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The Net from Nowhere

TR: For most people, the Internet arrived on the scene a few years ago with little advance warning. What does this tell us about the emergence of world-changing technologies?
LUCKY: The Web is an astounding example of lack of foresight. Nobody foresaw this-in industry, or anywhere else. In retrospect, the Web is the most obvious thing you ever heard of, and it is such a world-class idea.

TR: But the telecommunications industry was looking the other way, basically.
LUCKY: Yes, the phone companies were fixated on centralized systems. We had a number of home information system trials, with video-on-demand as the main attraction. Nobody thought, hey, why don’t we just create an infrastructure and let the users supply the informational content-which of course is what has happened. Industry really didn’t have a lot to do with it. Also, one big reason the Web took off the way it did was that Mosaic-the first graphical Web browser-was developed at the University of Illinois and was made available for free. This turned out to be key, because nobody is going to buy browser software when there’s nothing to browse. That set a model that Netscape and then Microsoft got locked into, where browsers were free and users generated information. I suppose you could have made picturephone ubiquitous too, if you mailed a free one to everybody overnight. But what business would ever come up with a model that revolved around giving away your product?

TR: This kind of thing reinforces how difficult technology forecasting is.
LUCKY: Yes, and I have stopped consciously trying to predict the future. I’m out of that game. I’m a member of an industry that has been driven by several compelling visions over the last decades. One was picturephone. Another was home information services-mainly video-on-demand. Finally, there is ISDN [integrated services data network]. These are visions that mesmerized the telecommunications and computer industries, and they ended up being just plain wrong. The hardest part is not so much predicting what technologies will come about but in foreseeing how people will use them. That’s where we have been wrong all the time.

TR: A lot of industry pundits still can’t resist crystal ball gazing, though.
LUCKY: I know. I was at a meeting a few years ago at Microsoft where Bill Gates gave us his vision of the way things were going. I wrote it all down. I think it has all turned out to be wrong. My old boss, George Heilmeier, tells about being in a bookstore last year and seeing this giant stack of Gates’ book-The Road Ahead- by the checkout counter. On each book was a sticker saying that it was “recently updated to include the Internet.” I mean, if you can’t see the Web coming, what good are you?

TR: Kind of makes you wonder what else is going to blindside us.
LUCKY: Yes. But you know, there hasn’t been anything else of that magnitude for a while. Maybe the Web is it for a while. Maybe it’s like that punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution, where you have long periods of stability interspersed with occasional epochs of intense changes. Maybe we’re in an equilibrium state, and nobody has a vision beyond the Web right now. Maybe the Web will turn into a broadcast medium and take over from radio and television-who knows? I don’t, and I don’t believe anybody who says they do.

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