Bill Gates’s Prescient Internet PredictionMarch 20th, 2020 · 4 comments
I recently stumbled across a 1993 John Seabrook profile of Bill Gates from The New Yorker. It initially caught my attention because of its opening, which provides a nice snapshot of the early days of email. On a whim, Seabrook, who has never met Gates, sends him an email (from a CompuServe account). Eighteen minutes later, Gates replies.
But I ended up more struck by a passage found deeper in the piece. “Microsoft’s ambition is to supply the standard operating-system software for the information-highway machine,” Seabrook notes. Because this was before broadband consumer internet was even on the radar, Microsoft assumed this machine would depend on the existing cable TV infrastructure, and therefore be sold as box that plugged in like a VCR.
Seabrook traveled to Redmond to see prototype devices demonstrating this vision, and reported the following:
“I heard a lot about ‘intelligent agents,’ which will at first be animated characters that occasionally appear in the corner of your TV screen and inform you, for example, that President Aristide is on ‘Meet the Press,’ because they know you’re interested in Haitian politics, but will eventually be out there on the information highway, filtering the torrent of information roaring along it, picking out books or articles or movies for you, or receiving messages from individuals.”
Microsoft was prophetic in this planning. Today, we do interact with powerful machine learning algorithms that strive to learn more about us from our behavior and use this to deliver us more of what it thinks we want to see from the internet. This modern experience, however, is not delivered through machines connected to our TVs, but instead by social media platforms browsed with our phones.
These small details aside, Bill Gate’s early 1990 vision of how the “internet highway” would evolve was remarkably accurate. Which makes it all the more surprising that Microsoft fell so far behind in the consumer internet sector.