December 28, 2000 10:00 PM PST

For 2001, futurists are being a bit on the shy side

After the crystal ball cracks, it's tough to predict the future.

Widespread forecasts of doom--the lights going out in China and mainframes going bonkers in Silicon Valley--turned out to be bogus as the world rang in 2000 with only a few hiccups. The Y2K bug will likely go down in history as the worst prognostication boondoggle ever for the thousands of analysts, business executives, technologists and media pundits who pretended to be fortune-tellers.

Year in
review special report Nervous about going out on a gloom-and-doom limb again, futurists have dramatically scaled back their predictions for 2001.

In fact, few high-profile commentators have made even vaguely definitive predictions for the first official year of the new millennium. Many people claiming to predict events that will happen in 2001 have merely slapped a forward spin on entrenched trends from earlier this year or in the '90s: the growth of trends such as broadband Internet access for the masses, distributed computing, instant messaging, and Internet-enabled appliances and gadgets such as washing machines and alarm clocks.

Nonetheless, some moderately off-the-wall predictions are percolating among futurists, think tanks and journalists. Here are a few, culled from a search of business and technology publications, university archives and the Internet.

Virile-viruses experts at Symantec and Network Associates predict that new viruses will study their host environments and alter themselves based on them. Last year, both companies reported an increase in the number of "polymorphic viruses," which alter their code to evade detection and wreak extensive damage.

In a virtual presentation by Gordon Bell on the Web, the chairman of University Video Communications and 23-year veteran of Digital Equipment predicted that a consortium of Internet police will emerge to watch for copyright infringement, trademark violations and other sins against intellectual property.

"I think there'll be a necessity for bit police since bits is bits and bits are free," Bell says in the virtual speech. "Many carry intellectual property. Lots of countries don't recognize intellectual property. They have printing presses to convert any bit form to any other and sell them royalty-free."

Other would-be seers are jazzed by the prospect of an interplanetary or even intergalactic Internet--a mother lode of futurist fodder with roots in scientific research at NASA. In April, NASA demonstrated that it could use standard Internet protocols to communicate with an orbiting spacecraft just like any other node on the Internet.

Engineers at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., successfully contacted UoSAT-12 spacecraft through a ground station in Surrey, England, using Internet ping packets. The project, called Operating Missions as Nodes on the Internet (OMNI), was the first time that a spacecraft ever had its own Internet address and was a fully RFC-compliant active node on the Internet.

The announcement did not go unnoticed by PC Magazine, which in an Aug. 8 edition dubbed it "a truly far-out idea" and one of the hottest five trends to watch.

"NASA has already put out feelers in the private sector for developing this type of technology, which it envisions will support end-to-end communication across the solar system, even in adverse conditions," wrote the article's author, John Clyman. "Watch for domain names like '.Earth,' '.Mars,' and '.Jupiter' sometime this decade."

"The age of bio"
Futurists are also excited by developments in biological sciences--though these probably won't happen in 2001. David Smith, vice president of Technology Futures, has dubbed the next half-century "the age of bio," predicting that biological sciences will be applied to manufacturing, computing, the Internet and elsewhere. He says computing power will surpass human brain power by 2040.

Nanotechnology researchers are plotting how to harness the power of the Internet. The NanoComputer Dream Team, a coalition of scientists, programmers and computer enthusiasts, wants to model molecules needed to build a nanocomputer that is only a few thousand atoms in width.

See 2000 timeline To build it, the group is searching for volunteers to download a screensaver on their computers that would automatically route unused central processing unit time to the project's central processor. The group says its lofty goal isn't attainable until 2011 at the earliest, but the developments in the Dream Team labs have advanced other researchers' rudimentary molecular manipulations.

Others are bullish about the prospects of automotive "telematics"--dashboard technology that combines audio, a hands-free cell phone, navigation, Internet connectivity, email and voice recognition in cars. Detroit automakers have seized on the idea that they can, in essence, become mobile Internet service providers, giving drivers instant access to all Internet functions while commuting or driving to the grocery store. The first dashboard PCs appeared this fall on some high-end Cadillacs, and experts are betting the next year will see even more models equipped with PCs.

"It is unquestionably the most complex and investment-intensive growth area of automotive electronics. Ironically, it is also the easiest to sell in a boardroom," wrote Gerry Kobe of trade publication Automotive Industries. "Although no one is promising free telematics in every vehicle in exchange for subscribing to a service contract (yet), the idea of upgrading vehicle electronics and funding it via cell phone and Internet subscriptions is not lost" on the automakers.

Although a large part of the e-commerce industry went bust in 2000, many experts say it will roar back to life--at least in isolated segments. Market researchers at PhoCusWright are particularly encouraged by the online travel market, which it estimates will reach $20.2 billion by the end of 2001. Travelers will buy $12.7 billion in airline tickets online.

Analysts at PhoCusWright and other research companies also say that the online travel industry may ease travelers' frustrations at the world's increasingly congested airports, where record flight volume has also sparked record flight cancellations.

Northwest Airlines has become one of the first of the major U.S. airlines to introduce Internet check-in, so customers traveling sans baggage can print boarding passes on a home computer or office computer and walk directly to the departure gate. The program was offered to some corporate clients early this year, and it may be available for all travelers as soon as next year.

Seers aren't so enthusiastic about one of the year's hottest segments: application service providers (ASPs). A recent study from Redwood City, Calif.-based Zona Research determined that 63.4 percent of businesses surveyed use rented e-commerce applications from an ASP, up from 52.4 percent surveyed earlier this year.

But Gartner predicts that 60 percent of ASPs will fail within a year. Of the 480 retail ASPs competing in the nascent $3.6 billion industry, more than half will go bankrupt, run out of venture capital, or be swallowed by larger competitors in upcoming years.

The Nasdaq's course
Financial fortune-tellers have also reined in stock market optimism heading into 2001, as the Nasdaq is on track to post its worst annual performance. Many say that the markets will tread water for several quarters. But a vocal minority seems to believe that the markets always trend upward, and they're certain that a rally is around the corner.

According to the June newsletter of Silicon Valley investment icon Michael Murphy, the April collapse of the stock market presents buying opportunities for high-risk investors.

"There's a huge fourth quarter rally coming in technology again this year, leading to an even better 2001," wrote Murphy, an Internet financial commentator who also raises llamas in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

Even though he has little more than a week to be proven right--and a spate of earnings warnings and Wall Street negativity are likely to prove him wrong--Murphy remains confident that 2001 will be bright. "Regardless of what the stocks are doing right now," he wrote, "the underlying growth and the major legs of technology are as strong as ever."

Another negative: Despite a heavy dose of layoffs in the e-commerce sector, the technology industry's tight job market isn't likely to ease up in 2001.

Roger E. Herman, a futurist specializing in workplace trends, says the crunch is likely to last at least eight more years. Edie Weiner, president of Weiner Edrich Brown in New York, says entry-level talent will be easy to find as Generation Y matures, but the shortage of senior managers won't let up for years because baby boomers are poised to retire.

A simple dearth of middle-aged Americans is to blame: There are 76 million baby boomers nearing the end of their formal careers, but there are only 44 million Gen X-ers to replace them.

Will high-tech hit a wall?
Prognosticators are relatively vague about the future of technological innovation. Few mainstream futurists are willing to give a date--a day, week, month, year or even decade--for an all-out calamity, even though many are certain that it's coming.

An article from the Nov. 27 edition of Information Week gushes enthusiastically about the growth of computer memory and bandwidth. It praised Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, for his mid-'60s prediction that the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a square inch of silicon would double every 18 months and the price would be slashed in half.

But the article also states that at some point the explosion of memory, bandwidth and general computing power will eventually "hit a wall." Still, it's unclear whether that dire-sounding collision will be important.

"There is a real fear that eventually we will reach some quantum limit--the point at which the smallest light waves are still too large to be used to etch ever-smaller circuit lines," wrote the author, Stuart J. Johnston. "It will probably be 15 years before we reach that point.

"Researchers in labs around the world have started constructing experimental logic gates, the basic building blocks of processors, using electrons in individual atoms to do the computing--the beginnings of what's called quantum computing...So by the time we reach the physical limits of using light to etch chips, current semiconductors may be well on their way to obsolescence."

The same article, titled "We Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet," also predicts that microprocessors will become so small and inexpensive that they'll be sewn into our clothes, perhaps put into food packaging, and probably even implanted into our brains.

"Quantum physics may yield encryption technologies that could make messages virtually unbreakable," Johnston wrote. "Advances in display technologies may soon yield paints that you brush onto the wall to turn it into an instant electronic whiteboard."

Guess again
To be sure, many of these predictions will fall flat. But that's OK. Technology enthusiasts are used to breathless seers whose words quickly turn to bunk or become pop culture lore, such as these predictions:

 "I predict the Internet...will go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse," Bob Metcalfe, inventor and 3Com founder, said in 1995.

 "640K ought to be enough for anybody," Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, said in 1981.

 "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home," Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment, said in 1977.

 "Where...the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons," Popular Mechanics said in 1949.

 "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in 1943.

 

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