The Road Behind

Bill Gates penned The Road Ahead as a vision of where online communications would head in the next 10-15 years.  And he wrote it in 1995 – in fact, when it was released as an audiobook you could actually get it on cassette.

Some of Gates’s predictions, which sounded far-fetched a decade and a half ago, have come to fruition.  Shopping online, for instance, is now accepted as a secure and dependable way to do business.  Services like Yelp make it easy to check out what others think of restaurants.  Movies and video entertainment are available on-demand, and the TV screen is becoming indistinguishable from the computer screen.

This came to mind today not only because I recently re-read the book, but also because Wired reports that one of Gates’s predictions is coming closer to fruition: a personal device Gates calls the “wallet PC.”

Gates’s concept of the “wallet PC” is a truly personal computer, but goes beyond most smartphones – essentially, a credit card, phone, netbook, driver’s license, and GPS all rolled into one.  Services like PayPal and Square, combined with increasingly sophisticated phones and, perhaps most importantly, faster wireless connections, make shopping in the real world look more and more like shopping online – literally exchanging money by pointing and clicking.

One piece of irony of The Road Ahead is that Microsoft was not the driver for the realization of many of Gates’s predictions – and in fact, many Microsoft competitors made advancements that he foresaw.  Apple’s iPhone paved the way for “wallet PCs”; Gates’s often-stated idea that information would become the currency of the 21st century is today embodied by Google’s mission.  That these developments were made by others doesn’t make Gates any less visionary.

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