- What future is possible for Australia through information technology?
- 2005: look, no wires!
- 1998: the year my PC broke
- Windows'2005 a System Oddity
- The 'net: chaos as usual
- Job, which job?
- Liveable cities and countryside
- Australia: Networked Nation
- How much is real?
This is a ``future history'' of information technology in Australia in the year 2005, written in 1996 (Worthington 1996). 2005 may not sound far in the future, but remember that technology changes very rapidly. Some of these predictions sound obvious now, but were radical when written. In particular the Internet has quickly become dominant for communications and the possibility that wireless connections will replace cable is real.
Has anyone every asked you that question before? On the other hand, have you had a whole lot of people from somewhere else tell you what our future is?
It is human nature to expect someone from somewhere else is more expert than the person next door. At the Defence Department in Canberra, we get a regular stream of visiting experts ready to tell us the future. Many of these people are experts, know their subject, know our abilities and know the limitations of predictions in the volatile IT business.
Other so-called experts arrive from a world tour and present a barely credible string of hype, to what they hope is a gullible audience. One noted international figure held up a device and said this was what a home delivery fast food company in his country had developed to beat the competition. They said, if you pressed a button on the side and it ordered you fast food by wireless modem.
I was amazed that the technology had developed so far, until I noticed what they were holding up was the remote control for a slide projector. When I politely asked how a slide projector remote control ordered fast food, they explained that he had been speaking hypothetically: the products described did not exist, but were coming ``real soon now'': trust me. There may still be gullible Australian senior executives pressing the buttons on their remote controls and wondering why no food has been delivered. ;-)
My message is that our IT professionals know as much about the future as these world experts. We can help shape that future. All it takes is a little confidence.
Imagine it is now the year 2005: The Australian telecommunications industry was partially deregulated in 1997 (by whichever party won the 1996 Federal election). Telstra and Optus have installed a lot of cable for Pay TV to many homes in Australia. There is a healthy third party market selling add on modems with digital two way capability to Telstra and Optus' obsolete analogue copper cable delivery system.
Medium and large business have high bandwidth digital fibre optic cabling. Only a few lucky people have fibre optic cabling at home. Despite the cargo-cult ``vision'' of the ALP at the 1993 federal election to provide optical fibre direct to each household, it proved uneconomical.
The deregulation of telecommunications in Australia in 1997 coincided with the availability of a bewildering assortment of alternatives to copper coaxial cable for data to the home. Telstra had some success with ADSL; adding sophisticated processing boxes to each end of old fashioned twisted pair telephone cable, to provide a useable digital service.
Several new companies set up terrestrial cellular wireless services, using technology similar to that for 1996 vintage mobile telephones. However today's wireless services have enough capacity to provide digital video to every home and are cheap enough to make cable non-competitive.
There were some early problems with new telephone companies connecting antennas for the wireless service to any pole, tree or building in a neighbourhood. However, after the introduction of telecommunications plans by local councils in 1998, as proposed by the ACS, as long ago as 1992, an orderly arrangement was put in place.
An assortment of low, medium and high orbit satellites provide direct data connections. The satellite services are less popular in city areas, due to the higher charges and the larger antennas (bigger than a cigarette packet) needed.
A few people still use personal computers, but mostly as antique furniture. With the availability of low cost networking, the need for each person to have a stand-alone computer was removed around 1998. Low cost, almost disposable terminals are in common use. These have enough processing power (equivalent to about four 1996 era Intel Pentium processors) and memory (64 megabytes) to hold the data the user needs immediately.
Long term storage of information on an unreliable, breakable, stealable desktop or portable computer would be considered eccentric today. Data is stored either safely on servers, owned by the employee's company or by a contracted service provider. Data is downloaded as required over the network.
PADDs are the 1998 equivalent of the disposable pocket calculator and the successor to the primitive Personal Digital Assistants, notebook PCs, radio pagers and mobile telephones of 1996.
The name PADD comes from the devices envisioned in the 1990's Star Trek Next Generation TV series. While there are a many computers built into home and office equipment, the PADD is about the only visible sign of this. People found they really did not want talking toasters with complicated control panels.
PADDs range in size from a large brooch to an A4 clipboard. People own several units. Small PADDs, the size of pocket calculators are cheap and disposable. You can borrow someone else's PADD, enter your security codes and download your information from the 'net.
Larger PADDs are about the size of 1996's sub-notebook computers (the dimensions of a B5 sheet of paper, by 1 cm thick). PADDs usually have a touch sensitive screen covering the whole upper surface, which is also a high resolution (2000 x 2000 pixel by 16 million colours) screen. All PADDs have video and audio built in. The PADD can operate as what a 1996 person would know as a mobile telephone, radio, TV and camcorder. Smaller PADDs are used as digital keys and TV remote controls, as well as mobile telephones. PADDs are not likely to get smaller, as they would be too difficult see and to operate.
Extensive research was carried out on the appropriate size for computers in the late 1990s. It was found that the best sizes matched remarkably the size of: a match book, match box, cigarette packet, A5 note book and A4 clipboard. This was based on analysis of human eye acuity and hand geometry.
Variations on pen based writing and voice input were tried for PADDs, but it was found that buttons displayed on a touch sensitive screen and operated with a finger, worked well. Most people's writing was not good enough for pen input (and they usually just need to select from a few menu options anyway). Voice input works well, but was disruptive in a group and people were too self-conscious to talk to a lump of plastic on their own. The QWERTY keyboard, in its virtual form is still in use for data entry.
For intensive work some people use a headset and data gloves for virtual reality. These work on the same principal as those in 1990s video games. The headsets are now small enough to be built unobtrusively into a set of sunglasses. The data gloves are now a remote sensing panel placed near the operator's hands. However, it is considered bad manners to wear your headset and gloves in a social setting (much like mobile telephone etiquette of the 1990s).
The most popular interface for PADDs is Virtual Reality Modelling Language VRML) version 23. VRML provides a 3D visual representation of data and controls.
Date: 31 Jan 1996 03:28:18 GMT
From:email@example.com (Bryan Derksen)
Tom Worthington (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 <email@example.com>, Technomage-in-training
Like the Cold War of the 1960s, the PC operating systems wars of the 1990s seem a quaint oddity in 2005. No one really cares too much if their PADD runs Microsoft's new Windows'2005 operating system or IBM's OS/2005. Many people prefer the free Linux/2005 (which won its inventor the Nobel prize in 1999).
PADDs contain only a minimal operating system in their permanent memory. Programs, as well as data, are downloaded from the network as required. Programs use the Boiling Lava programming language (also known as Java Version 16), which started the trend to processor independent, down-loadable applications programs in 1996.
The PADDs are connected by wireless link to the 'net. The 'net of 2005 is much like the Internet of 1996, just bigger. Predictions of its demise or replacement by a more coherent network were wrong. The Internet expanded, with various transmission technologies and protocols added.
Regulations exist for controlling what is transmitted, but are only enforceable for serious crimes. Net citizens do not like the potential power the government would have, if it could achieve real regulation. Citizens guard their right to privacy. In practice this is achieved by the always improving data encryption algorithms developed by the non-profit Zimmermann privacy foundation.
Politicians have learnt to be careful about heavy-handed attempts at net regulation. Several lost their seats in the 1996 federal election after running a 'computer porn' scare campaign. The Internet Party, which started out as a joke at a pub in 1996, became a real political force and held the balance of power in the Senate from 1996 to 1999.
When telecommunications was deregulated in 1997 the telephone business evaporated. As anyone could start a telecommunications company and no one could enforce different tariffs for voice and non-voice data, the only product became ``data''. Competition from Internet voice applications destroyed the long distance monopoly the telcos had enjoyed.
While big office buildings still exist (it is expensive to knock them down), there are few big companies in them. With cheap communications, there are few reasons to go to a big building far away to talk to someone.
Most office work is now done at local CyberCafes. Some of these still serve coffee (which is where the name comes from), but most just continue to provide the most advanced communications technology (outside a research lab) in a comfortable environment, which made them so popular in 1997.
Most people look a bit confused if you ask them for which company they work. People work in small (usually 6 person) groups, on units of work from other groups. While not yet banned, organisations of more than thirty people are not common, as they provide no efficiency benefits and less job satisfaction.
Australian cities look much the same as they did in 1996. Governments stopped building new city freeways and airports in 1998, as there was less need for travel to work and less justification for the environmental problems caused. People walk or bicycle to their local neighbourhood cybercafe.
There has been some move back to the country. The routine invoices and paperwork that made up most paper mail in 1996, was mostly e-mail by 1998. It is feasible for information workers, who are now the major part of the economy, to tele-commute from small towns. However country people still complain telecommunications costs are higher than in the city.
Most business can be done wherever you are, as it is done on the net. The use of Web based transactions saw a move away from the use of banks for ``banking'' in 1997 and the creation of thousands of new financial institutions. The Federal Government's 1996 proposal to use one single supplier for Government electronic commerce was quietly abandoned within months, as hundreds of companies opened business on-line using Web standard transactions.
Farmers were early enthusiastic adopters of electronic commerce, selling their produce on-line and keeping a close eye on world markets. Even the smallest one and two person farms and businesses were able to participate by forming co-operatives to undertake electronic commerce.
Some time in 1998 Australia started 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 came to dominate the post-industrial world.
Of the many theories advanced for this, the most popular is the cafe lead recovery: because the advent of networking and cheap computing required a looser management style, this suited the Australian lifestyle. In addition, it is thought that Australia's sudden love affair with the cafe (many of which then became cyber-cafes), helped.
Australia's highly educated multi-cultural work force was able to form trading partnerships with the emerging economies of Asia. Australia's IT professionals, under the leadership of the Australian Computer Society, was able to work with their Asian counterparts better than those of the declining economies of USA and Europe were.
Australia was one of the first nations to implement a multi-language policy for its Government on-line services. The Web made the provision of all Government information in multiple languages simple. Businesses quickly adopted this practice. As a result many citizens of other nations were 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 created several huge government funded projects in a desperate attempt to advance its InfoBahn industries. However, these projects produced mountains of reports about the information society and little of value. The USA completely deregulated all R&D, destroying the institutions that had produced the Internet.
In contrast, Australia continued its policy of mixed Government and private funding for research. This was more through a lack of anyone in Government with a plan, than foresight. In any case, it produced a wealth of new ideas, which could be quickly turned into products.
Many of Asia's IT professionals were trained in Australian universities (real and virtual). They used ACS certification and training material. ACS conferences, starting with the 14th World Computer Congress in Canberra, September 1996 and followed up with the South East Asia Regional Computer Confederation conference in Darwin 1998, provided an informal environment for new international IT business people to meet.
The Australian component of the Internet was expanded northward, forming a high quality network for the region. This was done despite the protests of regional and Australian telecommunications companies, with grudging support by Government and using a loose consortium of Universities, much like the original AARnet.
Okay that was a slightly tongue-in-cheek fictional future. However, how much is real?
The current government is planning to deregulate the Australian telecommunications industry in 1997. However it is not clear exactly what form this will take or if the needed technology to overcome ``natural monopolies'', such as limited space to run cables, can be overcome.
PADDs are just about technically possible now. I use a notebook PC that is about B5 size (but 2cm thick). I carry with me a pocket modem and transfer data to and from remote systems. The wireless modem in an affordable, practical size and speed is perhaps a year or so away.
Most of my work for the ACS is organised via the Internet.
Cafes currently have more expresso machines than computers, but that is changing. I do a lot of work in cafes (including preparing this). While in Sydney a few days ago I dropped my notebook PC. While repairs were underway I went to a cybercafe and used their Internet connection to prepare some urgent work.
An increasing part of my full time job at the Defence Department is now done on-line. In January, Defence announced that it was providing an information service for industry via the Internet. Other Government agencies have similar initiatives and our private enterprise colleagues are following close behind.
There are proposals for net regulation and some bar talk of Internet political parties. However, the only Internet literate candidate I am aware of for the federal election is Kate Lundy, an ALP Senate candidate. I interviewed Kate last year about her work on community Internet use in Canberra (Worthington 1995).
There has been a project announced by the Federal Government to encourage rural use of the Internet. However, the proposal is to use the US based Microsoft Network, rather than Australian based Internet service providers. This is something the Federal Government may change before it loses them some votes.
There is a very real potential for Australia to do well economically in the post-industrial world, in conjunction with the countries of our region.
- Have any of these predictions actually come true, apart from the loss of the election by the ALP?
- ACS (1992) Discussion Paper on Telecommunications in the Draft ACT Territory Plan, Australian Computer Society, 19 March 1992
- Derksen, B. (1996) Re: Star Trek terminology for Computer Society talk, Newsgroup: rec.arts.startrek.tech, 31 Jan 1996 03:28:18 GMT, URL
- Worthington, T. (1995) Interview with: Kate Lundy, 26 September 1995, URL
- Worthington, T. (1996) Australia: The Networked Nation, URL
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Copyright © Tom Worthington 1999 (ISBN 0 909925 77 1).