Electronic Futures in the 21st Century: An Unreliable Guide

Tom Worthington

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University, Canberra

For: IIM 2000 Global Information in the 21st Century Conference, 1.30pm Monday 15th May 2000, Melbourne Convention Centre
Preview to the ANU Engineering students, 4:00pm April 10
Draft 1.1, 18 April 2000: http://www.tomw.net.au/2000/iim2000.html


The author takes us on a ten year journey from 1996 to the present to look at what has been achieved then to 2005, to see what is possible. Presenting a sceptical view of claims for e-commerce, it is argued that on-line sales represent only one small aspect of commerce and other aspects of on-line business need to be addressed for the digital economy of the 21st century. Examples will be drawn from the book "Net Traveller", published in 1999 and based on and examination of "electronic futures" from 1996. The author will also present some of the latest work from the university and research sector on IT and Internet..



In 1996 I wrote a ``future history'' of information technology in Australia, from the point of view of the year 2005. This was published later as a chapter of my book Net Traveller. The future history was for the first presentation of my two year term as President of the Australian Computer Society. It was disconcerting to see how my elevated position had raised expectations. My audience actually expected that I would know what was going to happen. The best I could do was present some possible futures. What did, and will, happen depends on the choices we all make and to some extent on chance.

The year 2005 may not sound far in the future, but technology changes very rapidly. In another way it doesn't change that rapidly. Technologies, such as the Internet, took decades to develop. In a sense I live in the future, as I get to see, help develop, and use these technologies. The ANU Department of Computer Science is working on several technologies which may one day be on the front pages of the financial press. However, many such potential developments turn out to not work, or not capture the popular imagination. None of us really knows which of these futures will be real.

What future is possible through information technology?

My strong belief is that we can help make the future. It is human nature to expect someone, from somewhere else, is more expert than the person next door. Where I worked for ten years at the Defence Department in Canberra, we got a regular stream of visiting experts ready to tell us the future. Many of these people were experts, some were trying to fool us, others were fooling themselves.

One notable example was the Iridium satellite phone system. This was heavily promoted to military customers as a low cost replacement for specialised military satellite units and HF radio. At the time it didn't make a lot of sense to me, as there were no rugged, water-resistant handsets available. A military radio which would stop working when dropped in water didn't sound like something I would trust my life to. Also Iridium emphasised voice communication, not data. There didn't appear to be any data adaptors or packet data mode for Internet type applications.

In contrast to Iridium, there were low cost packet data systems with weather resistant handsets. One of these is the ORBCOMM satellite communications service. This only needs one satellite in orbit to provide a store-and-forward short text message service. If more satellites are available, then real time, longer text messages are possible. There are hand held weather proof terminals available, such as the Magellan GSC 100. This type of service is similar to the WAP Internet-like service now being hyped up by mobile phone companies.

My view that Iridium was not a good idea did not go over well with my defence colleagues. This was technology from major US companies and which our US DoD colleagues were enthusiastic about. Billions of dollars had been invested in it. How could it fail to be a success? However, history has proved them wrong. Iridium is bankrupt and unless someone can find a use for the satellites, they will be burnt up in a multi-billion fireworks display over the Pacific Ocean.

A pocket size satellite phone is difficult to make. What could rescue the Iridium system is a notebook-PC sized terminal which would relay calls to a mobile phone handset. Outdoors the relay unit could be carried in a briefcase or knapsack and in-doors left near a window with a view of the sky. As the relay unit would not have to be pocket size, it could have a larger, more efficient antenna, cheaper less compact electronics and a bigger battery. When in range of a terrestrial network the handset could be used alone as a normal mobile phone.

2005: look, no wires!

One prediction I made in 1996 has partly come to pass. This was that by 2005 pay TV cabling would not turn out to be the way data services are delivered to homes. Medium and large business have high bandwidth requirements which are well met by digital fibre optic cabling. However, this doesn't make economic sense for the more modest needs of homes.

This may now sound obvious, but at the 1993 federal election the ALP promised to provide optical fibre direct to each household. Even now many people have the impression that the Pay TV cable laid in Australian cities is fibre optic and designed for data. In fact it is a hybrid system of fibre and copper cable, primarily designed for analogue TV. By 2005 this system will be obsolete, but still useable with modems for data.

There are several alternatives for data to the home. Telstra will have some success with DSL; adding sophisticated processing boxes to each end of old fashioned twisted pair telephone cable, to provide a useable digital service.

However, the main way people in cities will get data is by terrestrial cellular wireless services, using technology similar to that of mobile telephones. These should have enough capacity to provide digital video to every city home and be cheap enough to make cable non-competitive. An assortment of low, medium and high orbit satellites will provide data connections for rural areas.

The problem of new telephone companies connecting antennas for the wireless service all over the pace appears to be almost solved, but not in the way I expected. In 1996 it appeared that government regulation and telecommunications plans, would rationalise base station locations. In practice it looks as though consolidation through specialised companies owning the base stations and leasing capacity to telcos will be the model.

1998: the year my PC Didn't Break

One prediction which didn't work was that PCs would be obsolete by 1998. My theory was that low cost networking via the Internet would remove the need for each person to have their own fully independent computer. Low cost, almost disposable terminals would be in common use, with enough processing power and memory for the user's immediate needs. Long term storage of information would be on servers, owned by the employee's company or by a contracted service provider. Data would be downloaded as required over the network.

This may still happen, but needs some maturing of the market. Large corporations are still buying complete PCs for their staff. A networked PC is in many ways the worst of both worlds: all of the installation and maintenance costs of a stand-alone computer without the convenience of a network terminal.

Organisations should be buying their staff web terminals. That is a device with the user interface built in, but with the processing and storage elsewhere. Such a device can be built on a single printed circuit board for a few hundred dollars. For office use, it would make sense to built the terminal into a phone and save a few dollars on the case and power supply. The terminal can still use a standard keyboard, mouse and screen. In the next few years we will see such devices replacing PCs.

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) market has not matured to the point where home users will trust it for their long term storage. As a result small businesses and home users can't rely on web terminals and have to use full PCs. However, as the idea of having a web "home page" passes the novelty stage, we are seeing ISPs transformed into computer service bureaus providing long term storage and applications for web terminals.

One of the most economically significant and visible of e-commerce in the next few years may be the mundane business of paying bills. Paradoxically this may not require PCs or the Internet at all. Several companies are preparing to deliver bills online (such as BPAY and AllMyBills). These can then be paid by direct deposit from bank accounts. This cuts out paper bills and credit card charges. If people are willing to trust online paper-less bills and electronic payment, they may simply opt to have the bills paid automatically. This would remove the need to do more than occasionally check to see that nothing has gone awry.

Personal Access Display Devices (PADDS)

One less than serious prediction has already come true: PADDs are everywhere, in the form of the Palm Pilot and clones. The name PADD comes from the devices envisioned in the 1990's Star Trek Next Generation TV series. People did not want talking toasters, or Internet fridges with complicated control panels, but like the little pocket computers.

Larger PADDs are on the way, in the form of electronic books (e-book) readers. These are the size of a paperback book and designed to replace it. E-books are downloaded from the Internet directly, or via a PC and displayed on the unit's screen.

The current crop of e-book readers are unlikely to be successful, due to their limited function. But merged with the function of the PADD, they may displace most portable personal computers. My prediction still holds that these units by 2005 will be about the size of 1996's sub-notebook computers (the dimensions of a B5 sheet of paper, by 1 cm thick), with a touch sensitive screen (2000 x 2000 pixel by 16 million colours) covering the whole upper surface. These will have video and audio built in and operate as a mobile telephone, radio, TV and camcorder.

Date: 31 Jan 1996 03:28:18 GMT

From:xxxx@xxxx.ualberta.ca (Bryan Derksen)

Newsgroups: rec.arts.startrek.tech

Subject: Re: Star Trek terminology for Computer Society talk

Tom Worthington (tom.worthington@tomw.net.au) wrote:

``This is to request assistance with terminology for some of the equipment portrayed in Star Trek: the Next Generation''...

Yes, the clipboards are PADDs (it stands for Personal Access Display Device). I mostly see them used as word processors, but according to the tech manual they have a subspace transiever assembly that links them to the ship's computer system (even on away missions) so that you could theoretically run the whole ship from one.

Trivia: The extras that play background crewmembers sometimes call PADDs ``hall passes''.There is a mini-FAQ on Trek computer technology at


Bryan Derksen , Technomage-in-training

Linux Reaches The Event Horizon

One way to track popular trends is to see how many books and magazines there are on a topic. The Linux operating system is now at the point the Internet was in 1996: there are a few magazines and books. Early this year "Linux" split off from "Operating Systems" to have its own section of major technical book store shelves, as Internet split from "Networking" in 1996.

We are about to see the Linux hype reach the financial and business community. Just as the Internet went from being an academic toy to a hot commercial property, so is Linux. This will be partly fuelled by the idea that Linux is "free", which is appealing to the public (who like to get things for free) and to commerce (who like to sell things they get for free).

The reality is that Linux is now ready for use by large organisations who have staff to install and support it. Linux isn't quite ready for the small business or home user.

In 1996 I believed that Linux would coexist with Microsoft Windows and IBM OS/2. Since then OS/2 has disappeared. If the easy to install Linuxes come out this year and actually work, then Microsoft Windows is likely disappear within two years.

This may sound an exaggeration, but the ANU Department of Computer Science environment is an example of the future. Like a typical computer science area, Unix work stations were ubiquitous until a year ago. There were a lot of X-windows terminals connected to shared Unix systems, some Macs and a few PCs. For serious work multi-processor supercomputers running Unix were used.

The X-terminals and Unix work stations are now being replaced by PCs. The PCs run Linux (and even have Linux badges on the front); some run Microsoft Windows as well. The ANU is building a Linux supercomputer from 192 PCs stacked on old library shelves.

The 'net: chaos as usual

The 'net of 2005 will] be much like the Internet of 1996, just bigger. Predictions of its demise, due to overloading, or replacement by a more coherent network have been wrong so far.

Regrettably my prediction that Internet censorship would not be introduced was wrong. We now have the risk of a future repressive government using legislation to limit individual freedom. In return little has been gained, apart from forcing minor inconvenience on a few pornographers, while they moved their web sites out of Australian jurisdiction.

Telephone, media, entertainment companies and the regulators have yet to come to grips with the Internet and may not have done so by 2005. There is no sensible way to charge different tariffs, or have different rules, for voice, video and data transmissions. The current Government's bizarre digital TV restrictions (supported by the opposition) on transmission of certain content are unlikely to survive to 2005. ANU researchers are working on the MPEG 4 standard for video transmission. This will allow very efficient transmission of TV-like content over the Internet. It will make an unworkable nonsense of the restrictions on content the Government proposes as part of digital TV.

Job, which job?

IT is changing the nature of "office work" and is beginning to change the nature of cities. With cheap communications, there are few reasons to go to a big building far away to talk to someone.

Even the slow moving law has now recognised the arbitrary nature of location. This year's electronic transactions bill has had to define where an on-line transaction happens. Recognising that businesses don't need to be physically anywhere in particular, it uses the registered or usual location of the business. In my own case I may be in a cafe somewhere, but my transactions are officially happening in my office in Canberra.

In 1996 I believed that large companies would be replaced by many micro-businesses of about six people working together on-line. In 2000 I have become such a micro-business, connected by a web of contracts on-line to others. The only part not clear is if a few large companies will be needed to do the coordination, or this will be done by an on-line market.

Livable cities and countryside

Australia stands on the edge of an economic and demographic change. The current debate over jobs and services in rural areas will shape our nation in the 21st century. A short term "economic rationalist" approach would say that country people should move to the city for jobs. A longer term view would be to invest in infrastructure in the bush, to avoid a much larger cost in added city infrastructure.

Governments should stop building new city freeways and airports now. In place of this large subsidisation of the city, we could have an investment in rural telecommunications and conventional transport infrastructure. There can be a move back to the country.

The routine invoices and paperwork that made up most paper mail today will mostly be e-mail by 2005. In my own work, it is now routine to do business by e-mail and phone. Only contracts need be exchanged on paper, after drafts are discussed by e-mail. Even invoices and receipts are sent by e-mail, with payment by bank transfer from clients I have never seen. As well as reducing costs this frees the business from being located as close to a capital city.

Australia: Networked Nation

In 1996 I predicted that some time in 1998 Australia would start to pull away from the other developed nations in economic output (as well as environmental and quality of life indicators). In conjunction with emerging nations of the Asian region, Australia would come to dominate the post-industrial world. That prediction is well on the way to coming true.

Networking and cheap computing require a looser management style, and that suits the Australian lifestyle. In addition, Australia's love affair with the cafe (some of which are now cyber-cafes), helps.

Australia has a highly educated multi-cultural work force, able to form trading partnerships with the emerging economies of Asia. Australia's IT professionals are highly regarded in the region and can work with their Asian counterparts better than those of the USA or Europe.

Australia could implement a multi-language policy for its Government on-line services. The Web makes the provision of all Government information in multiple languages simple. Businesses could then be encouraged to adopt this practice. As a result many citizens of other nations would able to get more and better information from Australian on-line services, than those of their traditional trading partners, resulting in new sources of business for Australia.

Europe is creating huge government funded projects in a desperate attempt to advance its IT industries. These projects are producing mountains of reports about the information society and little of value. The USA is floating on the top of the Internet bubble, which will shortly burst. Most of the dot COM companies in the USA are not investing in real research, but living off the results of old US DoD funded work. When they fail, there will be little to replace them.

In contrast, Australia continues its policy of mixed Government and private funding for research. This is more through a lack of anyone in Government with a plan, than from foresight. In any case, it can produce a wealth of new ideas, which can be quickly turned into products.


  1. ACS (1992) Discussion Paper on Telecommunications in the Draft ACT Territory Plan, Australian Computer Society, 19 March 1992


  2. Derksen, B. (1996) Re: Star Trek terminology for Computer Society talk, Newsgroup: rec.arts.startrek.tech, 31 Jan 1996 03:28:18 GMT, URL

    Message-ID: 4emnki$94s@pulp.ucs.ualberta.ca

  3. Worthington, T. (1995) Interview with: Kate Lundy, 26 September 1995, URL


  4. Worthington, T. (1996) Australia: The Networked Nation, URL


  5. Worthington, T. (1996) Electronic Futures - Three months on the InfoBahn looking for the on-line future, Tom Worthington, URL


  6. Worthington, T. (1999) Net Traveller - Exploring the Networked Nation, ACS 1999, Edition 2, ISBN 0 909925 77 1


Note: In addition to these references, the online version of this document contains hypertext links on many of the topics mentioned. See: http://www.tomw.net.au/2000/iim2000.html

About the author

Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the Australian National University. He is an electronic business consultant, author and information technology professional, with 17 years experience in information technology, including nine years on high level IT policy and five in Internet applications. He was the first Web Master for the Australian Department of Defence. In 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy.

Further Information

Copyright Tom Worthington 2000.