Is 2008 the new 1998?

I’m scheduled to speak at Mobilize.  Originally the event was structured as a mix of talks and panels and Surj had picked for me a topic along the lines of the title of this post.  Recently, the event has been restructured to be almost entirely panels, so you can expect to see me in a couple of very interesting conversations on the 18th.

But… I’d started collecting my thoughts for what a talk on 2008 vs. 1998 might look like, and instead of throwing it all away, I thought I’d share some of those thoughts here…

If you go back and take a look at what was happening in 1998, you’ll find that there were some pretty interesting IPOs that year.  Of the class of 1998, eBay probably stands out as a prominent survivor, but other initial offerings that year include Broadcast.com, GeoCities, and Inktomi.  Not bad companies, but clearly from a different era than today – what we could probably categorize as “Web 1.0 companies.”

But, the really exciting thing that was happening in 1998 wasn’t inside the browser, it was inside the walls of our homes. 

In December 1997, Covad launched DSL in San Francisco.  By the end of 1998, they were also operating in Los Angeles, Boston, and New York.  Northpoint launched in the Bay area in March 1998.  By the end of the year, in addition to Covad’s 4 cities, they were also in Chicago, San Diego, and Washington, D.C.  Rhythms NetConnections got started a month after Northpoint in San Diego, but they moved fast, operating in 11 markets by year end.

The cable companies were already out there – @Home was operating in 59 markets by the end of 1998 with a whopping 331,000 subscribers.

Where were the telcos?  Still trying to convince everyone that ISDN was what they needed for broadband.  In fact, @Home’s 1998 annual report included this risk: “The regional Bell operating companies (‘RBOCs’) and other local exchange carriers have also entered this field and are providing price competitive services. Many of these competitors are offering (or may soon offer) technologies that will compete with some or all of the Company’s high-speed data service offerings. Such technologies include Integrated Services Digital Network (‘ISDN’) and Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line (‘ADSL’).”

Wow.  Doesn’t that sound like ancient history?

And yet, today it sounds like ancient history because @Home, Covad, Northpoint, and Rhythms Netconnections succeeded in revolutionizing the Internet by introducing always-on broadband connections with non-scary pricing and non-scary implementation.  (They may not have succeeded on other dimensions, but that’s another story.)

Could any of the following be possible today without easy-for-everyone always-on broadband?

  • YouTube
  • Google Maps
  • Flickr
  • Second Life
  • World of Warcraft
  • Facebook/MySpace/Orkut/Cyworld etc.
  • Twitter
  • the list could go on…

The point is that 1998 was a critical turning point for how we interact with our world through the Internet because of the investments being made in key enablers.

And, I believe that 2008 is the same type of critical turning point for how we interact with our world through mobile devices.

There are already some really cool mobile capabilities out there, but I think of them as the equivalent of narrowband applications:

The applications that are possible are constrained by some combination of bandwidth, usability, coverage, pricing, or policies.  And the exciting thing is that, in 2008, these barriers are starting to come down.

Being very provincial for the moment, consider the revolutionary changes introduced just by my own employer, Sprint, in 2008:

As standalone events, these changes are up and down the “excitement scale”, but taken as a whole, they represent change as revolutionary as the broadband Internet revolution. Mobility promises to unleash innovation that leverages the unique personal, context-aware, always-with-you nature of mobility to create compelling value well beyond the Internet as we know it today. 

Where will these advances take us?  No one really knows, but I believe that, while today we see mobility as a poor (limited in bandwidth and form factor) extension of our desktop, in the not so distant future we will see our desktops as a poor (limited contextual relevance) extension of our mobile experience.

What do you see coming?

One Response to “Is 2008 the new 1998?”

  1. Russ, Wouldn’t it be cool if the impact of the decade is more social than technological? What if 2018 saw us in a largely untethered shift? Working from anywhere (air, car, lawn) was common place with respectable bandwidth, security layers and, of course, apps to make the social disconnect less onerous.

    Given the expense of fuel today and likely tomorrow… Wouldn’t it be cool if we could remove the physical gotta-be-there component (ala 4-hour work week or energy policy or whatever)?

    I’d LOVE to see that eventuality sooner rather than later.

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