Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 4: Applications and Appliances

Thirty years ago the United States Supreme Court decided that personal recordings were fair use and that selling a device (the VCR) that has substantial non-infringing uses is lawful even if it could be used to infringe. In chapter four of The Road Ahead, Bill Gates pondered the digital future and the evolution of computers.

As he saw the VCR invented during his lifetime, Gates predicted a host of new time-shifting devices that would interface with the Internet, his “highway.” While Netflix is almost taken for granted these days, serving up pre-existing as well as new content “on demand” in 1995 was still a technology somewhat out of science fiction.

Even four years later when Quest aired a commercial featuring a fictional motel that offered “every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night” the dream of unlimited on-demand selection was still futuristic.


In 1999 the top DVDs for sale on were The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and Titanic. This was the start of the DVD era as people just began to adopt the home theater crazy. The Matrix itself pushed many to adopt DVD as their home movie format rather than VHS, but in a world just beginning to exit dial-up speeds, streaming a movie was still a ways off.

Although the market for a book written by Bill Gates in 1995 was obviously going to lean heavy on the technology crowd, his explanation of how this on-demand system would work is telling:

Movies, television programs, and all sorts of other digital information will be stored on “servers,” which are computers with capacious disks…The requested data will be retrieved from the server and routed by switched back to your television, personal computer, or telephone—your information appliances.

In 2014, no one needs to explain what a server is and even if the “person on the street” doesn’t understand exactly how the cloud works, s/he understands the relationship between offsite and onsite data storage.

What continues to be impressive in The Road Ahead is Bill Gates’ understanding of where technology will go over the course of twenty years. Considering the beliefs about the imminent arrival of cold fusion, flying cars, and household robots over the past fifty years, and how so many new companies have emerged to offer the new technologies he anticipated, this is an impressive amount of understanding.

There are some misses…

One new form [of display] will be the digital whiteboard: a large wall-mounted screen…[that] will display pictures, movies, and other visual materials, as well as text and other fine details.

…but overall the 1995 version of Bill Gates would fit in well in 2014, although there may be less Microsoft in people’s lives than he would have anticipated.

The wallet PC, essentially the smartphone, was described a pocket computer that would replace wallets, provide a connection to the highway, and act as a Swiss Army knife for the digital world.

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. Quite possibly you also carry credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, reading material, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and perhaps a loud whistle to summon help.

Outside of identification, which has not yet reached the realm of the phone for higher levels like government ID (but has for many forms of tickets), the rest of the bag of tricks can be handled with a smartphone and nothing else, depending on where you spend your money. With Apple, Google, and the cellular carriers all trying to gain a foothold in mobile payments, it might not be possible to spend money only using a phone, but an ID, credit/debit card, and phone is a realistic set of things to leave the house with and not have to worry.

There was actually some good timing that went into this post: news about Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now competitor, Cortana, was released just a few days ago. As the third major mobile OS player, this was an area Microsoft needed to get up to speed in to remain competitive feature wise. However, as with tablet computers, which Gates and Microsoft pushed commercially for nearly a decade before the iPad made them popular, the virtual assistant is ground they covered in the past.

Gates anticipated the omnipresent intelligence of Google Now in the wallet PC for travel: “It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for an airport early, or suggest an alternate route.” And he had it for voice command questions: “You might ask, ‘Where’s the nearest Chinese restaurant that is still open?’” but at the end of the day, he imagined something more like the Star Trek computer. Gates imagined an electronic companion you would talk with as a specific source, like an individual. In 1995, Gates termed these digital assistants “agents.”

An agent that takes on a personality provides a ‘social user interface.’

The character will disappear when you get to the parts of the product you know very well. But if you hesitate or ask for help, the agent will reappear and offer assistance.

Yes, Microsoft has been working on agents for years. Microsoft Bob was one. Clippy was another.

With Cortana, Microsoft will not be bringing Clippy to the phone. Hopefully. More likely, Microsoft will finally produce the agent that Gates imagined so many years ago. Voice recognition took longer than anticipated to roll out, but it’s here now, and it’s pretty good.

For Bill Gates, like Steve Jobs, the PC in 1995 was on the path towards becoming an appliance. As of 2014, this is truer than ever before, although the true computing appliances aren’t the desktops and laptops but the phones, tablets, and set-top boxes. Chromebooks have turned the laptop market on its head as a computer that looks traditional but acts like a new concept. As HP said in an ad campaign, “the computer is personal again.” Or with new functions, controls, and interfaces, it’s more personal than it’s ever been.