From The World in 1998

The Web lifestyle

From The World in 1998: We asked Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation, what is going to happen to the Web.


If you asked people today why they used the telephone to communicate with their friends or why they turned to the television for entertainment, they would look at you as if you were crazy. We don’t think about a telephone or a television or a car as being oddities. These things have become such an integral part of life that they are no longer noticed, let alone remarked upon.

In the same way, within a decade no one will notice the Web. It will just be there, an integral part of life. It will be a reflex to turn to the Web for shopping, education, entertainment and communication, just as it is natural today to pick up the telephone to talk to someone.

There is incredible interest in the Web. Yet it is still in its infancy. The technology and the speed of response are about to leap forward. Thus will move more and more people to the Web as part of their everyday lives. Eventually, everyone’s business card will have an electronic mail address. Every lawyer, every doctor and every business–from large to small–will be connected.

In United States elections, people now turn to the Internet to see real-time results. The Pathfinder mission to Mars and the problems with the Mir space station drew millions of people to the Web for more up-to-date details than were available elsewhere.

A change like this is often generational. When older people have to learn something new outside their everyday experiences, kids who grow up with a new technology simply treat it as given. College campuses in particular are providing the ingredients to generate the critical mass for a Web-ready culture.

Today in the United States, there are over 22m adults using the Web, about half of whom access the Internet at least once a day. Meanwhile, the variety of activities on the Web is broadening at an amazing rate. There is almost no topic for which you cannot find fairly interesting material on the Web. Many of these sites are getting excellent traffic flow. Want to buy a dog? Or sell a share? Or order a car? Use the Internet.

Where are we going to get the time to live with the Web? In some instances, people will actually save time because the Web will make doing things more efficient than in the past. Being able to get information about a major purchase, for example. Or finding out how much your used car is worth. Or what is your cheapest way of getting to Florida. That is very easy to find on the Web, even today. In other instances, people will trade the time they now spend reading the paper, or watching television, for information or entertainment they will find on the computer screen. This will be noticeable in 1998. Americans, particularly young ones, will spend less time in front of a television screen, more on the Web.

One great benefit of the Web is that it allows us to move information online that now resides in paper form. Several states in America are using the Web in a profound way. You can apply for various permits or submit applications for business licences. Some states are putting up listings of jobs – not just state government jobs, but all the jobs available in the state. I believe, over time, that all the information that governments print, and all those paper forms they now have, will be moved on to the Internet.

Electronic commerce notches up month-by-month too. It is difficult to measure, because a lot of electronic commerce involves existing buyers and sellers who are simply moving paper-based transactions to the Web. That is not new business. Microsoft, for example, purchases millions of dollars of PCs online instead of by paper. However, that is not a fundamental change; it has just improved the efficiency of an existing process.

The biggest impact has occurred where electronic commerce matches buyers and sellers who would not previously have found each other. When you go to a book site and find an obscure book that you never would have found in a physical bookstore, that is a new type of commerce.

Today, about half of all PCs are still not connected to the Web. Getting communications costs down and making all the software simpler will bring in those people. And that, in turn, will move us closer to the critical mass that will make the Web lifestyle everyone’s lifestyle.

One element that people underestimate is the degree to which the hardware and software will improve. Just take one aspect: screen technology. I do my e-mail on a 20-inch liquid crystal display (LCD) monitor. It is not available at a reasonable price yet, but in two years it will be. In ten years, a 40-inch LCD with much higher resolution will be commonplace.

The boundary between a television set and a PC will be blurred because even the set-top box that you connect up to your cable or satellite will have a processor more powerful than what we have today in the most expensive PC. This will, in effect, make your television a computer.

Interaction with the Web also will improve, making it much easier for people to be involved. Today the keywords we use to search the Web often return too many articles to sort through, many of them out of context. If you want to learn about the fastest computer chip available, you might end up getting responses instead about potato chips being delivered in fast trucks. In the future, we shall be either speaking or typing sentences into the computer. If you ask about the speed of chips, the result will be about computers, not potatoes.

Speech recognition also means that you will be able to call in on a phone and ask if you have any new messages, or check on a flight, or check on the weather.

To predict that it will take over ten years for these changes to happen is probably pessimistic. We usually overestimate what we can do in two years and underestimate what we can do in ten. The Web will be as much a way of life as the car by 2008. Probably before.

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