The tech they promised... and what we got

From Microsoft's Vista to Web 2.0, technology often falls short of the grand visions spun by marketeers
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

From movies to manifestos, few greatly hyped things ever live up to the promises made about them. The film of the book is always the film of the back-jacket blurb, and so on.

And, let's be honest, technology lets us down more than most things. Nuclear power was going to be clean, safe and too cheap to meter — instead of which it's a long-term health hazard, and a source of good stuff that terrorists want. Email was going to liberate us, instead of which it often seems to enslave us.

As the winter casts a chill on our souls, here's a run-down of the greatest disappointments we've had with technology.

1. Artificial Intelligence

What they promised...
"Machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do," said Professor Herbert Simon, one of AI's founders, in 1965. Simon and others such as Marvin Minsky spent the 1950s and 1960s racing to use the computers of the time to simulate and potentially equal the functions of the human brain.

In 1968, HAL was refusing to open the pod bay doors in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and we were on the way to an exciting future where robotic intelligences would be our saviours, or even our eventual masters.

In subsequent years, AI research built "expert systems", and designed programs that learned and attempted to mimic the function of the brain with neural networks. The 1980s saw a huge boom in AI machines and languages such as Lisp, driven by fears that Japan's "Fifth Generation" project would be first to unleash the armies of intelligent machines.

... and what we got
In 1985, 20 years on from Professor Simon's confident assertion, what did we have? MS DOS. We even had to wait another 10 years for Mr Clippy.

The first AI boom fizzled out in the 1970s when the military agencies funding it realised the computers of the day couldn't handle the complexity involved. The 1980s "Fifth Generation" boom collapsed in 1987, and AI researchers went underground, using the gradually increasing processing power of systems to handle specific problems.

Now, pretty intelligent systems work on datamining, speech recognition and other applications. And, sometime in the future, we may indeed have to deal with really intelligent machines.

Meanwhile, since HAL, we've had a ton of AI in fiction, such as Steven Spielberg's 2001 film, Artificial Intelligence: AI. But the biggest public coup for real AI? The moment when IBM's Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997.

2. Ultrawideband wireless

What they promised...
The hype for ultrawideband is the finest kind of hype: it's true. UWB is a radical radio technology that really can send data at gigabit/s speeds over short distances. It's Bluetooth on steroids, if you like, and we expected it to be carrying high-definition TV signals around our homes by 2005.

It works by sending pulses of signal, at very low power, across a wide spectrum. You don't need a licence for that spectrum, because the power levels are lower than the amount of radio signals any device — your CD player, say — is allowed to leak.

The products will be fast enough to transfer a two-hour movie in 20 seconds, or a whole MP3 album in a second, without plugging anything in. It's also beautifully power-efficient, managing a massive number of bits per second on a small amount of power, making it perfect to use in small devices.

That ought to be enough to fuel a whole new business model — topping up our MP3 players and entertainment consoles on the go, with no fiddly wires or long waits.

... and what we got
So far, we've had pretty much nothing. First there was an endless wait for the standards bodies to agree on what version of the technology to use. Then there was a hiatus while regulators such as Ofcom wondered whether to allow the upstart, or to listen to the mobile operators who tried to convince them it would interfere with the phone systems they run in their precious licensed spectrum.

UWB had some good breaks. It was accepted as the next, faster version of Bluetooth, giving it access to potentially billions of phones. It's also been anointed as the wireless evolution of USB.

But despite all this, the silicon vendors have consistently over-promised and we're still waiting for products we were told would be...

...on the market two years ago. We're told there are some UWB dongles and some UWB hubs, but we haven't seen anything more than a whole lot of very similar demo set-ups yet.

Out of frustration, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group has decided to produce an alternative fast version of the protocol, based on Wi-Fi. Observers are wondering whether UWB will ever properly arrive.

3. IP version 6

What they promised...
In the early 1990s, IP version 6 wasn't just a good thing. It was vital to the future of humanity. You see, although we had no web then, a lot of us were using the internet, and the number was growing exponentially. We could see the internet was going to be crucial to the way we lived our lives in the future... and it was in danger of breaking.

Each device attached to the internet has its own address, by which the internet's protocols can reach it. Each packet of data on the internet carries a header, like an envelope for a letter, which includes the address to which it goes. The IP protocol, which was on version 4 by the start of the 1990s, only allowed 32 bits for the IP address, which only allowed four billion addresses. This might seem a big number, but they were parcelled out so some companies had millions of addresses. The internet was going to run out of addresses some time in 1994, we were told.

In two years, the internet community scrambled to agree a new protocol, rejecting the formal OSI standards (another IT hype story all of its own) in the process. It added some other features that ought to help with issues such as quality of service, and finally set out IPv6 in 1994, with a 128-bit address space, providing 3.4 x 10^38 addresses, enough for a trillion addresses on each square centimetre of the planet's surface, and then settled back to await the thanks of a grateful world.

Along the way, IPv6 was going to bring all the things we've learned that we need since IPv4 was invented: quality of service control for streamed media, inherent security, manageability, and lots more besides.

... and what we got
While IPv6 was being carefully crafted to avoid the address crunch, everyone became so much more careful about using the ones we already had that, arguably, we still don't really need it. Chances are you're reading this on a machine whose address is, an internal address that will be re-used on millions of home LANs around the world.

During the late 1990s, every year the internet community would invent a new need that they hoped would suddenly require a huge number of addresses, and therefore herald the year of IPv6. One year it was traffic lights, another year it was phones, the next it was the Chinese population.

In fact, IPv6 is sort of there, now. Windows XP has IPv6 as an option, and it's the default protocol in Vista. It's also a tick-list item in router manufacturers' brochures. You won't have noticed.

4. Microsoft Vista

What they promised...
Vista was only supposed to be an interim release, due in 2003, two years after XP arrived. When it became clear that wasn't happening, the company junked what it had and started again, making a desktop OS out of Windows Server 2003, and postponing some of the planned features. It was going to have awesome desktop search features, rich object management through tagging, high-performance revamped graphics, a killer filing system, untouchable security and lashings of compatibility.

...and what we got
In the end, after a five-year gap, Vista appeared. Some said the task-based GUI turned out to be rather like Apple's Aqua interface, or others that it was new for the sake of it.

The other features included higher security with hard disk encryption and new versions of the company's media player and browser — overall a less impressive...

...bunch of goodies than those introduced by XP. An improved storage system called WinFS was postponed to some future version. Perhaps.

Although Vista is specified to run in 512MB, it's not really happy without 2GB. Microsoft has also tightened up the licence scheme.

In a nutshell, it's late, it's a resource hog, and it doesn't add much that's new — except an unfamiliar and alienating interface, and new security and management headaches.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment with Vista is that, despite all the above, it hasn't been the disaster Microsoft-haters were hoping for. At one stage, some observers predicted that Vista would be such a flop Microsoft would shift to a new model and never do another full Windows release.

In fact, though Vista installations aren't as widespread as the company hoped — especially in the enterprise — Microsoft's revenues are still soaring away, so it seems more than likely we can expect future Windows versions.

5. Web 2.0

What they promised...
With Web 2.0, for a brief moment, it looked as though the future had arrived. Although Tim Berners-Lee had built the web to be interactive — as a tool to share as well as consume information — for the first 10 years of its life it was characterised by anarchy on the one hand and corporatism on the other.

Web 2.0 threw the gates open. This was geek paradise, and finally it was full of non-geeks. Sensible people had done the work to make it easy to create and share your own content, that expressed yourself, in virtual settings that made it easy to find others like yourself, to hook up with old friends, to get work done. Only this was work that was so much fun it wasn't like work at all.

Facebook groups and MySpace pages were going to be places where new groups and concepts could emerge and run rings round the old-school traditional business models.

All the things we'd been trying to do, involving blogs, peer-to-peer sharing and email lists were open to people who weren't so technical. All the people we knew, and all the new ones we wanted to know, would be there ready to meet us.

Just as Google made it possible to find information, Web 2.0 sites would make it possible to find the social tools and people to make the things you want happen.

... and what we got
Facebook is full of vampires, and we just poked 15 attractive-looking people we probably didn't know. Blogger ate hours of our time, taking in words and pictures that no one would read or see.

We got in touch with all our past disasters in Friends Reunited. We learned to play the English concertina on YouTube, with the help of a man sitting in his kitchen, before we drifted off to the parts of the site that make Ant and Dec look like Sir Kenneth Clarke.

We shifted to the more businesslike climes of Plaxo and LinkedIn, and found what it's like to be trapped in a room with 1,000 under-employed motivational speakers. We know we are never more than six degrees of separation from Thomas Power, and that knowledge is terrifying.

And when we looked up, we noticed that other people had somehow parlayed the whole game into a huge bubble of value, based entirely on the belief that, somehow or other, this can all be turned into revenue. Our content, our play, it turned out, was work and wealth — but not for us.

6. The Apple iPhone

What they promised...
This is a phone, we were told, that is so different it will change the world forever. It will sell faster than any other phone, and make it possible to use multimedia, and play music, while all the while displaying our complete coolness to everyone around us.

The iPhone would be, simply, better than any other phone. By having no keys, it would liberate us from the dreary formality of other phones, and open up a new free world where communicating with others would be as easy as thinking about them.

... and what we got
We got a very pricey phone on a lengthy and restrictive contract. We got a phone that makes texting fiddly, and doesn't have the 3G data that would make it easy to use the web somewhere outside a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Those are the obvious and much-rehearsed limitations. But we also got a phone that pushes us towards pricey music downloads, and another incentive to alienate ourselves from the world with earphones.

Apart from the lovely touchscreen, though, there is at least one revolutionary aspect of the iPhone. It's got a new kind of contract between O2 and the handset maker, Apple. O2 will pay a hefty percentage (as much as 40 percent) to Apple for the rights to use the phone.

Now, that's a revolution. It breaks the operator's traditionally absolute power. The drawback is the company it installs in its stead.

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