Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 2: The Beginning of the Information Age

The first time I heard the term “Information Age” I was tantalized. I knew about the Iron Age and the Bronze Age, periods of history named for the new materials men used to make their tools and weapons. Those were specific eras. Then I read academics predicting that countries will be fighting over the control of information, not natural resources. This sounded intriguing too, but what did they mean by information?

In the second chapter of The Road Ahead, Bill Gates describes the new world that began in earnest with the Internet, but has roots going back further. Remembering that in 1995 the idea of the “multimedia PC” was just beginning to take root. Compact Discs were the new medium of storage – holding the equivalent of just under five hundred floppy disks – bringing audio and full-motion video to fourteen inch CRT monitors everywhere.

This chapter, unlike chapter one, is focused more on history than prediction. The explanations of exactly what technologists mean, why they use binary numbering, and why that makes sense for a language to communicate with machines is Gates at his most tech-geek self. Even as someone familiar with this part of the story, whom Gates gives the option to skip the chapter, it was an enjoyable read.

This may be the chapter of The Road Ahead that holds up the best over time. Gates takes the reader on a brief journey of computing, beginning with the abacus, moving on to Blaise Pascal, Gottfried von Leibniz, and Charles Babbage, onto ENIAC and IBM. Interestingly, the Computer History Museum, of which Gates has been a proponent and sponsor, is laid out in a similar fashion, guiding museum goers through a history of math, science, and machinery. If you’re in the vicinity of Mountain View, CA it’s well worth the trip.

Reading an account of the computer revolution before Windows 95, when Microsoft was the dominant presence in the computing world is fascinating. Bill Gates was already “of Borg” but the computer landscape was non-connected desktops. Not too many laptops, no smartphones, no tablets. Even Windows CE devices are a few years off.

Each moment in history, each anecdote shared, is the one chosen by Gates. He compares the journey from analog to digital storage with the way compression techniques are evolving to the eventual rollout of fiber optic cabling and the bandwidth that the “information highway” will require. Doing so, he brings up mathematician Claude Shannon who “defined information as the reduction of uncertainty…if you’re not sure of the day and someone tells you it is Saturday, you’ve been given information because your uncertainty has been reduced.”

Despite his own speculation and expectation of fiber expanding, Internet Explorer was first released in Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95, an expansion pack. Later version of IE were available for free downloads, but IE debuted separate from Microsoft’s prominent operating system.

Gates writes ambitiously about fiber rolling out to provide a data pipe to serve for phone call, data, movies. Nearly twenty years later 70 percent of the United States has access to a broadband connection. The next generation of gigabit-capable infrastructure is rolling out – Google Fiber, Sonic, and even AT&T – are competing to wire up households in the coming years. LTE is marketed as the standard technology for over-the-air data in 2013 when the original iPhone was launched without 3G (although it was in other handsets) in 2007.