at Futures Past
by Alan Zisman (c) 2005 First
published in Performance
It’s tough to be a high-tech prophet. Personally, I try to
predicting trends more than a year ahead, and even for that, I look at
what happened last year and predict ‘more of the
same’. Bill Gates is
more courageous than I am. After all, he’s made his billions
on future trends, and pushing to refine product development until the
market catches up.
In November 1994, Gates gave a keynote address at that fall’s
show entitled “Information at Your Fingertips
2005”. Now that it is
2005, I thought it worth a look back to see how he did. It helped that
a decade ago, Microsoft’s PR sent me a video tape of the
featuring a y
Gates looking somewhat rumpled in suit and tie.
When you’re one of the world’s richest people, you
don’t have to just
stand up and talk accompanied by a few PowerPoint slides. Instead, his
presentation centered on a custom-produced video set in the Seattle of
Gates’ vision of the future. Every few minutes, Gates paused
to comment on the future technology while a few times the on-screen
characters stop to chat with on-stage Bill. Very slick.
It wasn’t a glorified Microsoft ad; neither the company nor
products are mentioned in the half-hour production. And Gates noted
that it shows a conservative vision: all the technology shown was based
on concepts already in development, at least in limited form, in 1994.
Our story starts off with the late-night murder of a smuggler on a
deserted pier; next morning, we meet a pair of plainclothes cops
getting a latte from a street vendor, paying for it by
funds from a ‘wallet PC’. Next, in a video
conversation with their
supervisor over the flat panel display in their unmarked squad car,
they’re assigned to the murder.
Cut to the suburban
15-year old Jackson Ballard and his mom. Jackson is researching a
school project that he’s put off until the last moment, using
combination TV/computer that’s a dead-ringer for this
year’s iMac G5.
Mom takes advantage of a quiet moment before her scheduled 1:00 pm
video-conference to catch up on last night’s TV, recorded for
her own TV/computer. Her personal home page includes links to her
favorite shows along with email and other computer tasks. The TV news
includes buttons for more information or to record it.
Jackson starts looking online for pictures of Pre-Columbian Art; a few
clicks take him from a museum in Mexico City to a link to a nearby
store that stocks an affordable replica of the very artifact
looking at—perfect for show-and-tell in class.
“Mom, can you drive me
to Pioneer Square?”
art store, he’s accidentally sold the real (smuggled)
than a replica, which the storeowner is aghast to discover after a
video call from last-night’s murderer.
The next day, Jackson showed his class a 30-second animation of dancing
Pre-Columbian images. As a teacher, I found it devoid of content, and
would have given it a low grade, but the on-screen teacher and students
were captivated. Leaving school, he is chased by the storeowner and
hired thug and hit by a car while trying to escape. The ambulance
attendant, video-conferencing with the emergency-room physician,
transmits scans and test results, so diagnosis and treatment plans are
in place by the time Jackson arrives at the hospital.
make the connection between a car seen at the murder site and at
Jackson’s accident and match the storeowner with
But that night, one of the bad guys breaks into Jackson’s
stealing the artifact and killing his mom. The end.
Hold on! In our future 2005, stories ought to have alternate endings.
Click. This time, the cops catch the thugs, and discover that like the
Maltese Falcon, the artifact is actually solid gold. The (alternative)
Gates got some things right; compared to a decade ago, digital
information, gadgets, and technologies are everywhere. Getting
information online is commonplace, and digital hardware is used to
create and share photos and music and as a primary way to communicate.
same time, much of Gates’ vision of the future remains in the
Both high tech gear and infrastructure has yet to catch up with this
fantasy 2005. I’d like to have a PDA as capable as the Wallet
shown, or to pay for purchases by pointing my PDA at a cash register.
While Tablet and Media Center PCs (both using Microsoft Windows XP
versions) have recently become available, neither is widespread nor as
capable as the decade-old fictional versions.
In the presentation, the characters easily make seamless connections
between data; Gates pointed out that this requires an object-oriented
databased file system connecting, for example, the art
inventory with its suppliers and customers with its outstanding orders.
In 1994, Microsoft called this ‘Cairo’, promising
to build this
capability into Windows NT. Ironically, this past summer, the
descendant of that project, now called ‘Windows File
dropped from Longhorn, in order to help this next-generation Windows
make a 2006 release target.
And that’s the problem with predictions. It’s easy
to show us a vision
of the future in a video (at least if you have a big enough budget).
But it’s harder to make the real world follow along. While
life Jackson may go online on an iMac G5 that looks like the one in
this production, finding stuff online and getting it into a slick
little animation for school remains much more of a challenge than Gates
Looking back at this 1994 production reminded me of how far we have
come in the past decade, but looking at its predictions of seamless
ease of use and media convergence has pointed out how far we still have