Twenty-Twenty Vision: 20 years of Technology

By Wayne Caswell

This article was written for CABA QUARTERLY to give builders insight into future technologies that affect home networks. It starts by looking back twenty years and then looks forward, expanding on previous articles about three types of trends: (1) Technology, (2) Market & Consumer, and (3) Social & Economic. For reference, follow the links at

Twenty-twenty Vision can help you build homes that outlast the mortgage, but you must first embrace the unlimited possibilities. Only then can you visualize a version of the future you prefer and set that as your destination.

This article helps you create that vision with historical trends and a look at technological developments that make new things possible. Calculating their probability, however, is an entirely different matter.

Orwell’s 1984

Let’s start by reviewing key developments from twenty years ago and then look forward twenty years or so.

January 1984 wasn’t quite what George Orwell envisioned in his book, but that year serves as a benchmark for how far we’ve come since. Likewise, some of my predictions may never happen while others will be too conservative.

January 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of three key events that shaped our era:

1.  Breakup of AT&T – The largest antitrust suit in American history broke up AT&T, created seven regional “Baby Bells,” deregulated the long-distance market, and created competition. No longer would a single carrier monopolize telecommunications, own every phone line, and manage every call.

2.  Legalized Video Recorders – Content owners in Hollywood sued Sony and argued that VCRs lead to copyright violations, but the Supreme Court didn’t agree. As it turns out, the “Betamax ruling” didn’t hurt the movie business and cleared the way for a multibillion-dollar videotape business where Hollywood makes more money from rentals than box office.

3.  Launch of the Macintosh – Apple’s graphical user interface sparked a major change in how we interact with PCs. And now Apple’s new iPod player and iTunes music service are changing digital music too, resolving similar digital rights issues as the Betamax case.

These three landmark events signaled a convergence of computing technology, telecommunications, and content. Other important events from 1984 include the introduction of CD-ROM and portable CD players, the camcorder, the laser printer, and IBM’s PC/AT, which marked a shift in the company’s PC strategy to focus more on large enterprise customers and less on small business and consumers.

Highlights since 1984 include handheld PDAs, GPS navigation, direct broadcast satellite, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, digital & high-definition television, flat plasma TV screens, DVDs, digital video recorders, MP3 players, Auto PCs, wireless home networks, broadband Internet service, the start of service bundling, e-commerce, and more.

Technology has already changed home design.  With hang-on-the-wall plasma displays, we no longer want a large hole in the wall for a 35” direct view TV set. But we do want network connections to stream audio and video from our DVR or media center to TV sets and stereo systems in other rooms. That’s just a start of design changes we can expect.

The Internet

The Internet changed how we live, work, play, buy things, communicate with others, and participate in society. For study purposes, it has five major components:

1.  The Network Itself – media (copper, coax, fiber, wireless), bandwidth, latency.

2.  The Applications we Run – as the Net gets faster and integrates into cars and homes, access devices get smaller and new apps & user interfaces appear.

3.  The Content we Access – all information about everybody: our report cards, love letters, arrest records, medical histories, sales receipts, tax reports, surveillance videos, history of web site visits, email, and IM & newsgroup postings.

4.  The Devices that Connect – from desktops to handhelds and embedded devices – they’ll work together over the Net.

5.  The Location and Context – Internet access from everywhere (office, home, car), where we must consider the context of that location.

By 2024, the very fabric of society will be bathed with Internet access, and what we know about the world around us will depend on the networks.

Gigabit Networks

There’s little need for gigabit home networks when most homes dialup at kilobit speeds. Even DSL & cable networks offer minimal performance with about 1 Mbps downstream and 56 Kbps up. U.S. broadband connections are slow compared to countries like South Korea.

Aggressive Korean policies call for ubiquitous broadband access of 155 Mbps to 5 Gbps by 2005. The government has already made direct investments of $2 billion in a national backbone network, $600 million to promote digital content, and $100 million in loans to service providers who deploy new access networks. And they’ve committed an additional $30 billion for public/private broadband infrastructure by 2010.

U.S. policy makers must wake up and realize that an aggressive policy will help us compete in the global information economy. And builders and equipment makers should demand and expect performance of at least 100 Mbps and probably much faster.

Ethernet, which appeared in 1985 at 10 Mbps, has since evolved to 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps already. Some people recommend using cat.5e or cat.6 cabling for gigabit networks, but faster chips will soon that that speed to cat.5 cabling.

HomePNA (using phone wires) and HomePlug (using power lines) are two no-new-wires home network standards that appeared around 1998 with 1 Mbps performance. HomePNA 3.0 now supports 128 Mbps, and the pending HomePlug AV spec will also support speeds up to 200 Mbps.

Even wireless standards are pushing past 100 Mbps with proprietary Wi-Fi extensions available at 108 Mbps. Twenty years from now, wireless should easily reach gigabit speeds and could replace all need for cabling. Until then, install cat.5 cabling (or better) where feasible.

Applications Online

The “network is the computer” when apps move online, and Web-advertising makes most of them free, where all you need is a browser – on a PC, TV, PDA, or phone.

With smart agents and speech recognition, machines and humans can work side-by-side, speaking to one another. The latest systems no longer sound like robots and instead sound like anyone you want. They’ll soon be able to hold a conversation in natural language with a large vocabulary, answering questions and performing tasks.

Since microphone distance is an issue for speech apps, you might need a microphone array with digital signal processing to eliminate noise, echoes and reverb so voice commands are understood when you’re far away or close by. Or you could simply wear a wireless Bluetooth headset with speaker and microphone. 

The increased use of speech recognition is driven by smaller devices without keyboards, and enabled by faster processors and more memory. I don’t think speech will be the primary interface, however, just an optional one. That’s because sometimes we want quiet, like when we’re working late and don’t want to disturb others, or when it’s easier to hit a switch than say “lights out.”

Digital Content & Rights Management

Broadband networks with a mix of voice, data, and video help eliminate redundancy and dead space, including the idle time when no one is talking on the phone, the dead space between words, or TV channels that no one is watching.

The MP3 music codec made it easy to send music through the Internet over relatively slow connections, but it raised concerns about intellectual property. Apple’s iTunes music service has since found a way to protect the rights of artists and record labels while also making it easier to buy and download music.

For homes, this means consumers will want easy ways to distribute music to speakers anywhere.

T-commerce is a term describing personalized ads that match viewer interests so they’re more effective. Interaction adds the ability to find more information and buy online while advertisers gain a way of knowing who is interested. Nearly every home in 20 years will have highly interactive digital television, but you may still want to just sit back and watch passively.

Even when everyone can record video and publish online, a few large media companies will provide most of what you watch, because few people have enough talent or funds to make compelling programs.

MPEG-4 is a fairly new video codec that needs far less storage and bandwidth than MPEG-2. Rather than 3 Mbps to send DVD-quality video, MPEG-4 needs only 750 Kbps to get nearly the same quality. And instead of 20 Mbps for HDTV, MPEG-4 needs just 2-3 Mbps.

Terabit PCs with Lots of Storage

Moore’s Law describes a semiconductor trend where transistor density doubles every 18 months so products keep getting cheaper, smaller and faster with no end in sight. That trend will soon put high-end PC power on your fingertip.

With ultra-fast broadband access, these PC functions can move onto outside services, but it’s not clear what will be stored locally or remotely. It is clear that you’ll have lots of storage available.

If we still have desktop PCs twenty years from now, which I doubt, they’ll each have terabit processors and 2 petabytes of storage, given the current trend.

What would you do with 2 petabytes? Store a million feature-length movies? How about recording everything you hear, see, read, and write each day, so you can recall it later from your wearable computer, heads-up display, and wireless network? Never forget a face or name or birthday or anniversary.

MRAM (magnetic random access memory) uses magnetism to store data instead of electricity, so contents remain when power is off. MRAM is faster than static RAM and can be dense enough to replace the hard disk. MRAM devices will also use far less power, be more reliable with no moving parts, and eliminate the delays of saving data to disk, shutting down, or booting up.

I’ve seen multi-million dollar homes where the systems integrator provided wireless access to the home security system without knowing how easy it is to break the weak security of Wi-Fi and gain access to the home and its contents.

As mobile displays get smaller for wearing on eyeglasses, large TV displays will get much larger – even wall-sized and building-sized. We may find that the 1080p HDTV format, which looks great on 70” displays, is not good enough for walls, so we may need new formats and faster networks.

Convergence at a New Level

The last 20 years were about the convergence of computing, telecom and content; but the vision of an e-society with anywhere access to all human knowledge depends on pushing the technology drivers and removing the inhibitors, including complexity, security, social, economic, and political barriers. That’s why I envision a new set of convergence spheres that bring together Nano-Science, Information Science, and Political Science.

With individual components self-assembled from molecules, and with nanometer connections, the circuits will be much smaller and more powerful than anything made from silicon. They may also be so inexpensive to make that they’re essentially free, and with this scenario, the value comes from programming the circuits.

The result for homes will be hundreds and thousands of intelligent devices that work together, assuming that other barriers are removed and standards allow.

As we collect more information, we must learn more about the nature of information itself so we can use machines to search and parse the data and deliver useful knowledge and insight.

Who will be the new political and business leaders? What companies, industries and nations will dominate? The business leaders must innovate more and rely on gut instinct, and the policy makers must have the courage to avoid political pressures from powerful lobbyists and focus instead on public good.

Education will become an even more important factor as students struggle to keep up with evolving science and consumers find it difficult to adopt technology and accept change.


The future isn't what it used to be and is coming faster than ever. We can’t just study the past, extrapolate trends, and learn about what’s possible. The greater challenge is in knowing the right things to do, so we must also study changes in consumer behavior, lifestyles and attitudes, and social, political, demographic and economic trends.

This article was just a start, and you may now want to check out my other Trends articles on

Wayne Caswell is founder of CAZITech Consulting, serving broadband, wireless and home network markets with marketing related services. Contact him at 512.335.6073