The Future is Now (excerpts from Paris 1996 keynote)

The Future is Now

The following was excerpted from John Patrick’s keynote at the WWW5 conference in Paris early May, 1996. It was published in a European internal IBM publication called read.me


John Patrick is a lively Evangelist where the World-Wide Web is concerned IBM’s Vice President of Internet Technology looks at some forces of change that are happening today ‘right under our noses, at breathtaking speed’. What’s important about the Internet is how QUICKLY it is all happening. Not so long ago, it was a challenge for thousands of people to communicate quickly and reliably across a company, a country, or an organization like the university. Today, we take it for granted. The current challenge is to allow thousands of people in an organization to communicate and interact with thousands of other people across the world, independent of the technology they are using. This is made possible today because of the Internet. Local markets are becoming global markets. Businesses no longer have to be in business centers.

‘Internet is not a phenomenon, it’s simply the next wave’

We are seeing a shift to a new computing model. The next wave of computing. It’s not replacing desk-top computers or mainframes. Instead, it’s encouraging massive new growth. So we have an unprecedented opportunity to extend our reach in new ways. The following are some examples of the power and diversity of the Web.

World treasures reach the world’s people

The first point to emphasize is REACH. You take it for granted that you can go to the Louvre if you want to. But most people in the world will never get there. If we calculated all the people who will ever visit as a percentage of the world’s population, it would round to zero. But with the power of the Web, the Louvre can reach out with its great masterpieces, so that all of us can share its beautiful paintings. At the Vatican Library, there are only about 150 seats. Only one or two thousands scholars a year can go and see the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy. But now the works have been digitized. We’ve completed nearly 30,000 scans with incredible resolution. As a result, 30 to 40 hundred million people can share in them and learn things they could not reach before.

No special skill, no special computer

The second important characteristic is COMPATIBILITY. The Federal Express Home Page on the Web is a good example. There’s nothing remarkable about it at first sight, but it has a wonderful feature that allows you to enter the number of an airway freight bill, and in a few seconds you can see every detail of your package, what flight it was on, who signed for it, when it arrived, what route it took. There are two key factors in this. One is that you need no training to do it. You just have to be able to browse. The second factor is that Federal Express does not know what kind of computer you have. Applications in the past could only be extended to people who had some connection with the system i.e. its major users with their own Federal Express terminal or software. Also, they would probably have needed a help desk and training to use the system. The Web avoids all this, so it changes the cost structure radically, making it practical to open the system to everyone. It will drive up the number of transactions across the world and I’m pleased to say that they will require very large computers.

A ‘virtual human’ replaces textbooks

Another example comes from the medical field. Two years ago we could have seen a ‘virtual frog’ dissection kit on the screen. Last year we could see a ‘virtual human’. This year we can see a great deal more thanks to a murderer in the USA who, before his execution in Texas, donated his body to science in an effort to return something to society. He was frozen into 1,871 slices, 1mm thick and a scan was taken of each slice. A magnetic Resonance Image model was made – and an amazing, visible human being was created on the Net. He has replaced the old anatomy textbooks which have served medical students well for years. Soon, we will be able to do video simulation of knee joints and heart valves – changing medicine fundamentally for the future.

More security than conventional shopping.

The issue of SECURITY on the Web is often raised. In my view, security is an opportunity, not a problem. If, for example, I buy a bottle of wine from a ‘virtual vineyard’ on the Net, the payment is far more secure than conventional methods. My credit card number is encrypted as part of the process of sending it to Eurocard and I will sign the order with my private key – my digital signature. All this flies around the network. The virtual vineyard gets Eurocard’s authority that they will be paid and it has my digital authority that I am the person I say I am. Not only is everyone happy, but security is actually enhanced. Eurocard does not know what I bought and the vineyard does not know my credit card number. Contrast this with any hotel. They ask for your credit card at reception, so they have your number. Are they handing it around to their friends? People talk about losing our identity because of the Internet, but it can actually protect our identity. Soon, you won’t buy a piece of software without the cryptography that makes electronic commerce practical and secure. The Web enables a lot of exciting things to happen in relation to the Olympic Games. It started with buying tickets. From the Olympic Games Web site you could select an event or a location and produce a shopping basket of tickets you wanted to buy. We set this up as an experiment – we had no idea that so many people would want to buy their tickets this way. It resulted in the largest sales in a single day of anything on the Web. Of course, results are being relayed to the Web site, too.

I am often asked: “how does all this relate to the Information Superhighway?” My answer is: “This is it.” But like a real highway, not all the lanes are paved yet and some of the exit ramps don’t lead anywhere. If you are old enough to remember the introduction of Visicalc in 1997, you may remember how it was so revolutionary and exciting and seemed so powerful. Today it seems trivial. We should think of the Web as ‘Visicalc Release 1.0’. It’s not going to go away, but is in its infancy. Electronic commerce of all kinds will fuel its growth. How many people will use it? Nobody knows. At the turn of the century, there will be seven billion people in the world. Could one out of seven people have access? I think so. They won’t all have PCs, but they will be able to access the Web from a kiosk. In Copenhagen we have a pilot project. It enables people to walk up to a kiosk in a school, church, government building, even on a street corner and simply ‘take a break’ with the Web. This is going to happen all over the world. Soon there will be press articles about the parallel economy emerging on the Web. It’s happening already if you really look closely. The parallel economy will one day be the real economy and very soon a business without a significant presence on the Web will be like a business without a fax machine.

Are video and telephony coming to the Web?

Of course they are. When you look at a Web page. you’ll be able to ‘click’ on one part to talk to a fashion consultant about the clothes you’re looking at, or click on something else to talk to a customer support representative about a technical problem you have. Can the Net handle it? I’m sure we will have blackouts and hiccups along the way, but the advantage of the Net is that it is a totally distributed environment. So if its gets overloaded, we add more routers. Companies like IBM, France Telecom, BT, MCI and AT&T all over the world are investing in backbone capabilities for the Net. These backbones are like a fibrous root system that’s alive and growing.

Business must build relationships

The passive Home Page is dead. What counts on a Web site now is a Home Page that DOES something – that comes alive and builds a relationship. In effect, the publisher’s model is being inverted. Today, publishers decide for us what is of interest. The Web turns that upside down and puts us in charge. We are in the driving seat. We decide what we are interested in, how much detail we want and how we want to receive it.

Why is IBM interested in all this?

You can visit the IBM Web site and find out about all the things we have been introducing in this field. One reason for our interest is that we need to help our customers take advantage of the Net. Another reason is that it is an unprecedented communications opportunity. Big companies can spend all their time talking to themselves. The Web is a way to let employees go out and see what competitors, customers and the industry are doing. I believe it will be vitally important to be accessible and approachable and to allow employees to surf the Web. Whatever you lose in productivity will be more than repaid as employees gain a wider knowledge of the world and widen their ability to create ideas and collaborate with others. That’s where the power will come from.

Everyone can be a winner

People want to know who will be the winners and losers? There need not be any losers. Some winners may win more than others, but everyone can win, because everyone can be connected. We can foresee some regulatory threats and we must work together as an industry to help governments and regulatory authorities understand the power of good from the web. The power to offer distance learning and the power for governments to be more effective than they are today by adding value through better communications.

There are also proprietary threats, but the Internet and the Web are too important to everyone to allow them to be controlled by any single organization. They must remain open. The message is ‘The Future is not the Future, the Future is Now. For businesses and organizations it means unlimited reach. For individuals like you and me, it means infinite choice. So it’s really up to you to embrace the technology, share it with others, show people the way. And please feel free to visit my Web site at http:/patrickweb.com – where I will be happy to answer your questions or comments.