen, ala the hideous original “Prodigy,” and hopefully less intrusively at different times, ala TV.

The bottom line is that Microsoft should be worried. HTML is a universal language that will make it easier to use programs other than Windows and Microsoft office and yet still be compatible.

>So what will Microsoft do next?

Well, with the Justice department breathing down their neck, who really knows. And I hate to give them advice they can use, but I’m sure they’ve already thought of this, so it’s not like they’ll learn anything from me—just so that you’ll know what they’re up to.

Watch for Microsoft to start buying cable companies with the billions it has in cash in the bank. (Click here to read an update which shows they are doing just that)

They can’t do it right now in the US, because the Feds might look upon it with suspicion. But this is the next big frontier of computing, this is where most people will get their computer power in the future, and if Microsoft loses this new market, it will have fallen into what I call the “WordStar Syndrome.”

Microsoft has to buy the cable companies, so it can control what kind of boxes they buy, and, in turn, what software is inside those boxes.

At the same time, AOL is huge and has the money to buy cable companies itself. It also has Netscape, and perhaps more importantly, Sun, who is dedicated to working with them on technology. Sun is desperate to overthrow Microsoft, and Java just might be able to do that after all. So if AOL bought cable companies and used this to build up a large installed base of set-top computer boxes (and small, low-cost notebook computers), they could, realistically, create a radical change in computing that would leave Microsoft out in the cold.

It’s happened before. PC’s started to displace mainframes and minis, something people didn’t expect at a time when big computers were filling entire rooms. Windows replaced DOS, which was doing just fine. And now the net, which has enjoyed a mostly unexpected and unbelievably fast acceptance and growth, could do to Windows what it did to DOS and CP/M and the Mac.

OK, you say, but there’s a ton of software for Windows and none for this new thing. Well, that’s mostly true, though there are some Java-based applications and suites. But I still remember when DOS started up—there was no software for it, but it sold once there were just a few key programs available. Same with Windows—I remember when people used Windows mostly for its big graphic clock (and perhaps a very slow PageMaker).

OK, but now there’s more momentum, you say. People won’t buy some new system that can’t run Doom.

The truth is that most people do relatively few things with their computers. Internet access and e-mail are now probably #1, with word processing (and web site creation) a close second, then light accounting and or spreadsheets. Then a much much smaller group uses more high powered software to do specific, technical things, such as graphic design.

People don’t want software. They want solutions. If they can get the solutions they want in a cheap or free Internet-based box, that’s what most people will do.

>Does Microsoft really
have a monopoly today?

Well, let’s look at this way: if they had any real competition would a single copy of Microsoft Word still cost $350 at a time when an entire new computer can be purchases for under $600? I don’t think so. At a time when most applications are $99 or $199 tops? If Microsoft Office were priced at $199, then it might be in line with other software prices. But it’s not, it’s $495.

How can they do that? They can do it because they’ve effectively put everyone else out of business. Yes, there’s Corel WordPerfect and there’s the Lotus Smart Suite, and they’re both actually good products (OK, so I have to be completely honest—I don’t think WordPerfect ever really made the transition to the Windows version well and it is not, frankly, as good or even as solid as Microsoft Word, but it’s not bad software).

But the combined market share of these two is so small that if you want your files to be compatible with everyone else’s, you’ll find it easier if you have Word or MS Office. Why WordPerfect and Lotus haven’t done a better job reading and writing Word/Office files is a mystery—the file format is really the key—and Lotus does a much better job of this than WordPerfect which still can’t read or write Rich Text Format files very well. So Microsoft can’t take all the blame for people not buying these other products in droves.

Breaking up Microsoft won’t prevent this problem from persisting (though I don’t think it’s a bad idea to split the company into two), but more people sharing more documents through HTML will help eliminate this problem—and that’s something you can start to do yourself. Even if you use Word, save files in HTML format to share them.

>What should you do today?

Don’t worry about it. Most people reading this site are heavy-duty computer users. You’ll still have a computer in five or ten years, because you’re demanding and require more specialized programs that can work locally and faster. But don’t be surprised to see this change, and start thinking of “the web” as “the computer” of the future. Maybe not for you most of the time, but for most of the people, most of the time.


>Links of interest:

News.com set top coverage

Also according to news.com, Marc Andreessen, creator of the first web browser and one of the co-founders of Netscape, is investing in yet another set-top box startup. Click here to read the article.


>>UPDATE - 4-4-99

From Wired News:
“Microsoft plans to acquire more stakes in cable television and telephone firms to speed up the development of digital pipes providing high-speed Internet, TV, and telephone services.

‘We want to buy shares in cable and telephone companies,’ Microsoft executive vice president Bob Herbold told a news conference Wednesday.”

They may say they´re doing this to provide more high-speed services, but they’re really doing it to control the cable box operating systems.

And where is microsoft starting this shopping spree? Europe? Why? So it doesn't have to deal with the FCC and FTC here in the US. Once it develops cable-box top hardware and software and makes it standard in Europe (and it's newly minted Chinese deals), it can tell everyone else, "Hey, look at all the people who use our stuff around the world, shouldn't you use it in the US, too?"

Uh huh?

So where do they want to go today? Into your living room. So first your home office, which they already dominate, then the living room, then the kitchen, bedroom bathroom? Do we really want MS wired into every aspect of our lives? I used to like Microsoft, but now they're scaring me.
 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and EsperFonto, the web’s only typeface selection system.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved