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Remember the future?

The future is notoriously hard to pin down. For example, what is Seattle’s lasting legacy from 20th Century technology? What would people have pointed to in, say, the 1970s? Of course, Seattle is the home of Boeing, who did a lot of construction for NASA (and bought most of the other companies that were also doing so) on projects like the Saturn V rocket and the Space Shuttle. Toward the end of the 1970s, those in the know in Seattle would have confidently claimed that the Shuttle’s weekly trips into space as the world’s longest-distance haulage provider will be central to 21st century Space Age technology. But neither the shuttle nor the Saturn V works any more, and nothing equivalent has come along to replace them (certainly not from Boeing). The permanent remnant of Seattle’s part in the space race comes from earlier on, when the USSR already had satellites in orbit, Gagarin had safely returned, and the USA wanted to assert its technological superiority over the Soviets. I’m talking, of course, about Seattle Center and its most famous landmark: a giant lift shaft with a restaurant at one end and a gift shop at the other.

Space NeedlePeople like to prognosticate about how our industry, society or civilization is going to change: both in the short term, and in the distant future (which can be anything beyond about three years in software terms). Sure, it’s fun to speculate. Earlier this year I took part in a panel with my arch-brother among others, where many of the questions were about what direction we thought Apple might take with the iPad, how existing companies would work their software to fit in post-PC devices, that sort of thing. That means that not only do we enjoy prognostication, but we seek it out. People enjoy playing the game of deciding what the future will be like, and hope for that spark of satisfaction of knowing either that they were right, or that they were there when someone else was right.

But why? It’s not as if we’re any good at it. The one thing that history lets us discover is that people who predict the future generally get it wrong. If they have the foresight to make really grandiose predictions they get away with it, because no-one finds out that they were talking out of their arses until well after they died. But just as the Space Needle has outlived the Space Shuttle, so the “next big thing” can easily turn out to be a fad while something apparently small and inconsequential now turns out to last and last.

Space NeedleOf course I’ll discuss the computing industry in this article, but don’t think this is specific to computing. In general, people go for two diametric visions of the future: either it’s entirely different from what came before, or it’s the same but a little better. The horses are faster, that kind of thing. Typically, experts in an industry are the people who find it hardest to predict that middle ground: a lot of things are the same, but one or two things have created a large change. Like the people at the air ministry who knew that superchargers were too heavy to ever allow Frank Whittle’s jet turbine to take off. Or the people who didn’t believe that people could travel at locomotive speeds. Or H.G. Wells, who predicted men on (well, in) the Moon, severely stratified society, life on other planets…just not the computer that was invented during his lifetime.

OK, so, computing. Remember the future of computers? The future will contain "maybe five" computers, according to Thomas Watson at IBM. I’m in a room now with about nine computers, not including the microcontrollers in my watch, hi-fi, cameras and so forth. There were around ten examples of Collosus produced in the 1940s. Why maybe five computers? Because computers are so damned heavy you need to reinforce the main frame of your floor to put them in. Because there are perhaps two dozen people in the world who understand computers. Because if you have too many then you have loads of dangerous mercury sloshing around. Because companies are putting themselves out of business attempting to sell these things for a million dollars when the parts cost nearly two million. And, finally, because there’s just not much you can do on a computer: not everyone needs ballistics tables (and most of the people who do want them, we don’t want to sell to).

Space NeedleEnough of the dim depths of computing. Let’s come into the future’s future, and ask whether you remember the other future of computers: the workstation. Of course, now we know that mainframes are old and busted, and while minicomputers based on transistor-to-transistor logic are cheaper, smaller, more reliable and all, they’re still kindof big. Of course, micros like the Altair and the Apple are clearly toys, designed as winter-evening hobbies for married men[*]. Wouldn’t it be better to use VLSI technology so that everyone can have their own time-sharing UNIX systems[**] on their desks, connected perhaps through the ultra-fast thinwire networks?

Better, maybe, but not best. Let’s look at some of the companies involved, in alphabetical order. Apollo? Acquired by HP. Digital? Acquired, circuitously, by HP. HP? Still going, but not making workstations (nor, apparently, much else) any more. IBM? See HP. NeXT? Acquired, making consumer electronics these days. Silicon Graphics? Acquired (after having left the workstation industry). Stanford University Networks? Acquired by a service company, very much in the vein of IBM or HP. Symbolics, the owners of the first ever .com domain? Went bankrupt.

The problem with high-end, you see, is that it has a tendency to become low-end. Anything a 1980s workstation can do could be done in a “personal” computer or a micro by, well, by the 1980s. It’s hard to sell bog standard features at a premium price, and by the time PCs had caught up to workstations, workstations hadn’t done anything new. Well, nothing worth talking about…who’d want a camera on their computer? Notice that the companies that did stay around-IBM and HP-did so by getting out of the workstation business: something SGI and Sun both also tried to do and failed. The erosion of the workstation market by the domestic computer is writ most large in the Apple-NeXT purchase.

Space NeedleSo workstations aren’t the future. How about the future of user interfaces? We all know the problem, of course: novice computer users are confused and dissuaded by the “computery-ness” of computers, and by the abstract nature of the few metaphors that do exist (how many of you wallpaper your desktop?). The solution is obvious: we need to dial up the use of metaphor and skeuomorphism to make the user more comfortable in their digital surroundings. In other words, we need Bob. By taking more metaphors from the real world, we provide a familiar environment for users who can rely on what they already know about inboxes, bookshelves, desk drawers and curtains(!) in order to navigate the computer.

Actually, what we need is to get rid of every single mode in the computer’s interface. This is, perhaps, a less well-known future of computing than the Bob future of computing, despite being documented in the classic book The Humane Interface, by Jef Raskin. The theory goes like this: we’ve got experience of modal user interfaces, and we know that they suck. They force the user to stop working while the computer asks some asinine question, or tells them something pointless about the state of their application. They effectively reverse the master-slave relationship, making the user submit to the computer’s will for a while. That means that in the future, computers will surely dispose of modes completely. Well, full modes: of course partial modes that are entirely under the user’s control (the Shift key represents a partial mode, as does the Spotlight search field) are still permitted. So when the future comes to invent the smartphone, there’ll be no need for a modal view controller in the phone’s API because future UI designers will be enlightened regarding the evils of modality.

A little closer to home, and a little nerdier, do you remember the future of the filesystem? HFS+ is, as we know, completely unsuitable as a filesystem for 2009 so future Macs will instead use Sun’s ZFS. This will allow logical volume management, versioned files…the sorts of goodies that can’t be done on HFS+. Oh, wait.

These are all microcosmic examples of how the future of computing hasn’t quite gone according to the predictions. I could quote more (one I’ve used before is Bob Cringely’s assertion in 1992 that in fifteen years, we’ll have post-PC PCs; well I’m still using a PC to write this post and it’s 2011), but it’s time to look at the bigger picture, so I’m going to examine why the predictions from one particular book have or haven’t come about. I’m not picking this book because I want to hate on it; in fact in a number of areas the predictions are spot on. I’m picking on this book because the author specifically set out to make short, medium and long-term forecasts about the silicon revolution, and the longest-term predictions were due to have become real by the year 2000. The book is The Mighty Micro: Impact of the Computer Revolution by Dr. Christopher Evans, published in 1979.

According to the Mighty Micro the following should have all happened by now.

  • Openness and availability of information leads to the collapse of the Soviet Union. ✓
  • A twenty-hour working week and retirement at fifty. ✗
  • Microcontroller-based home security. ✓ For everyone, replacing the physical lock-and-key. ✗
  • Cars that anticipate and react to danger. ✓ As the standard. ✗
  • A “wristwatch” that monitors pulse and blood pressure. ✓
  • An entire library stored in the volume of a paperback book. ✓
  • A complete end to paper money. ✗
  • An end to domestic crime. ✗

So what happened? Well, “processors and storage will get smaller and cheaper” was the prevailing trend from the forties to the seventies, i.e. over the entire history of electronic computing. Assuming that would continue, and that new applications for tiny computers would be discovered, was a fairly safe bet, and one that played out well. The fundamental failures behind all of the other predictions were twofold: that such applications would necessarily replace, rather than augment, whatever it was that we were doing before computers, and that we would not find novel things to do with our time once computers were doing the things we already did. The idea was that once computers were doing half of our work, we would have 50% as much work to do: not that we would be able to do other types of work for that 50% of our working week.

One obvious thing we-well, some of us-have to do now that we didn’t before is program computers. Borrowing some figures from the BSA, there were 1.7M people working in software in the US in 2007, earning significantly more than the national average wage (though remember that this was during the outsourcing craze, so a lot of costs and jobs even for American companies might be missing here). The total worldwide expenditure on (packaged, not bespoke) software was estimated at $300bn. Once you include the service aspects and bespoke or in-house development, it’s likely that software was already a trillion-dollar industry by 2007. Before, if you remember, the smartphone app gold rush.

This is a huge (and, if we’re being brutally honest, inefficient) industry, with notoriously short deadlines, long working hours, capricious investors and variable margins. Why was it not predicted that, just as farmhands became machine operators, machine operators would become computer programmers? That the work of not having a computer would be replaced by the work of having a computer?

So, to conclude, I’ll return to a point from the article’s introduction: that making predictions is easy and fun, but making accurate predictions is hard. When a pundit tells you that something is a damp squib or a game-changer, they might be correct…but you might want to hedge your bets. Of course, carry on prognosticating and asking me to do so: it’s enjoyable.

[*] This is one of the more common themes of futurology; whatever the technological changes, whatever their impacts on the political or economic structure of the world, you can bet that socially things don’t change much, at least in the eye of the prognosticators. Take the example of the Honeywell Kitchen Computer: computers will revolutionise the way we do everything, but don’t expect women to use them for work.

[**] Wait, if we’ve each got our own computer, why do they have to be time-sharing?