Bill Gates: The Road Ahead - 20 years later

Bill Gates wrote his book, The Road Ahead, 20 years ago. I am re-reading it now (the 1996 reprint--actually). I will write a series of posts inspired by it, starting with this one, and compare what we have today to what is predicted in his book. This post is mostly inspired by the first chapter of the 1996 edition.

Looking back at the mid-1990s, especially the writing about the Internet at the time, does give insight into how the Internet was viewed much differently. Time, writing about Bill Gates in December 1995, said:

Gates is as fearful as he is feared, and these days he worries most about the Internet, Usenet and the World Wide Web, which threaten his software monopoly by shifting the nexus of control from stand-alone computers to the network that connects them.

Separating the terms: Internet, Usenet, and the World Wide Web, as distinct entities is telling of the time. For one, the Usenet and World Wide Web are components of the Internet, not separate. But nobody talks about Usenet any more--at least not in a mainstream publication. Also, the Internet and World Wide Web have become synonymous in layman terms.

Describing this "nexus of control" viewpoint, which characterized the Internet as driving computing from a monopoly to a network, alluded to the fact that the Internet was distributed--a network of peered computers. In 2015, as I write this, we now see another "nexus of control", of platform monopolies forming on the internet--cloud computing. Large server farms controlled by a handful of players threatens the distributed nature of computing in favour of a monopolistic one.

Even though we have ever more powerful computing devices--computers we carry everywhere and are always connected--we delegate this power to clouds of computers controlled by a handful of large corporations. Instead of a powerful distributed network, where everyone has powerful computing devices in their homes, workplaces, and carried with them, our computers go underused, sitting idle most of the time, wasting their capabilities. As of writing this, my smartphone has the computing power of the world's fastest supercomputer from 1992 (source: Top500.org)

A New Network Neutrality?

The recent Net-Neutrality debate can be summed up as the fight between the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the Internet computing gateways or server farms, comprised of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, et al. To sum it up, the people who use the Internet lost out in a Corporations-versus-Corporations battle (I'll write about this more in the future).

The debate that should happen is a Network Equality one. The decentralised nature of the Internet is threatened by the disparity in our upload versus download speeds. From our homes, our ISPs offer speeds on the order of 100 megabits of bandwidth to download content but only 5 megabits to upload. This varies but the download:upload ratio is commonly anywhere from 5:1 to 20:1.

At the end of chapter 1 in Gates' book, he poses the question: What if communicating were almost free?

This is almost the case now but for the download/upload caveat in communication speeds. Bill's prescience is highlighted further when he says: some people own more than one PC and think nothing of leaving their computers idle for most of the day.

We are at the point in 2015 where many of us each own a 3 or 4 computing devices that would all be considered supercomputers by 1996 standards. And like Gates wrote then, they also all go underused and sit idle much more than necessary.

The new Net-Neutrality, or Net-Equality debate should focus on getting our devices working for us again. Our PCs should be computing for us, to bring back the Personal aspect in Personal Computer. Our home and office computers should blur the line between server and client. But to do so we need to equalize download and upload speeds across the Internet.

Equalize download and upload speeds.

That is the key to a distributed and decentralised Internet. This will let us fully harness the computing power at our fingertips. There used to be an argument that we download more than we upload. To phrase it another way, we used to consume more content than we published. The fact is, we individually produce more content now than we consume, much more than the traditional media companies of the previous generation, as evidenced by the content on Facebook, Google/YouTube, Twitter, Wordpress, et cetera. But the Internet in 2015 is a monopolistic one and we need to nudge it in the direction of a distributed one again, as was envisioned by Gates and others (like Marc Andreessen of Netscape) in the mid-1990s.

We should be in control of our own content, and in turn we will be empowered to affect our privacy and security online (and I will elaborate more on this in the future). We should be operating online on our own terms, not by the ones forced upon us by the services we use.

The only way this will change is by a push to change how ISPs operate and a push to change government policy on its regulation of the Internet. ISPs should jump at this opportunity to move power away from their Net-Neutrality foes and back into the hands of their subscribers. Microsoft could also benefit as the PC could become king again but the lines between Home and Server editions must blur.

It is hard for me to think back to the vision of the 1990s and not be disappointed by the Internet we have today. It was shaping up to be much more diverse back then. But we ended up with the World Wide Web winning out and the web browser became king--for better or worse. We ended up with gatekeepers and walled gardens as opposed to communication across open protocols. We ended up with proprietary systems and platform monopolies recreating IRC and Usenet as advertising gateways, marketing it as free and convenient, and locking the rest out. E.g. AOL didn't lose out to the Internet, it was recreated on the Internet as Facebook.

I am not saying we should be all negative and discouraged about it, because I am positive about the future of the Internet. The solutions are within our grasp because they exist already. The software and the communication protocols exist and are in use today. A small change at the root, like Net-Equality, would result in an avalanche effect-like change in how we communicate and store information. The Internet of 5 years from now could be vastly different (and better in my opinion) than the one we have today. It could fulfil the dream of the 90s of a distributed Internet.


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