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Weekly Column

You Can't Get There From Here: Twenty Predictions for the Year 2000

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

It is time to stop fretting about Y2K and look deep into the new year. This is my annual chance to embarrass myself with high tech predictions that some reader will inevitably throw back in my face twelve months from now. No matter, I AM a professional. Do not try this at home.

Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com will NOT be Time magazine's Person of the Year in 2000. For that matter, no info tech character will be Time 's Person of the Year. It's not just that Bezos is unlikely to repeat, but that this whole sector of business may be peaking in its attention by average folks and Time is probably already beginning to sense that. Bezos is a smart guy (and a nice one) but he's just a tycoon and I think Time has been paying too much attention to those. It's just that technology and the Internet especially is becoming such an important part of our lives that we are likely to pay less and less attention to it in the future. If that seems backwards, remember that the step after ubiquity is invisibility. Everyone has a phone, too, but how much time do we spend thinking about our phones?

Microsoft will NOT settle with the Department of Justice. This doesn't mean that an eventual settlement won't take place, but I am beginning to doubt that could ever happen in less than 12 months. Microsoft will continue to make half-hearted proposals to the government and won't get down to real haggling until Judge Jackson has ruled against the company and the DOJ has leapfrogged the Court of Appeals and gone straight to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even then, I don't expect a settlement until after Microsoft's pitiful legal arguments before the justices. The company has no real incentive to settle until it has no alternative but to settle, and that is several steps and many months in the future.

Y2K will be a bigger pain in the butt than most people think. Remember this is coming from a guy who has already staked his reputation on Y2K being not such a big deal. What I mean this time, however, is that Y2K effects will linger far past January as a patina of rust on the IT infrastructure. Some internal processes will slowly grind to a halt months from now, long after most of us have forgotten about Y2K. And rust removal will keep busy many of the Y2K experts who think they will have to start looking for work. Alas, I can't think of how any of the rest of us can cash-in on this phenomenon.

PCs will continue to get cheaper and cheaper as we find more ways to pay for them through associated services. Already you can get Internet service or a PC through some Internet stockbrokers. Soon it will be through online banks and many other financial services. As PC's become simpler and more like information appliances this trend will accelerate.

Intel and Microsoft will hit their all-time peaks of influence and profitability this year with a slow decline after 2000. Each company is already past the sweet spot in their core markets and started making mainly bad investments in a string of possible futures. I'd probably do the same thing, too, if I was running either company, but from a business standpoint this survival strategy can only drag down earnings and earnings are what Wall Street looks at. I am not saying they will fail, but that they will enter a mature stage of growth in single, rather than double, digits. It's the end of an era.

Compaq won't be back in force until 2001, by which time the company will have yet another CEO. In the meantime, Dell rules. Even after then, Dell rules.

There still won't be a new Amiga computer.

Bandwidth costs not only will continue to drop, but the trend will accelerate dramatically as new satellite players and formerly dark fibers come on-line. Maybe even I'll get broadband speeds out here in the countryside. But nobody's costs will drop in real terms, because we'll all take faster speeds for the same money rather than the same speeds for less money.

Despite the apparent free-fall of bandwidth costs, streaming video will still be a technical no-show, though that could change by 2002- 2003. It's not just bandwidth but network infrastructure, stupid. Don't expect to watch TV on the Internet.

There will be a crisis in the digital television industry as politicians begin to hedge about whether or not they'll actually turn off the analog system in 2003 and consumers shy away from the expensive sets. This is bad news for PBS and good for Tivo and RePlay. Look for a hybrid DTV strategy to emerge by year's end.

The stock market will continue to rise though older Internet companies are going to have to start booking profits or come under the sway of gravity. This will be, in part, an effect of this Christmas' e-commerce boom. Internet startups, however, remain gravity-free and Google will continue to thrive without an apparent business model.

Some computer cracker or group of crackers finally will do some serious damage to the world economy through computer crime. It could be damage to data and personal property, but my guess is these kids are going to fall back on simple theft and steal a few billion bucks. Film at eleven.

Sony will take on Microsoft and - for a few moments at least - appears to win. This will be, however, just an artifact of the $2 billion PlayStation 2 launch. In the long run, though, Sony IS Microsoft's biggest threat. Remember that as a Microsoft OEM, Sony knows almost everything that Microsoft is planning while Microsoft knows little or nothing about Sony.

Steve Jobs will realize that not enough people actually want to make home videos on their computers, so he will sell Apple to some other big company that doesn't realize it. But this does not happen before I buy a new Pismo Mac notebook, which will be introduced next week at MacWorld in San Francisco.

Cisco Systems will become the most valuable high-tech company, eclipsing Microsoft. This comes primarily through acquisitions including at least one worth in excess of $30 billion. Compare and contrast this prediction with number five, above, and you will gain a clearer understanding of the direction the market is headed. This will be the Cisco Decade as the company makes strategic acquisitions to fulfill a vision rather than to protect a market share.

DVD drives will become standard as CD-ROMs fade. Three gigabyte floppies will appear. Maybe those home videos have potential after all.

Wall Street's attention will begin to shift from high tech to biotech as human genome research begins to show startling potential benefits (and profits). See here a potential Time 2000 Person of the Year. But remember that while it looks like biology, without computers it doesn't happen.

And speaking of Wall Street, the goal of taking the Dow to 30,000 requires using information technology to monetize EVERYTHING. What we aren't selling on eBay to raise cash we'll begin turning into synthetic equities we'll trade with each other. Preschoolers will sell lemonade for stock warrants and the IRS will get even further behind in figuring how to tax all that wealth. The bopttom line is synthetic (and tradable) liquidity, which will change forever the way we look at money. Again, this can only be done with computers.

By the end of the year we'll see the first commercial instances of true telepresence in which communication technologies are used to make people seem as though they are in one place when actually they are in another. We see a limited version of this today in satellite TV interviews, but true telepresence will involve symmetric bandwidth taking as much information in one direction as the other and making the participants feel almost like they are together a la, "The Matrix."Technology makes this possible, but highway gridlock makes it necessary.

Marshall McLuhan said that as communication technologies become obsolete they are preserved as art forms. Jaded e-mailers and e-chatters will rediscover the power of the hand-addressed letter sent through the U.S. Mail. It's certainly the secret of MY success.

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