A Look Into the Future (From 1998)

While digging through some old papers, I came across a copy of PC World magazine from January 1998. The headline on the cover reads, "YOUR NEXT PC: What's New for 1998 -and Beyond." Predictions are fun to make, and more fun to make fun of looking back. Let's see where PC World hit, and where they missed.

In one section called "The Desktop Computer in Ten Years," PC World asked Mark Weiser, chief technologist at Xerox PARC what to expect by 2008. Here's his list:
  1. The PC will move into a closet, and we can expect gigabytes of RAM and terabytes of storage.
  2. Displays will be flexible and you can fold them up in your pocket.
  3. Voice recognition will not replace the keyboard and mouse for privacy reasons.
  4. Wires will become built into walls and the furniture and we will have wireless mice, keyboards, and phones.
  5. E-paper will be standard for everything from books to business cards.
  6. We will have "pocket net computers" that allow us to log on to the internet from anywhere at any time.
As predictions go, I'd say Mark Weiser did okay. Not great, but 10 years in the tech business is forever. PCs have gotten powerful, but they're still on the desk. The flexible, portable display is still vaporware, as is his vision of e-paper. Voice recognition has come a long way, but I think he's right about the impractability of talking to your computer in an office setting. Wireless phones, mice, and keyboards are easy to find, but I bet he would have been surprised to still find PS/2 ports standard on most motherboards. Lastly, most of us do have "pocket net computers" - our cell phones. Most people I know never browse the web on their phone, but the capability is there.

Weiser's predictions are at least better than Bill Gates's contribution:
"In ten years there will be better input systems - handwriting, speech, visual recognition...As much as 90 percent of the operating system code will go to these new capabilties. When we look back at today's personal computers, we'll say, "Hey, these were the machines that couldn't listen, couldn't talk, couldn't see."
I look back at my computer from 1998 and say, "I can still run linux just fine on that thing." In fact, it has Crunchbang installed on it right now. The smartest comment might have been from Stephen Manes in his back-page article, who claimed, "Hardware will continue to get faster, more powerful, cheaper. Software will continue to be a pain. And that's as far as I'm willing to go."

As much as the articles, the advertisements are worth a chuckle. Zip drives. CRT monitors. (There are a couple LCD ads, but you can't even find a price for them in the back page mail-order ads.) 166 MHz Pentium notebooks for $3599. A revolution for the mouse: the scroll wheel. A Eudora Pro CommCenter ad, offering a $20 rebate on the $59 street price. (What would we have paid for Gmail?) US Robotics 56K modems. Mindspring ISP featuring IE 4.0. And my favorite: Creative's PC-DVD kit, complete with decoder card, for an "incredible value" of $379.99.

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