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Vague remembrances of home

By Scott Bradner

I seem to remember that this Internet thing was supposed to cut down on travel. Thirty five thousand feet over Kansas and a few days into a 15-day series of trips that has me sleeping in my own bed only two nights of the 15, I am deep into the realization that the reverse seems to be true.

Once upon a time, not all that long ago, pundits of every stripe, a myriad of startups, and Wall Street analysts evaluating airline stocks all said that video conferencing was going to sharply reduce the need for business travel. What happened to those predictions? And do the reliability of those predictions teach us anything about what technologies will and will not change our lives in the future?

Video conferencing did not fail to reduce plane flights because it could not be made to work. I was at two companies in the last two days that have and make use of quite high quality video conferencing systems. Large screens, good resolution (you could see that the person on the other end was smiling when he made that snide remark), and near-TV rate screen updates make these systems very effective. They are not cheap and do require reasonable bandwidth (384 Kbps) to operate but they convey most of the information humans use for communication. The system was in use in one of the meetings I was in but, in spite of this, all but one of the visitors had flown hundreds or thousands of miles to take part in this 4-hour meeting.

What happened to the predictions is that they did not adequately take into account human behavior. If this seems like a rather obvious thing to take into account, it should be. But it is constantly being discounted. In the case of video conferencing it seems like most humans still interact better when face-to-face. ("Better" might not be the right word for some people, lets say "more efficiently.") Thus airlines are seeing more business travel than ever before.

What other predictions might be suspect? How about the assumption that Internet phone uses will always demand, and be willing to pay for, very high quality calls. Or the assumption that major-studio produced content will be more valuable than person-to-person interaction. Or that complex, slow Internet-based services will make WAP successful and make the tens of billions of dollars being spent on wireless frequencies a worthwhile investment. Or the assumption that users will want wireless service providers to know where they are so they can be told where the nearest McDonalds is. Or that consumers would never pay for rationally priced music on the 'Net.

An awful lot of money is riding on the above and other assumptions about people and their use of the Internet. I can not predict for sure which assumptions are right (if I could I would not be writing this column) but I will predict that most of the above are wrong and wrong because the people making the assumptions forget to look into the mirror.

disclaimer: Harvard has lots of mirrors and they are used some of the time but the above is my prediction not Harvard's.