When Bill Gates wrote The Road Ahead he looked back on the previous twenty years of his life, Microsoft, and the history of computing, while considering where that path would take society.
Windows 95 was a new revolution in computing, the Internet was still in its infancy, and the original Pentium processor was king of the machines. I remember filling in as a paperboy that summer delivering an issue of the afternoon paper to an elderly customer who thought I must know all about this “Windows” (and he was right). It was the first operating system I installed from a CD, so much easier than floppy disks.
What struck me about Gates’ view of the tech world at the time was not just Microsoft’s motto of “A computer on every desk and in every home” but how he thought we would interact with devices in just a few short years.
“We’ll communicate with it [the network] through a variety of devices, including some that look like television sets, some like today’s PCs; some will look like telephones, and some will be the size and something like the shape of a wallet. And at the heart of each will be a powerful computer, invisibly connected to millions of others.”1
Maybe it’s because I wasn’t even in high school at the time, but I didn’t think that the computing power shown on Star Trek would be in our hands just over a decade from that point, when the iPhone would make Gates’ predictions available to the masses. Combine the idea of the telephone with the wallet-sized device and you’ve just created the smartphone.
Echoing the words of French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (“Little by little, the machine will become a part of humanity”2), Gates described and predicted the relationship that would develop between humanity and this new type of connected computer:
“Over time, these machines find a place in our everyday lives because they not only offer convenience and save labor, they can also inspire us to new creative heights. We warm to them. They assume a trusted place beside our other tools.”
Indeed, who does not consider their phone a vital accessory today? Communication, photography, entertainment, navigation – the networked computer, in all form factors, is the robot butler from science fiction. It is Rosie The Jetsons, the computer book from Inspector Gadget, the PADD from Star Trek, and the tool Sean Connery’s James Bond could only dream of.
Three years before Google was founded, and search engines were still a concept biting off more than they could chew, Bill Gates posed fifteen questions that the computers of tomorrow would handle but that in 1995 would be difficult to answer at a moment’s notice.
1. “Is your bus running on time?”
2. “Are there any accidents right now on the route you usually take to the office?”
3. “Does anyone want to trade his or her Thursday theater tickets for your Wednesday tickets?”
4. “What is your child’s school-attendance record?”
5. “What’s a good recipe for halibut?”
6. “Which store, anywhere, can deliver by tomorrow morning for the lowest price a wristwatch that takes your pulse?”
7. “What would someone pay for my old Mustang convertible?”
8. “How is the hole in a needle manufactured?”
9. “Are your shirts ready yet at the laundry?”
10. “What’s the cheapest way to subscribe to The Wall Street Journal?”
11. “What are the symptoms of a heart attack?”
12. “Was there any interesting testimony at the county courthouse today?”
13. “Do fish see in color?”
14. “What does the Champs-Elysées look like right now?”
15. “Where were you at 9:02 P.M. last Thursday?”
One and two can be handled by Google Now displaying cards automatically showing this information. Alternatively, Google Maps or Waze apps could show the accidents, traffic delays, and more.
Three and seven can be solved with Craigslist.
Five, eight, eleven, and thirteen are Google searches. Even speaking them to my phone in question form brought up the answers.
Where was I at 9:02 last Thursday? That one still takes some work, but querying Google on an Android phone (What did I do last week?) brought up my calendar events for the last week, which was a start. Timehop, which creates a chronology of your social media events, check-ins, tweets, and photos could do a better job, but at pointing you in the right direction.
Instagram and twitter had several pictures of the Champs-Elysées that were at least in the area, if not exactly what the search is looking for, although that in itself is somewhat vague. This query will probably only improve in how easily and accurately the answer is readily available.
A text notification from a laundromat takes care of number nine.
Amazon can sell you the watch, but maybe not by tomorrow or at the cheapest price…this one is still in development. But with Google, eBay, Amazon, and more working on same-day delivery solutions, that will be something that can be searched quickly in the near future.
That just leaves school attendance. This one is tricky, but not impossible to solve. Before long all schools will likely have a portal for parents to log in and find out any information about their child. Some no doubt already have a version of this, like Follet’s Aspen SIS, and others will follow. It’s not hard to imagine parents having direct access to attendance, grades, homework assignments and more to keep their kids on track.
Thinking about how much work many of these questions, such as the one regarding fish vision, would take to find twenty years ago, the average person today sits atop a vast storehouse of data and needs to speak or type a few words to glean answers from previously insurmountable chaos.
When Gates first used a computer, access was metered in hours. When he wrote this book, Internet access was measured in the same way, purchased in minutes per month. Today, in an unmetered, networked world, many of his goals in the 1990s are the world we live in.
1. William, G. (1995). The road ahead. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
2. de Saint-Exupéry, A. (1939). Wind,sand, and stars. New York, NY: Reynal and Hitchcock.