2000 and beyond
One of the questions I am often asked by readers is "How do you see the future of the Web?" In other words, where is this all going? Well, I have to grin and say to myself, "How should I know?" It is a very difficult question, especially if no time frame is suggested.
Some things are relatively easy to predict because they are the natural progression of what's happening now. Soon, the Web is going to be awash with commerce and people are going to be selling at you from all sides. That is starting to happen already, but it's just a trickle. I can see that in a year or two, it's all going to be of deluge proportions.
In fact, the whole thing, World Wide Web, email, ecommerce, ebanking, eworking, emedical ... 'e' has always been the most frequently used letter in the English language, it's usage must have doubled in the last couple of years. What someone needs to come up with, as a matter of urgency, is a way to manage all this information before we all sink in it.
I already get in the region of two hundred emails each day. The bulk of it is from the various lists that I've subscribed to and I can only skim through the subject lines. I can spot the spam immediately and send it on its way to the trash can without any further thought. But that still leaves me with a hefty pile of correspondence that requires some kind of response, even if it is only a two liner. Even so, much of my mail goes unanswered, it just isn't physically possible.
Twenty years ago, I resented the two hours I spent commuting each day. A hour into Central London and an hour back home was essentially wasted time. Jostling for standing space in a London tube train or bus meant that I got to work exhausted and got back home totally wiped-out. Now, I work from home but those two hours per day that I should have reclaimed are now email time, so I'm not all that better off time-wise, just a little less exhausted.
As far as online shopping goes, some of it works very well, some could work with a bit more effort at the seller's end and some fails miserably - and I don't see it ever working. Convenience aside, buying things off the Web generally costs more than buying it in a local outlet instead of less - there's always that 'shipping' charge to contend with which erodes any discount.
As I mentioned last month, buying books from Amazon could scarcely be easier. I've always been a sucker for books anyway and spent many hours browsing in book stores and making too many impulse buys. Okay, I can't flick through the book pages on Amazon like you can in a real store - but that cuts down on my impulse buying.
I've bought clothes and shoes online too. This doesn't work quite so well because I can't try things on. Sometimes they have to go back because the size isn't quite right or the article didn't come up to its promise. The big problem here, that still has to be sorted out, is that most ecommerce solutions end with the purchase - after sales support is still manual, slow and inefficient. How is it that my credit card can be billed within minutes at the point of sale, yet a credit or refund can take weeks or months?
I have been plagued by a local supermarket who wants me to start buying my groceries from their Web-based supermarket. It seems tempting and it would be okay for some products, but I like to be able to choose my fruit and vegetables first hand. I don't like the idea of somebody else, or even a robot, giving me a random selection of bananas or avocados.
The truth of the matter is, I actually enjoy going to the supermarket once a week. They have introduced hand scanners where you can scan each item yourself and put it into a strong bag in the shopping trolley that goes straight into the car without the need for a checkout. This doesn't quite work yet. Not only does it take longer, they have random security checks that means that you have the indignity and inconvenience of unloading all the carefully packed items to go through a manual checkout for the spot checks. I had to do this once, never again! Those full racks of hand scanners inside the supermarket doors show that other people don't like them either.
One service that I was very dubious about has worked better than I expected - Online banking. After a few initial hiccups, I can now do most of my money management and payments from my PC - I just wish I could do it from my Mac, but that's another story. I am reasonably confident about the security aspects, not totally confident, but then I did witness a real bank raid once, or its aftermath anyway.
Online money management will improve very quickly to a point that will make it second nature. There are already a number of exciting new products from the major credit card companies, banks and financial institutions in the wings. I'm working on some of them myself!
No, it's not a character out of Star Trek Voyager. Tony Blair, our Prime Minister has, in the last month, introduced an online medical service to help take a load of our excessively overworked doctors. Our National Health Service is free, and the envy of the World in some respects, but it is underfunded and straining at the seams. The idea here is that people with relatively minor complaints can diagnose their problems on a Web page and find out how to treat them. If there are complications or issues that need more expert diagnosis, they are referred to their normal doctor, but it must help filter out a reasonable proportion of time-wasters and hypochondriacs and it can only become more sophisticated with time.
Let there be fun ...
So far, I've not mentioned entertainment. Entertainment will play a major part of all our futures. Whether it's music, films and video or games, online delivery will soon make big inroads over more conventional methods. The days of music CDs are numbered. A little further off, but just as surely, video tapes and DVDs will disappear. I'm the kind of person who will watch a film once. I don't want to see it again and again, so I very rarely buy video tapes or DVDs. In fact, as a rule, I don't read books twice unless they are reference books. The idea of choosing any record or film ever made from a huge online juke-box is very appealing. Especially if it is on a 40 inch plasma screen with surround sound. I could do this now, except that I can't afford to! I'm old enough to remember a time when people couldn't afford cars, black and white televisions sets and telephones - one thing the future is sure to deliver is more accessibility to things we want.
A lot of people see the melding of television and computers - I'm not so sure. The world of television has seen very, very slow progress. Every one of television's advancements has been more through evolution than innovation. The huge installed base of black and white television users meant that colour sets had to be backwards compatible, hence we have television systems that overlay low resolution colour on a black and white 'key'. That is the major difference between what you see on your NTSC or PAL television set and what you see on your RGB computer screen. The current move towards wide-screen digital television is also lumbered with the backward compatibility problem. People are not going to throw out their perfectly good analog sets and install new digital ones overnight. It will take years.
Meanwhile, in computerland, things are moving at a much greater pace. A computer scores on resolution over a television set and where information is text-based, wins hands down. At the moment, it looks like it will be easier to deliver television material on a computer that to make a television display small text. An individual sits at arm's length from a computer screen but a whole family can watch a television show from across the room - a very real dividing line.
So, where television will become more interactive and computers more video-like, I think there will be two parallel technologies for quite some time, not the total convergence that some people are predicting.
... and further on down the road
In the longer term, and as internet penetration increases, the Web will become a major host for education and politics. The two have always been intertwined because there is a very fine line between teaching and indoctrination. The Web will allow this to go on at a global level, for better or worse.
Without doubt, new Web technologies will be hoisted upon us on a weekly basis. A few will catch on, many will fall by the wayside. It's impossible to say what they will be or which will win or flounder. What I would like to see, more than anything else, is less - or the impression of less. At the moment, I am overwhelmed with communications, most of it I don't want or need to know.
Search engines suck.
They give me too much irrelevant information. I want 'better', not 'more'. I want "easier to use" not "more complicated". I don't want "more features", I want "more intelligence".
Computers are perfectly capable of making life easier for everyone except that the people behind them seem Hell-bent in supplying quantity rather than quality.
Finally, a little advice
As far as the designer is concerned, Web pages are going to get more complicated to produce and will require more specialist skills. The emphasis will increasingly be on team work and Macromedia Dreamweaver 3.0 is already helping to move things in that direction.
So, in the new millennium, rather than trying to do everything yourself, stick to what you are good at and learn to collaborate with others that are good at something else. There are programmers and mathematicians who might disagree, but one and one can make three..