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Boom + Bust

From the editor in chief

Here’s a typical technology trajectory: at first the new technology is the property of a few visionaries and engineers. They do their best to bring it to market and spread the appetite for it. They succeed. Too well, in fact, and in a few short years, the general public is sold on the revolutionary promise of the new way of doing things. Investors and consumers expect the world to change-and fast. But the payoff can’t keep up with the public appetite, and pretty soon public expectation crashes, coming to rest way down below what the payoff might ultimately be. The technology itself, however, just keeps chugging along, and a decade or two later-presto, the revolution does happen. But by then, everybody’s forgotten about it. It’s just part of life.

That generic fable of boom and bust describes lots of technologies. Think of electricity. Or the automobile. Both roused enormous hopes, disappointed many people, then more quietly transformed just about everything. The same is true of the bandwidth revolution now underway.

A year or so ago, we were all enticed by visions of the “wireless Web.” Soon, the prophets said, we would be getting access to the Web on our handheld devices everywhere we went. And then, they added, we would get “true broadband,” which meant full-motion video on our cell phones, along with just about any other kind of information our hearts might desire. This broadband revolution would be underpinned, they told us, by advances in fiber optics that would make bandwidth so cheap providers wouldn’t even bother to charge for it anymore. Instead, they would charge for other services.

This vision got a lot of people hopped up, and some of them went out and paid premium prices for the stocks of the companies that were making the optical switching equipment needed to make the dream come true. When it turned out that those equipment makers weren’t going to make quite as much money in the short term as some had said, the markets turned sour on them.

So now we’re in the “down” phase of the technology introduction cycle when it comes to “Wired + Wireless.” The realization of the dream is going to take longer than some folks thought. And it’s maybe not going to happen in quite the way it looked a year or so ago. Our attitude is: so what? The promise of this technology is just as great as it was then. Beneath the boom and bust cycle of overheated expectations, the growth of wired and wireless technologies, along with the applications that accompany them, and the interfaces needed to enjoy them, is steady. That’s what this issue covers.

If you read it with care, you’ll find out where the real advances are taking place. Many of them are in the cutting-edge research that’s going on in the telecom “backbone” (Building a Better Backbone,”). Breakthroughs are needed before we really get to broadband, though (“Breaking the Metro Bottleneck,”-and “Little Big Screen,”). Furthermore, the final picture will differ from the first enthusiastic dreams. For example, the vision of streaming video on demand everywhere may never materialize (“Mobile Web vs. Reality,”).

In preparing this issue for you, we’ve penetrated both the breathless hype and the exaggerated gloom to give you a snapshot of a revolution in progress. And that’s what we promise to do in every issue of Technology Review: Cut through the wild overreactions technology provokes and describe its real, enduring impact.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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