Cyber nostalgia

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I sent and received my first emails sometime in the middle of April in 1984. That was 30 years ago. A lot has changed since. Perhaps a nostalgic trip would do Daily Sabah readers and me some good. There are several lessons in this trip to take note of; however, learning these lessons would not necessarily help you to understand either the present or the future. We are notoriously bad when it comes to predicting the future, the cyber future included. Take a look at the cover of the December 1984 issue of Byte Magazine. The PC was already understood to eventually become a (if not the) communication "station" back then. The implication was that fax and telephone would still be available, but you would be able to send and receive emails, receive stock quotes and read news and comments on "Bulletin Boards" using your PC.

Everything on the PC was text based: Black letters on a white background or white letters on a black background. There were already workstations directly connected to departmental servers with color terminals, mostly used for computer-aided design of other things, such as computer chips. It would not have been too difficult to predict that color and higher resolution would arrive in the PC world, i.e., the world of consumers. However, in 1984 we could not have predicted all of the following technologies existing today: the web, social media outlets, instant messaging, text and image-based emails, news media over the web and voice and video over the Internet.

Some of them were obvious, such as text and image-based emails, but some others, even a simple one, such as "news media over the web," were not predictable at all. This is no longer a prediction about technology, but rather about the choices we make as technology becomes available.

If one of you claims that she had already thought about them all, then I have a question for her: Tell me about the smart watch? What is to come? You should already know that Apple is working on one, right? Describe your best prediction for me. Perhaps, one sensible prediction we can make about the smart watch is that it will have the functions of a smart phone; it will just be a wearable version of it. We think, our prediction about the smart watch will probably be closer to the one we will be using in two to three years because we have the knowledge and experience of the smartphone to start with. Is this really true? Are we better equipped for predicting the smart watch's shape, features and design because we have a smartphone in our hands? I will argue that we are not.

As early as 2000, Apple (a computer company!) was rumored to be working on a new phone. However, almost all predictions about it turned out to be wrong when Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. People had been predicting a device closer to existing phones, for example, the Nokia 3210 with its dot-matrix green screen and three popular games: Snake, Memory and Rotation!

So, the lesson is that some intimate knowledge of the past does not really give you a superb advantage about knowing the future. In retrospect, of course, everything makes sense. The world is pretty clearly explained if you are looking at it with your rear view mirror. If you are one of the engineers involved in the design of the iPhone in 2005 or 2006, you might have a particular advantage. However, I could argue that even those engineers are bad at prediction.

Their advantage of having insider information evaporates in most cases: The product never leaves the lab or badly fails in the market. Apple's Newton is a case in point. It was intended to be a PDA (personal digital assistant). The project and product started in 1987 and ended in 1998. Newton required a pen to use. Apple called this an architect scenario: An architect would use it to quickly draft a sketch to share with a client. Newton contained many revolutionary technical ideas, but the product failed because it did not have a consumer focus.

Was it to replace the Macintosh or was it to complement it? The focus is something engineers cannot predict either. After spending $100 million, John Sculley (president of Apple then) killed the Newton. Technologically, the iPad and the Newton have small differences; but the iPad succeeded because the time and focus worked out right. The past is a country we visit to meet our younger self: To hear, feel and taste what we did then, perhaps more consciously now. It is an illusion that our study and investigation of the past will give us a better edge in knowing the future.

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