At the end of 2001 I wrote a presentation about the future of networking, in which I made predictions for the digital infrastructure situation in 2005. Last week I revisited these, and checked them against the reality of 2005.
For the home I predicted megabit, always-on Internet, VPN to the office, video, dozens of Internet devices per home, and 700 million lines worldwide. I was mostly right: in a few weeks my current Internet connection will be upgraded to 8 Mbit/sec, and most households have always-on Internet. My bandwidth to the company servers is comparable to that of branch offices. My kids routinely watch TV reruns via Internet, but I only have 6 or 7 IP devices at home, all of them fairly general purpose machines (see kitchen portal), not specialised hardware (such as cameras or Internet radios ). The current broadband penetration worldwide is estimated to be 215 million by ZDnet in November. The total number of Internet subscribers is estimated to be 1 billion.
For the work situation I predicted “better than that”, practically unlimited bandwidth, unplugged. This is now mostly true, there are hardly offices without Internet access. Penetration of wireless is high in small offices and apparently also in warehouses, but not high in mainstream large offices.
For mobile I predicted: the web as we now know it, always on. PDA meets cell-phone. 400M Internet users. Max 10* analog modem speeds (approximately 400 Kbit/sec). Other capabilities below current PC/Web specs. As a computer platform, the mobile phone will have 512 Mbyte RAM, a 600 MHz processor, and a 360×480 color screen.
What we now see at the end of 2005 is that although an estimated 2 billion people have a mobile subscription, and a very large fraction of those phones is at least WAP enabled, the web content for those devices is not particularly popular, not counting text messaging and ringtones. Content developers typically ignore anything other than the mainstream browser and display size. PDA sales are lagging, and its functions are incorporated in smartphones. An example is the Qtek 8300, which might become my next phone. Natively it only has 64 Mbyte, but it is expandable to 4 Gbyte. Its 200 Mhz processor will deliver decent Windows Mobile performance. I also overestimated the display size. The Qtek’s 240 by 320 pixel screen is probably detailed enough for its size. As for speed, I was right in that it would not be blindingly fast, UMTS sometimes delivers my prediction. Finally, I overlooked the emergence of built-in camera’s.
I had some doubts about a few developments that could go either way. In these I was mostly right. UMTS has been deployed, but seems to find its use mainly in corporate data applications. Public Wifi is still an expensive business traveller’s toy in a large number of regions, and has failed to kill UMTS. However, the deployment is in place, and right now the mobile phone companies are figuring out a way how to get from a high priced niche service to a high volume commodity service without going through an intermediate phase of bankruptcy. It copies the same scenario flat rate broadband providers had to go through, you have to avoid the first mover disadvantage: flat rate service first attracts the high volume, costly users. T-mobile seems to understand that it makes sense to bundle Wifi access with GSM/UMTS access. Users basically want simple billing.
Bottom line: predicting the development of technology is a lot easier than predicting the development of its use. As they say, predicting is hard, especially predicting the future.