America Online (AOL), the virtual upstart, had bought out Time-Warner, the brick and mortar news and media giant at the turn of the new century to herald a vision of how the new, new world will look like: audio, video and the internet would all converge seamlessly, flowing through a large pipe, always at the beck and call of the users, expanding the market place for information and entertainment accessibility, anytime and anywhere. As if that job has already been done, they just split up.
Their split was a result of a bad corporate marriage from the start. The suits in Manhattan did not quite fit in with the techies who had gotten their start in Hawai’i to make it big in Virginia. AOL, similar to Microsoft, was a Silicon Valley outsider. It was the Microsoft of suburban Northern Virginia, just as Microsoft in Redmond, Washington is to Seattle.
The truth, however, is that convergence just got started and both AOL and Microsoft are left standing in the game of musical chairs when the music stops. Two corporations in Silicon Valley are defining the future: Google and Apple. They are shaping a new paradigm in computing and communications not unlike how it was before when it all got started.
Their basis is UNIX and networking, born in the labs of Alexander Graham Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) and in the educational institutions of the United States under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the Department of Defense (DoD) along with the microprocessor invented at Texas Instruments and commercialized by a Hungarian immigrant to the United States, named Andy Grove, at Intel. Their architecture is the world of the International Business Machines’ (IBM) mainframes. Except that the user terminals are no longer dumb and the “mainframes” now known as the servers in the data centers are more nimble, powerful, intelligent and cheaper. The network that connects them is ubiquitous, wired and wireless (Marconi’s radio spectrum), and facilitates a far richer user experience than the blinking green dots on a black screen. The programming languages Silicon Valley uses are still the same: C and C++ only to deliver higher-level programming languages to users so that they need not speak in back slashes and forward slashes or with punch cards to get their jobs done. They can, instead, type at the QWERTY keyboards which replaced the typewriters since IBM began selling computers.
The computing and communications industry literally reverted to its roots, only far more productively and in the process changed the world with it. Those born in 2000, when AOL merged with Time-Warner, do not know of any other world besides that which had been created by innovation since World War II.
The thrust, however, to see computing and communications through the eyes of the users had come from two Silicon Valley companies: Xerox and Apple, and an obscure British support staffer at CERN in Switzerland named Tim Berners-Lee who had made the World Wide Web (WWW) possible to set the stage for an undergraduate at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign named Marc Andressen and Netscape. That same philosophy was married to the power of the evolution of the rest of the industry to enable, for example, the possibility of Barack Obama becoming President of the United States in 2008 through Facebook, let alone enabling the wealth creation by Wall Street in the ‘90s.
The explosion of information that was made possible by the WWW had to be searched making Google possible at the end of this long list of extraordinary innovations in the computing and communications industry which is today on the verge of distributed supercomputing because of Apple, Netscape and Google, ready to transform how people work and live, around the world, eventually at a volume and velocity of 10 giga-bits per second over a smart grid, dramatically reducing the need for using energy the way we use it today, with the more efficient energy use in computing and communications displacing its inefficient consumption for transportation, travel and the large associated infrastructure and its own collateral energy costs. The way we live will change forever. Al Gore had not invented the internet, but he was correct about the information super highway.
The Microsoft of Bill Gates is facing a moment of truth in a world where its flagship product, albeit the mountains of cash the company is sitting on by reaping revenues from the competitive spirit of yesteryears, Windows, could itself be shifted out of the desktop and into the data centers. All that a user will need is a browser with both applications and data residing in the data centers as they did when mainframes ruled the industry. The economy would cater to the preferences of every person, with those preferences moving around with the user anytime, anywhere, much like a customized information bubble, as an enhancer of individual liberty rather than as a police state. The effective market size in a self-governing society is 1. One size does not fit all. All prices would be spot prices.
The corporate marriage between AOL and Time Warner which was hailed as a merger of the century was perhaps not meant to be. What may be meant to be is a merger between Google and Microsoft. A possible marriage between Google and Microsoft will give Google’s technology a large software platform to reorient to the future much more quickly than Microsoft can. Perhaps, such a prospect could even privately lift the spirits of the Redmond Microsoft crowd which has been sulking since the new age in computing. Further, it extends the reach of Microsoft into the heart of Silicon Valley from Redmond.
Google’s business model based on ad revenues is getting stale and is just as vulnerable as Microsoft’s business model that is dependent on Windows. This merger will give both companies a forward-looking revenue stream. The joining of forces between Google search and Microsoft’s semantic search engine, Bing, would position the new company to lead and compete in the semantic, web 3.0 space.
“The meaning of it all”, as Richard Feynman had said, is to tame the quantum quirkiness of [human] nature by seeing reality one “particle” at a time, even as we preserve our cherished freedoms as social animals.