Avram's Past / Technology

How I got the iPad right in 1994 but was wrong about the Information Furnace

Today is the 5th anniversary of the announcement iPhone by the late Steve Jobs.  It is hard to imagine that it was just such a short time ago. Something seem to happen so quickly in technology while other things  seem to take a very long time.

I recently came across an article written in June of 1994 (almost 18 years ago). You can find the article at the end of this post or you can go to this link.    It talks about the evolution of computing in the home and in particular discusses something called “The information Furnace”  a term, I believe I created, to describe a Home Server. In 1994, most homes did not have even a single computer.  Typically the computers in the home of early adopters were used for productivity applications like Personal Finance such as Quicken or for hobbies.  Probably less than a million homes were connected to on-line services like Prodigy, CompuServe and AOL – which was less than 1% of the nation. They used dial up modems.   Broadband connectivity was just starting to be tested.

Of course the number of homes that had more than one computer was extremely small.  Home networking as we now know it did not really exist.  The floppy disk was the way information would be moved from one computer in the home to another.  This was called sneaker net many years later.  This was also before the development of what we now cal WiFi.  That meant that early networking within the home required running Ethernet cables.

I was  convinced that  computers would dominate home interactivity. Many at the time thought it would be the interactive set top box. Because I was so involved with the creation of residential broadband technologies in my role as Vice President, Business Development at Intel,  I knew we were creating the technical foundation of a new medium.  A medium  that would impact all aspects of our lives from the way we communicated, learned, shopped, were entertained and informed. The article mentioned above was written about a year before Amazon was established.  A few months after it was published, I was quoted in Fortune Magazine as saying “that the killer app for the Internet would be advertising.”  Google was started about four years later and started selling advertising a few years after that.

Now before you think this post is all about how insightful I was, and I was, it is really about how things turned out differently than I thought and wanted.  It really is about a failure to implement a vision and an exploration of the possibility that things could have ended up differently.

In that very same article (again 1994), I coined the term i-pad (see the Article).  Sixteen years later, Apple announced the iPad on Jan. 27th, 2010. Coincidentally, it happened to be my  65th birthday.

So now back to the story.  I envisioned  pervasive computing throughout the house.  At that time most computers were desktop devices and rather expensive. So I thought there would be one central computer in the home that would have the broadband connection.  Then there would be devices around the home that would provide access to this central computer
(remember I am old enough to have lived through the time sharing days).  The central computer would have the main storage for the home.  For instance it could maintain a family calendar, home files,  etc.   I also felt that this would reduce the complexity of managing information since all information (including  media) would be located in just one place (of course it would be automatically backed-up).

At that time, I was engaged with a number of engineers in the Intel Architecture Lab (IAL).  I was funding a number of programs within the Lab then licensing the resulting technology for equity in early stage companies.  So I am pretty sure that that I discussed these concepts with members of IAL and probably they had a major impact on my thinking.

The problem was that Intel was a chip company and we had a very strong strategic relationship with Microsoft.   We actually had many software designers but every time we got close to some area that Bill Gates considered  Microsoft’s birthright there would be a major battle and Intel would give in.

Microsoft was actually slow to understand how the home computing would develop.  They believed that intelligent set top’s would be the way along with game machines and various appliances.  After working with Microsoft and General Instruments  (the leader in cable boxes at the time) on the development of an Interactive Set Top Box, I became convinced that this was not the way things would develop. This view was also held by Matt Miller (no relation) who was the CTO of General Instruments.  Together, Matt and I persuaded  GI and Intel decided to develop residential broadband technologies and to do it without Microsoft.  Microsoft spent a lot of effort to develop Set Top Box software and made various deals with cable companies including investing a billion dollars into Comcast in 1997.

However, I was not able to get executive management at Intel or Microsoft to understand the need for a home-server.  Andy Grove never really bought into my vision of how computers would be used in the home and invested a great deal of money into a flawed scheme to use ISDN to do video conferencing in the home.  Microsoft would not announce a home-server until 2007.

So computing evolved in the home with more and more homes having multiple computers and eventually sharing a home network.  This network had at its center a router which allowed the devices in the home to easily share one broadband connection. This was one of the tasks that I thought the Information Furnace would do.  But complexity of sharing information in the home increased.  This provided an opportunity  for Apple, to address this need by creating software to synchronize information between computers and devices (iTunes/ iPod is an example). At the same time Web service companies (like Yahoo) dealt with the complexity of email, calendars and contacts by storing them on the Net. Microsoft even bought HotMail in 1997 and started up MSN.

Now most of the functions that I had envisioned for the Information Furnace will be provided by Apple’s iCloud.  Other companies will create similar capabilities.

In away, it is a better solution that the Information Furnace since these capabilities can be professionally managed and maintained. They can be improved without consumer involvement.  But it has taken a long time in coming, and we’re still not there.

Of course the way it played out had a major impact on the companies involved.


AP Article

PCs Evolving Into Information Furnaces :
Technology: Experts predict computers
are evolving into control centers, linking
the telephone, TV, thermostat and other
household electronic devices.

NEW YORK — In the metaphor-mad world of technology, there’s a new phrase making the rounds, one that experts believe describes the direction that personal computers are taking. After 20 years as an independent box, the PC is evolving into a control center that ties together the
phone, TV, thermostat and other electronic devices in every room in the house. An information furnace, they call it.

“It’s equivalent to central heating,” said Avram Miller, Intel’s vice president of corporate business development. “This analogy with power is very good. If you look at electricity, electricity was designed to do only one thing–lighting. Clearly, there’s a lot more to it than that now.” Like a furnace, the PC of the future could be hidden from view, in the basement, a closet or drawer. The devices it links would take different shapes depending on their use and location. A unit in the den might have a keyboard and screen while one in the living room might be a big screen with stereo speakers and a
player for programs on compact disc. The incorporation of telephone-answering machines into consumer PCs last summer was an early
example of this trend, which will be a key topic at the annual PC Expo this week at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center.

Intel CEO Andrew Grove has titled his keynote speech for the show “The Ubiquitous Information Appliance.”
The acceleration of the trend is important for Intel to drive demand for advances in its key product–the microprocessor or “brain” of a PC.
Packard Bell Inc. earlier this month rolled out PCs with built-in TV and radio receivers as well as phone answering and fax capabilities. With them, a technician played a Bach compact disc, the radio and TV and worked on a word-processing program simultaneously.
It’s not just today’s electronic items that could be hooked up but those on the drawing board of technologists and inventors. Last week, Timex Corp. and Microsoft Corp. even demonstrated a watch that can take in messages from a computer. “One of the devices that’s interesting, we call it an I-pad, an information pad,” Miller said. “It would be a device that has a flat-panel screen. You can write on it, touch it. You might be able to speak into it and it might speak back. It would be wireless, cheap and have different forms in the house.”  Some early forms of an “I-pad” are Apple Computer Inc.’s Newton, Motorola Inc.’s Envoy and IBM’s
Simon devices, which have both computing and communication features.
“You will see all kinds of combinations be possible,” said Safi Qureshey, chief executive of AST Research
Inc. in Irvine. “We want to provide the glue so the user can go in between all of these different access mechanisms.”

The concept of a computer network in the home is rooted in the workplace. Portable computers, for instance, linked to the main one in an office are allowing more people to work at home or on the road. “The same technologies are going to be used in the home environment,” said Alan Soucy, vice president of mobile computers at Zenith Data Systems. “They’re going to be repackaged, more specific, more like an appliance.”
The vision isn’t just Intel’s or the computer industry’s. At a cable TV trade show last month, General Instrument Corp., the leading maker of set-top channel controls, described a plan for “component” TVs built around a computer-like box. The monitor–which in time will be a flat panel screen–and game player, video recorder or telephone would all be separate pieces.
“Exactly how much it all gets centralized in one place, I’m a little hard pressed to predict right now,” said Jeff Roman, vice president of technology and new business development for General Instrument.
The first personal computer sold to the general public, the Altair 8800, appeared in Popular Electronics magazine in December, 1974. It was a box of circuits and lights that cost about $250 but had no software
or screen and required 50 commands, executed by flipping switches, just to get started. Today, the most popular PCs take just a few minutes to set up, have dozens of megabytes of software
already installed, and can link through a phone line to millions of others worldwide.

Very few people anticipated the computers of today in 1974. Even fewer know what to expect in another
two decades. Something as futuristic as an information furnace, while still vague, is probably only a decade away. There is certainty in the industry only about the next year or two.
“It’s not possible to conceive 20 years from now,” said Intel’s Miller. “The computers of 20 years from now will probably be 10,000 times more powerful than they are today”

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