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Toward global communication

Nov. 12, 1996
Interview with John Patrick during a technology conference in New York

John Patrick

John Patrick



Question 1
What does the immediate future of the Internet appear to be?
Answer (John Patrick):
The Internet started out as just a few computers connected together. Then networks began to become connected together. And then it was thousands of networks. And soon it will be all networks connected together, creating a single, global Internet, a network of networks. And as you think about this global Internet, you may wonder, what are the limitations, what will prevent it from being this universally connected world where people can really interact in entertainment, education and electronic commerce? Some people feel that the limitation is the bandwidth, that this network won’t be fast enough, that it will bog down or be slow or perhaps fall apart. But actually when you examine the facts, it’s quite optimistic. The Internet is like a fibrous root system; it’s growing all the time. These little roots are growing and forming branches, forming bigger branches, trunks, and there are no lynch points, there are no central clearing houses or way-stations that everything must utilise on the Internet. It’s very distributed. So if a portion of the Internet slows down, more capacity can be added where it’s needed. In fact, you really think about bandwidth in two categories. The backbone of the Internet, the major arteries, and then the last mile as people call it, which is the connection right to your home. This backbone of the Internet is actually being re-architected. Right now universities and scientists from around the world have devised a new scheme called Internet 2. It’s a scheme which will put more speed into this artery, the main backbone of the Internet. In fact, there will be many backbones. Initially, it will be an order of magnitude faster and soon be two orders of magnitude faster. So what about that last mile, right to the home? Even here I think there’s great cause to be optimistic. There are multiple competing technologies such as satellite, cable, wireless and traditional telephone networks all competing with each other to be able to provide this Internet access to people. And the allure of hundreds of millions of people is causing this competition to be very intense. And so I believe that we will see a breakthrough. Perhaps a breakthrough as dramatic as when the Berlin Wall came down. We will one day pick up the newspaper and we will see that, yes, the bandwidth is there. It will be quite optimistic. In fact, this will allow for the evolution of the Internet as a medium. As we think about how radio evolved from AM to FM to FM stereo, and then how television evolved from black and white to colour to colour surround sound, the intersound, we will soon, I think, see the Internet evolve not as a network of networks but as a whole new, global medium. Multimedia types will come and go on a very natural basis, where audio and video and virtual reality all interact to provide a natural human interaction for people so that they’re very comfortable using this new medium for education, for entertainment and for electronic commerce. It’s a very bright picture that we have in front of us.
Question 2
Just imagine how the Internet could evolve and what it could become in ten years time. Let’s imagine the Internet in the year 2010. Let’s hear your vision about it.
Answer (John Patrick):
Well, as we look much further into the future, we see first the Internet evolving as this new medium. A medium that’s very rich with multimedia content. A medium which responds to who you are and the way you want to interact, where people who are blind don’t get presented with video, people who are hearing-impaired see wonderful video. And this medium responds and becomes a very natural way for you to interact. But what’s coming ahead is an Internet where you don’t even have to interact; there will be something that will interact for you. It will be an avatar. An avatar is a software agent, and this software agent or this avatar, this likeness of you, will be out there on that network. It will be out there in the medium acting on your behalf. This avatar will take on your personality, will know what you like, what you don’t like. When it encounters another avatar, it will introduce itself and it will be just like you. And you will trust this avatar. This avatar will carry your wallet. And in that wallet will be your digital signature. And you will entrust your avatar to negotiate for you, to plan a weekend in the city for you, to find a hotel that you will like, make reservations for you in a restaurant. It will be wonderful for you. And it will perhaps go out and find the furniture to outfit a new room that you may be building because it will be so natural. Over time it will get smarter and smarter and it will become just like you. But you will be completely in control. But many things that are today mundane in the shopping arena really don’t require your personal involvement. It’s only once your tastes are known that these things become very boring, whereas your avatar will be able to take over for you and allow you to spend your time on the things that are of most interest to you.
Question 3
As far as technology goes, can we imagine what the key notes of the next ten years are going to be? Can we have an idea of where we’re going technically?
Answer (John Patrick):
Well, there are many key technologies that are associated with the Internet, but I think one that’s potentially the most profound is Java. Java is important because it levels the playing field. It enables applications to be created on one kind of computer but be able to execute or operate on any kind of computer. This is important because it will enable the most creative ideas in the world to be exploited. So a person in Bled, Slovenia with a very good idea, who is an expert in using an XYZ kind of computer, can develop this idea that they have on the XYZ computer, and when they’re finished creating this application, in Java it will work on anybody’s computer. And because of the Internet, people all over the world will be able to get connected and take advantage of this idea. So it’s quite profound to be able to allow creativity to flourish and not be retarded because of technological incompatibilities that have plagued the information technology industry since its very beginning. In a sense, it’s like the Holy Grail. It’s a great promise to allow people not to worry so much about technology but be able to focus on their ideas, on their creativity. So Java is more than just another programming language, it’s a metaphor, it’s a surrogate for the write-it-once-and-run-it-anywhere kind of idea. I think it’s quite important.
Question 4
The gap between the north and southern hemisphere. Are technological companies wise enough, human enough, cultured enough to understand that a part of the world does not have the need of lower position technology but needs to draw people into this community with a little bit more heart and a little less mind. What do you think?
Answer (John Patrick):
Well, the Internet is an enabler. And the technology of the Internet enables a universal connectivity. This universal connectivity doesn’t know one geography from another. It allows people to get connected and once they’re connected, they’ll be able to express themselves and communities can form because everyone’s connected. So the community of the future is going to be more oriented around the interests that people have, not necessarily where they live. Many, many people live in a different country from where they grew up because that’s where they’re working. Many Americans work in Japan, many Germans work in America, many Italians work in Tokyo. And the Internet allows people to come together on whatever basis they choose. They can come together on the basis of their language, or an interest in music or in technology or in whatever subject. And rather than forcing everyone to be the same, which some people do worry about, I think the Internet is a liberator. Many years ago there were 30,000 different dialects in the world; today there are only 5000. Will it go back to 30,000 or will it go to one or two or three thousand. Well, it will really be up to the people. The Internet puts the people in charge. It’s not IBM, it’s not Microsoft, it’s not the government. It’s the people. So however people want to aggregate and form communities, that will determine which way this language thing goes. I believe personally that dialects that today may be threatened will be able to live longer, maybe for ever. Perhaps some dialects that are currently extinct will come back because the people who once knew that dialect and were scattered to the winds around the world can now come back together again because of the reach and the compatibility of the Internet.
Question 5
Time magazine had an article about religion, about Jesus on-line. What you’re saying about language is partially true for religion as well. There are a lot of religions that are coming back again on the Net and a lot of religions that are born on the Net. Would you like to comment on that?
Answer (John Patrick):
Religion is an example of a community, and it’s an example of people who share a common belief. Some religions are very broad in their adoption and in the number of their followers and other religions are very narrow. And the Internet serves both. The Internet allows people, wherever they might be but who share a common view about a particular religion, to come together to form a congregation on the Internet. Likewise from the point of view of a particular religion, the Internet provides a way for the spiritual leaders of that particular religion to communicate and to make their points of view known and it allows for interaction. So it really is quite liberating, I think, to allow subject matters, no matter what they may be – art, music, religion – to reach more people and to allow people to come together that formally didn’t know that each other existed.
Question 6
Can you tell us about Panoramix and what it is for.
Answer (John Patrick):
Panoramix is a 3-D visualisation technology that allows people to have a feeling of presence in a place somewhere. The designer can use a camera, any kind of a camera and take pictures of let’s say the inside of a car or the inside of a house – in Paris we’ve done this at Gallerie Lafayette, a department store – and take these pictures, and then it pieces them together and allows a person with a Web browser on the Internet using IBM Panoramix technology to be able to browse around the inside of that car or of that building or of that store and have a feeling as though they were there. It’s sort of a natural feeling because these pictures – they’re not drawings, they’re real pictures – and you can browse around in a panoramic way. You can zoom in and see that bottle of perfume on a fragrance counter. And we have a way to superimpose on these pictures what we call a “sprite”. A sprite is like an icon, but a very special icon. It’s an icon that has Java application logic built into it. In effect, it’s a program. For example, there could be a sprite which is actually a picture of a model, and the model moves. It’s an animated model. And when you click on it the model describes what they’re wearing; it tells you the price and colours that it’s available in. It’s a very powerful technology to introduce the idea of a more natural human interaction, to give people a feeling that they’re there. Just imagine a Sunday afternoon, you feel like shopping, you look out the window and there are three feet of snow, and so you go shopping on the Web and you feel like you’re there.
Question 7
Can you explain what the interface is, what the problem is with the large interface? The main problem for a lot of people is how to get it onto their computer and the network. What are the ways to solve it?
Answer (John Patrick):
The interface will become simpler and simpler as time moves on. Today, it is a bit more complicated than it needs to be. You have to know too much and you have all these icons on your desktop and you click on them and they do something, but with many of them you’re not really sure what it’s going to do until you click on it. It may ask you questions that you just don’t know the answer to. I think what we will see happen is more of a consistent, uniform interface, perhaps a browser. We’ve had a little focus group going on for the last couple of years out on the Internet. And twenty or thirty million people have all said: We know how to browse. It’s becoming like a fundamental human trait. This idea of “click here” has really taken on and it’s almost just intuitive. It’s a human trait that I think we have that we didn’t know that we had. And so I believe this concept of the “click here” will become the interface. We will see an environment where we’re looking at a screen and it may be on a TV or a computer or on our telephone, or it may be on another form of a hand-held device. We will just find it very natural to interact with this device and everything that we do with the computer will be as though we were browsing the Web. In some cases, we’re actually doing something right in our local computer. In other cases, maybe it’s something that is happening in a set-top box on the television. In some cases, it may be something that’s happening in our car and we’re interacting with the display in the car. It all becomes a common sort of thing. We all take the telephone for granted; with our eyes closed we can just pick it up and we know how to use it. That’s how the Internet will become. The interface will become very natural and we’ll think nothing of using it. And by the way, it’ll always be connected. So today, part of the interface is the physical part of getting connected. How do you do that? You have to dial phone numbers and you have to know a lot. You shouldn’t have to know anything. You should be able to come home from the office or come in from your patio and there it is; it’s connected all the time and information is there at your fingertips. It’s there at your spoken command and the interface is just something that we take for granted.
Question 8
There’s the political problem in all this that connection in the United States costs very little but in most other places, like Italy, it’s very expensive. How do you will this problem be overcome? Is there any technology that might make it less costly or is it in the hands of the telephone companies?
Answer (John Patrick):
I think ultimately it’s in the hands of the people. I do care about access costs and speed and availability of bandwidth everywhere in the world because the Internet is not an American phenomenon, it’s a global phenomenon. The Web was invented in the heart of Europe. It wasn’t invented in America. Some of the most exciting work going on in Internet technology is happening in Israel and Beijing and in many places around the world. So it’s quite important that everyone be able to be connected. The barriers today are partly real and partly created. The real ones have to do with the lack of wires. In some parts of the world there are no wires. In some parts of the world there are wires but there are rules and tariffs and customs and regulations that are sort of artificial barriers that cause them to be very expensive. They’re not really cost-based, they’re more artificially based. These barriers will come down. It will begin with the privatisation of the telephone companies around the world. And country by country they’re becoming privatised; as they become privatised the investors in those countries will be asking some aggressive questions. Why aren’t we getting more users? Why are our prices high? Why can’t we lower our prices? Why can’t we get more users paying a little instead of a few users paying a lot? And in fact if we really embrace this, maybe we can have even a better financial income for the particular telephone company. And in places where there are no wires, we have satellites and satellites can provide a one-way connection to the Internet with some very clever techniques that can enable people to have the effect of surfing the WWW even though it’s a one-way connection. I think we will see the barriers come down. I think we will see the bandwidth become much more available and I think we’ll see breakthroughs here. I think just like the Berlin Wall came down in Europe and surprised everyone that’s what’s going to happen with bandwidth. I think it will be sooner rather than later. Pretty likely in 1997 we will see this breakthrough occur.
Question 9
The Internet is becoming a market where here can be no barriers. No companies like Microsoft can be allowed to create exclusive languages which cut others out. As Vice-President of technological development for IBM, what do you think? There seems almost to have been a cartel formed by IBM, Oracle, SUN, Java against Microsoft. Is this true, or is it just a natural market development?
Answer (John Patrick):
The Internet was built on and has thrived on a model of co-operation. This co-operation has enabled the creation of a set of international standards which have enabled all the networks of the world to become one network, the Internet, and will allow everyone to be connected to this global Internet. As new technologies evolve, it’s quite important for this global Internet to be able to capitalise on these technologies so that everyone can share in the creativity and the new applications that come about. That requires that this model of co-operation continue into the future. No company big or small should be able or allowed to dominate this corner or portion of the Internet and in any way make it proprietary. This model of co-operation must thrive in order to allow everyone to benefit from this great reach and compatibility of this new medium. One of the important initiatives in this area is Java. It’s a new approach, a way to create computer programs on any kind of a computer which can run on any other kind of computer. And so, you’re seeing a great deal of common vision going on around the industry. You’re seeing companies who are competitors also working closely together to make sure that Java becomes pervasive and standard and that no one takes this language and tries to fragment it and make their flavour of Java. This would be disruptive and would not enable this vision of a universally connected world where everyone can share in these benefits. So I think it’s quite important that a large number of companies, hopefully all companies, will embrace this concept and deploy this single language, and then we can really make technology take a back seat and allow creativity and application development and business solving and education and entertainment take the front seat and create a very rich world for everyone.