Skip to comments.Internet II: Rebooting America: Getting Real and Getting It Right
Posted on 09/08/2001 10:06:16 PM PDT by shrinkermd
The biggest economic boom in history is bearing down on us.
It's heresy to say such things these days. Most of the world is hunkered down, just trying to survive the fallout. Companies are still laying off people. The economic indicators are still pointing in every direction. So announcing another great era of prosperity risks public humiliation.
But the fact is that all the signs of a massive turnaround are in place. It will be across the board, from chips to wireless to information technology to a Great Global Grid, providing a wealth of opportunities for entrepreneurs, consumers, and investors. It will come in the form of universal broadband access, unlimited network server availability, global virtual malls, real-time enterprise computing. It's the firstborn offspring of the Internet, only it will be sleeker, smarter, and more agile and obedient than its predecessor. For now, let's call it Internet II, or the ultranet, or meganet. Potentially it could eclipse the unprecedented economic expansion from 1992 to 1999.
That's the good news. The bad news is that such a boom will place a burden on America's infrastructure that it currently cannot bear. Without the money and political will to carry the load, the new boom could be strangled in its first months by a shortage of electricity, roads, and runways.
Both prospects, the good and the bad, will come with enormous costs and demand considerable sacrifices. Before events sweep out of our control, we have just a few months to make some very important decisions.
To understand the coming boom, we need to look at the technology landscape and identify the forces converging to ignite it.
The first of these forces, one that underlies the rest, is the return of the high tech business cycle. For 30 years before the 1990s, the semiconductor industry, mirrored by the electronics industry as a whole, rode a roller coaster of boom and bust.
The 1990s, with a nearly eight-year run of continuous expansion, appeared to obliterate this cycle. In fact, the cycle was still there--chips and PCs suffered a downturn between 1996 and 1998--but it was camouflaged by the early and unexpected arrival of the e-commerce boom. The latter was so huge that it filled the trough, leaving many--including some of the industry's keenest analysts--convinced that the traditional business cycle was obsolete and that the tech bubble could expand indefinitely.
We all know better now. The cycle reasserted itself with a vengeance, and we are still reeling.
But if the business cycle is back on track, that also means that the bottom is near and the next upturn is just months away. And the next peak? In 2004 or 2005.
That date fits with other traditional high tech indicators. Booms are built on money, new technologies, and entrepreneurial fervor. As it happens, all three areas are heating up. Venture capitalists, flush with money, are cautiously investing in a new generation of hard technology companies. Executives and top tech types--laid off, bored, or invariably ambitious--are slipping out of established companies to join new ventures. The big companies at the top of the supply chain, like Intel (in Oregon) and Applied Materials (in California), are constructing new facilities, and Microsoft is launching a host of new initiatives. Even as they lay off multitudes and shrink their marketing budgets, the mightier companies are redoubling their investments in research and development.
The game is afoot again. The tech revolution is about to get rebooted.
WHERE THE CURVES ALL MEET
The underpinnings of the new boom are in place. The next question to ask is: What will this boom look like?
Last summer the editors and reporters at Forbes ASAP noticed new trends springing across the tech spectrum, from semiconductors to e-commerce. What made these trends even more interesting was that they all seemed to converge at a single point, three years hence, with the business cycle peaking as well. Taking a closer look at these trends, we found evidence of big things to come.
Optical fiber One of the most remarkable artifacts of the last decade is a pair of pipes that emerge out of the coastal forest just south of Coos Bay, Oregon, disappearing into the ocean on their way to Asia. Each of these cables contains enough fiber-optic capacity to handle in one second five times the number of telephone calls currently made every minute in the United States.
In fact, an estimated 90% of all of the world's optic fiber is unused. Telecom companies such as Global Crossing, Level 3 Communications, and 360Networks have unspooled nearly 100 million miles of fiber-optic cable all over the world, burning hundreds of millions of dollars in the expectation that the world would beat a path to their doors.
And it will, soon. High tech's history shows that whenever there is overcapacity coupled with falling prices, entrepreneurs attack. All of that vacant fiber screams for new applications, from digital video on demand to do-it-yourself FX (digital special effects) to Internet television. And somewhere in those new apps lies a killer: the long-awaited Net equivalent of The Milton Berle Show (which boosted TV sales from 1 million to 4 million in just 12 months in 1949), that one galvanizing piece of content that will keep the world's eyes locked on a single Web site.
Semiconductors Moore's Law is clicking over yet one more time, presenting the world with a new generation of even more powerful microprocessors and controllers from Intel, its great rival AMD, and Motorola. This round is likely to be especially popular, featuring the new gigahertz chips (with their growing capacity for high-level graphics and artificial intelligence) being joined by first-generation Internet-enabled, media processor, and graphics-oriented chips coming from companies such as Nvidia, TriMedia Technologies, and Equator Technologies. They will be joined by new categories of hybrid devices that move complex systems--digital cameras, medical diagnostic equipment, high-speed modems--onto the surface of silicon, and thus onto the bullet train of the new boom.
Many of these devices will enjoy their first design adoptions in the next two years. They will, in turn, power a burst of new wireless Internet devices, servers, and communications tools--just in time for the appearance, thanks to Moore's Law, of the next, even more powerful generation of chips.
Why is this important? Because every generation of microprocessors does two things: It slices the prices of existing products in half, and it opens doors to new industries. The next two clicks of Moore's Law will bring broadband processing into the home, the current PC into the pocket, and the network server into the office of every budding entrepreneur.
Internet You remember the Internet, don't you? It was going to change the world forever, rewrite the rules of business, transform retailing, and link the world into one vast global network. Inevitably, this house of cards came crashing down, to the glee of the cowards who missed out and the dismay of the greedy who thought they'd found easy riches. So we declared the Internet Era over, then went back to using it every day.
Web consumers may not be ordering groceries from Webvan or dog food from Pets.com anymore, but they are hitting the "Buy Now" button at Amazon, L.L. Bean, Restoration Hardware, and Bloomingdale's. Estimated annual online retail sales: $34 billion--equal to the entire U.S. retail market around 1940. E-commerce grows at about 35% per year, whereas traditional retail growth is about 4% to 5% per year.
Keep in mind that this unheralded payoff has come from an online marketplace that continues to be crude and largely unfulfilled in its promise.
Online customers demand something better. What do they want? They'll settle for the quality images and comprehensive listings of a good catalog, but what they'd really love is a personal, customized Home Shopping Network--a place where they can walk through virtual aisles and pull down items, change their color and size, and have a software avatar give them a personalized sales pitch and answer their questions. Then they want a bank to guarantee the transaction and have the item land on their doorstep the next morning. They are about to get both, via the Great Global Grid.
Online Transactions The Internet, because of its odd birth, has always had a strange, paranoid view of commerce--half PBS, half late night on a carnival midway. We are willing to pay for goods on the Web, even for the assistance of a handful of guides. But every other service we expect to get free, or at least underwritten by giant corporations. Thus, we'll buy a used Plymouth online, even pay Yahoo to help us find it. But we won't pay for the best article ever written about buying old Plymouths. Just ask Slate or Salon.com or Inside.com.
That's for the mainstream. For the edgier stuff--pharmaceuticals, gossip, fan sites, porn--we want a peek at what we're buying first, and then the chance to make our purchase behind the tent, where the cops (and the neighbors) aren't watching.
Here, too, the solutions are coming fast. They take as many forms as there are creators. Encryption, that favorite activity of out-of-work Russian programmers and ex-spooks, is reaching the mainstream with the dream (and nightmare to governments everywhere) of almost perfectly private peer-to-peer transactions. At the same time, numerous companies, including CheckFree, First Data, and Visa International, are rushing to establish relationships with banks and governments worldwide to enable secure online cash transfers, from pennies to billions of dollars anywhere on the planet. The number of secure online transactions in the business-to-consumer (B2C) market is expected to reach 64 million by 2004, moving a total of $75 billion.
In parallel with them are the companies (for example, Qpass, Trivnet, and iPin) that are developing protocols for micropayments, the most likely antidote to the endemic resistance by Web surfers to paying for content. Don't want to buy an annual subscription to People magazine? Then how about paying 50 cents online for this week's cover story on Russell Crowe? This business is predicted to reach $8.1 billion by 2005.
Languages and Interfaces Even if you discount all that you've just read, this next item should be enough to convince you that something big truly is coming. Right now, while the rest of the tech world is still reeling, key players are racing to define the new face of the Internet, one that is more adaptive, visual, and polymorphic.
On one side are the new languages, capable of dealing with multiple streams of multimedia input, or tying together hundreds of diverse servers into a gigantic, temporary processing engine. You may have already heard the acronyms of some of these languages, like XML, UDDI, and SOAP.
On the other side are the new interfaces capable of managing the tremendous speeds in the Internet's future, of speaking in the new languages, of manipulating the extraordinary array of new visual tools (semiconductor cameras, 3D imagery, visual search technology) being born out of laboratories, and most of all, of providing an experience that is intuitive and engaging to the human mind. In other words, technology designed for the rest of us.
Microsoft's initiative in this area is called .Net, and the very fact that the software behemoth has such an initiative is a warning of what's to come. And Gates & Co. aren't alone. Hewlett-Packard has its own initiative, called e-Speak. So does Sun, called Sun One. And something reportedly is in the works at Oracle and IBM, too.
That's just from the highly visible corporations. The next Mosaic, the forerunner of Netscape, may come out of academia like the last one did. Already available, if you can afford the million bucks it costs to sit at the table, is a 2.5 gigabits-per-second, double-fiber backbone, a monster architecture that is sending giant software applications, image files, and video back and forth among more than 180 universities, hospitals, and corporations. This new Internet iteration is privately funded, in large part by equipment donations from tech corporations that are using it as a test bed for future products.
And don't forget the federal government: DARPA (originally called ARPA) invented the Internet, after all, and it is busily pursuing a model of the second generation of its brainchild, called Next Generation Internet, which currently links, like its predecessor, government and military agencies.
The last time around, it took the world more than a decade to catch on to the Internet. This time, backed by corporate marketing muscle and addressed to a large, savvy audience, the adoption curve will be almost vertical.
Information Technology The best minds in IT, such as venture capital king Vinod Khosla, believe they can already see the next great expansion. It's only a buzz now, but they expect it will be a full roar in about four years.
The technology is called RTEC, for real-time enterprise computing. It is the culmination of the march that began with management information systems (MIS) and database management systems 20 years ago, and it will be made possible by the next generations of the Internet, servers, and personal information devices.
Put simply, RTEC links together all of the information in a company, as well as its partners up and down the supply/distribution channel, and makes them accessible in real time. Sales, marketing, manufacturing, inventory, HR, accounting, financials--everything is polled continuously and made available right now.
American industry is growing desperate for RTEC, even if it doesn't yet know the name. To understand why, think Cisco Systems. Cisco, then the most valuable company on Earth, suffered one of the worst meltdowns in business history last year. The company didn't know mountains of orders had evaporated until it was too late, despite having one of the most sophisticated internal IT systems anywhere. The stock collapsed.
Why did it happen? Because of an inherent lag time in Cisco's information apparatus. As the business world moves faster and faster, such a blindside meltdown will become the nightmare of chief information officers everywhere. And that is why they will embrace RTEC, even though, Khosla estimates, it will triple their IT budgets.
That means a brand new $50 billion industry by 2005, and a land rush for manufacturers of everything from servers and network archival systems to PDAs and laptops to security and software. At least a dozen newly funded companies with names like KnowNow, Bang Networks, SeeCommerce, and DemandTec have already sprung up to chase this market. Within another year, the Big Boys will be in the market, too. And you don't have to squint hard to see that Microsoft's .Net may be, in fact, the prototype for the universal RTEC operating system.
Mountains of money, an entrepreneurial resurgence, a new generation of processors, severe overcapacity of cable, broadband, viable e-commerce models, important new core technologies in hardware and software, and a breakout in IT. We've seen such conjunctions before--in 1958, 1970, 1976, and 1996--and each (the integrated circuit, the microprocessor, the PC, and the Web) set off an explosion that reverberated throughout the world.
Had you been looking closely at the converging curves of business, money, and semiconductor technology, you would have seen the microprocessor coming as early as 1968, even if you couldn't have predicted the Intel 4004. We can do the same now for the convergence of 2004-2005, and give it a name:
INTERNET II: THE GREAT GLOBAL GRID
We can even characterize it: Internet II will be what the Internet was supposed to be.
We can also make some intelligent guesses, extrapolating from emerging new technologies, about what it will be like. For example, it will be a broadband medium, probably averaging 1 megabit per second for the average user, of which there will likely be about 50 million in the United States. That's the critical mass of regular users needed to drive television and movies onto the new Web.
Unlike the current World Wide Web, the Great Global Grid will be primarily a visual medium. This shift will be powered by millions of low-cost, high-quality digital cameras, visual search software, video mail, consumer video editing and FX software, and vast and growing online video files ported over from film, television, and music videos.
On the one hand, the Grid will be everywhere in our daily lives--automobile dashboards, wristwatches, PDAs, cell phones, appliances, Game Boys, cash registers, even on the walls of public spaces.
Yet Internet II will also become increasingly ghostly, with perhaps as much as 60% of it devoid of human access. These dark regions will be filled with data streaming back and forth between ever-changing collections of computers and servers teaming up to jointly address complex problems (as with the current Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence project at the University of California at Berkeley).
Internet II will also be, increasingly, a monolithic medium for most of today's distinct media channels--radio, broadcast and cable TV, pay-per-view, cinema, Web, and games--offering hybrid forms never possible before. In other words, Internet II will at last be the all-inclusive entertainment and information conduit that Internet I was supposed to be. In the process, it will scoop up the millions who now sit in front of the TV or crowd the local multiplex.
Internet II will not only be what Internet I was supposed to be, it will also be better than its alternatives. And whenever a new industry passes beyond being merely novel to becoming economically compelling, all hell breaks loose.
That's what happened when the prices of color televisions, VCRs, and microprocessors fell below $1,000. Growth became logarithmic, content providers roared into the marketplace, and an entire culture began to form around each new technology. That is what will happen to the second generation of the Internet in 2004 or 2005.
And that's just entertainment and retail. Imagine what this same technology does for business-to-business, peer-to-peer, day trading, education (the standards for online learning are predicted to be in place by 2004, too), and, with eye-contact teleconferencing, for global work teams and telecommuting.
The Internet isn't dead--it's molting. And what will come out of the chrysalis will be gigantic. Once again, let history be our guide. Every important digital technology over the past 50 years has seen an initial explosion of entrepreneurial activity, followed by a 90%-plus shakeout of the competitors (although only a small dip in revenues). But what is generally forgotten is that after the shakeout, the few remaining survivors enjoy exponential growth. Within a couple of years they are joined by a new generation of savvier young competitors. Meanwhile, over the subsequent two decades, the industry itself typically grows 100 times bigger.
Chips crashed in 1974. Semiconductors are now a $200 billion industry. Processors went down in 1984. They are now a $60 billion industry. Enterprise software had its Waterloo (at least for market leader Oracle) in 1990. It's now a $44 billion industry.
If history holds true, the Net, following this current shakeout, will be a $20 trillion industry (nearly twice the current Gross Domestic Product) by the year 2020. But even if it is only one-tenth that size, it will still constitute an economic revolution.
Two thousand four is the year it all comes together.
CRACKS IN THE ASPHALT
There's only one problem: It might not happen.
America's infrastructure is already crumbling. It could never withstand the massive economic shock from the explosion of Internet II. Instead, we are in jeopardy of experiencing only a boomlet--an economic upturn that is truncated, attenuated, or perhaps takes place somewhere else.
Cast back to the now-antebellum era of the first Internet boom. Radio and TV were overwhelmed with advertising. Peapod and Webvan trucks got stuck in traffic. United Parcel Service and Federal Express strained under tsunamis of deliveries. The electric power grid raced toward capacity as millions more computers and servers were brought online. Meanwhile, the federal government, incapable of assimilating the revolution taking place around it, went nuts, writing regulations that were already obsolete when they appeared, fumbling spectrum allocations, trying to break up Microsoft.
But the biggest screwup of all has been the Feds' handling of the so-called last mile problem, the final step of bringing broadband to the home. Here, instead of letting the market and competition takes its course, the Federal Communications Commission has snarled things up so badly that it may take years to unravel. The only good news in this regulatory snafu is that local governments (such as Chicago, Illinois, and Palo Alto, California) have decided to circumvent Washington and put in their own neighborhood grids.
And that, it now seems, was just the rehearsal for the Big One.
Picture now, to be conservative, the birth of a $10 trillion industry over the next four years, and the infrastructure earthquake it would produce. America's infrastructure on land, water, and in the air is not only unprepared for such a vast economic breakout, it is already in crisis. In a little-noted report last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the nation's roads and airports for structural quality. Neither earned a grade better than D+.
Harbors are silting up, bridges are crumbling, landfills are being topped off with last year's PCs. Even the water, which must be purer for making semiconductors than for washing human organs during surgery, is running dry. The great economic boom of the 1990s, the largest and most sustained in U.S. history, was built on the foundation of America's investment in infrastructure in the 1950s and 1960s. But that infrastructure is now either used up, worn out, or incomplete. We have failed to re-asphalt the highway even as we were laying fiber optic cable down the shoulder. We depend upon trucks and trains and airplanes to deliver the goods we order at the punch of a button, yet we have put down few rails or runways since the days when FedEx was just a dream and email was still a telegram.
Our borrowed notes, the years we've used the nation's once-great infrastructure without upgrading it, are now way past due.
How much will it cost? One estimate is $1.3 trillion--and that's just to get the nation up to current standards, not to underpin another, bigger economic expansion.
And we are running out of time. Are we willing to bet, say, $2 trillion to make $20 trillion? Is there any consensus in Washington to do so? Democrats don't do roads, and the GOP just gave back $1.35 trillion in a tax cut. The Bush administration is spending more on infrastructure than its predecessor, but the amount ($59.5 billion alone for the Department of Transportation in 2002) is little more than half of what is needed just to keep America's trucks from disappearing into potholes.
A WAKEUP CALL
For nearly a decade now, the role of Forbes ASAP has been to identify what is coming next and to offer solutions for how to make the best of changing times. Now we are announcing the rebirth of the Internet, in the form it was always meant to be, and with an impact far greater than anything we have seen before. In the pages that follow, we look more closely at this emerging phenomenon that will, for good or evil, define our lives for a generation.
But with this announcement also comes a warning: We are not prepared for this impending boom. We have no way to support it, to nourish it, even to reap its benefits. What will happen to Internet II, the fulfillment of the technological revolution, when our order sits on a runway behind 60 other planes awaiting takeoff, or on a stalled interstate? And how many batteries will we need to surf the Grid in the dark?
Internet II is coming, but we aren't ready. If we aren't ready soon, we may have to wait until 2015 or 2020, and perhaps visit Frankfurt or Shanghai to see what we missed.
That infrastructure was there 25 years ago; Congress just let the constantly merging rails tear it all up because the rails didn't want to maintain it any more. They figured they could skinny down the route network and get by, cheaper -- well, they couldn't, and Union Pacific just proved it by tying itself in a knot last year.