John McCann

2030

In Technology on March 15, 2006 at 5:09 pm

I was contacted via email by a local newspaper reporter who was working on an article about what our area will be like in 2030, particularly in terms of commuting and the workplace. He wanted to know what computing and communications technologies will allow us to do in 2030.

I sent him the following email and then spoke with him on the telephone about the future.

Going out to the year 2030 is challenging unless you think exponentially. I suggest you read stuff by Ray Kurweil, perhaps the first few chapters of his new book The Singularity Is Near.

You mentioned wireless Internet and cell phones … two technologies that we have only used for about 5 and 15 years, respectively. What new things will the digital revolution bring us 24 years from now? Neither of these are innovations by the telephone companies, and I expect that today’s telcos (Verizon and the new AT&T, in particular) will be bankrupt by then. As may Microsoft. We may be living and working in a world of fiber and wireless that does not have centers (e.g. no telephone switch in the middle; nor a cable front-end). The devices that hang on the ends of this communication cloud will be many, many times more powerful than today’s supercomputers. Some of us may have chips embedded in our brains that augment our intelligence, and other chips that better regulate other parts of our bodies.

Other things will change very little, particularly mechanical things (I used to be a mechanical engineer and saw a long time ago that I should have been an EE). We’ll likely still have the sound barrier to limit air travel, and the bow wave to limit ships. But digital things and optical things will change a lot and the key to getting a glimpse is to understand the nature of exponential change.

I should explain my bankruptcy comment. Microsoft has a profit model that is based upon selling software that people install on their computers. Technology developments during the past few years are pointing to an alternative computing model in which we use software that runs in our browser, instead of installing similar software on our computers. Google’s Gmail and Writely are examples of the former; Microsoft’s Outlook and Word are examples of the latter. If this new model prevails, then it is unclear how Microsoft can sustain its present profitability and perhaps even its viability as a corporation.

Verizon and AT&T are facing a similar problem: old technology with an old business model. Kevin Maney recently wrote about this situation in a column about the Bell South purchase by AT&T:

The local phone companies’ biggest tribulation — and this includes AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest — is that their main business is built on an expensive infrastructure that’s quickly becoming obsolete. They are like railroads at the dawn of the jet age. They send calls around using circuit-switched networks when the world is moving to Internet-style networks. They have millions of miles of skinny copper wire underground and on telephone poles at a time when whole cities are starting to build wireless broadband Internet systems that are better and cheaper.

The year 2030 is very far away in terms of the speed at which digital technologies evolve and business models fail. So it is not a stretch to think that some of the very big and very profitable firms may not exist in 24 years. Twenty four years in this digital technology world may be similar to 100 years in the business world that firms like Procter & Gamble operate.

I occasionally get intrigued by such long-range predictions about technologies, and writing this email has piqued my interest once again. So I will likely be posting several pieces about this topic over the next few weeks.

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