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How Far Has Technology Come in 20 Years?

Source: Created with Stable Diffusion

Twenty years ago, I was an equity analyst for a Wall Street investment bank. At the time, my research director liked to get all the analysts to write occasional thought pieces. In the following article written in June 2003, I chose to write a speculative piece that looked back to 2003 from five years in the future, i.e. 2008. I speculated that there would be quite a few technological leaps in the five intervening years.

Given the 20 years that have now passed since I wrote the article, how many of those technologies have actually come into being? As you will see, not many, while others that were not foreseen have matured – for example, app-based smartphones and music streaming.

Without specifically naming it as artificial intelligence, I foresaw a role for cloud-based intelligent software agents that would provide intuitive assistance in multiple situations – a true digital assistant. These have not come into being and they are not even much discussed. We do have digital assistants such as Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, but they are mostly incapable of anything more than answering simple questions and certainly couldn’t be trusted to book travel tickets, make restaurant reservations or update other people’s diaries. While ChatGPT and derivatives of Large Language Models seem superficially smarter, they are still not yet at the stage of being able to function as a general assistant.

One other technology referenced in the article that is still far from maturity, is augmented reality. The glasses described were not too far-fetched – Microsoft’s HoloLens can achieve some of what is described and Epson and Vuzix, for example, have developed glasses that are in use by field service engineers. But these products are not able to reference real-world objects. Apple’s forthcoming Vision Pro, while technically brilliant, would not be a suitable solution for the use case described.

At the end of the article, I listed companies that I expected to be playing a significant role in the development of the various technologies highlighted. But where are those companies now?

For context, and for the younger readers, around the turn of this century, third-generation cellular licenses had been expensively auctioned in several countries and many mobile operators were struggling to generate a return on their investment. Oh, how things have changed (or not)! As an analyst covering mobile technology, I could see that investors were valuing mobile operators solely on their voice and text revenues, with zero value being ascribed to future data revenues. My article was also an attempt to awaken investors to the potential value beyond voice.

Anyway, here’s the report that I wrote in mid-2003. It was written as though it were an article in a business newspaper.

Special Report – June 2008

Connected People

It is just eight years since European wireless telecom companies became the subject of outright derision for spending billions of dollars on licenses to operate third-generation cellular networks. Now the self-same companies have become core to our everyday existence. Their stock, which bottomed in the middle of 2002, has risen steadily ever since.

The original promise of 3G technology was high-speed data networking coupled with an exceptional capacity for both voice and data. But critics said that it was an innovation users didn’t need, want or would be willing to pay for.

When the first commercial 3G networks appeared in 2003 and faltered at the first step, the doubters started to look dangerously like they had a point. But the universe is fickle and within the last two or three years, the combination of maturing networks and the inevitable power of Moore’s Law has started to deliver wireless devices and applications that would have been thought of, if not as science fiction, then at least science-stretching-the-bounds-of-credibility, when the licenses were issued.

However, while the long-time infamy of 3G means it is taking the starring role as industry watchers chart the chequered history of the technology, it is the supporting cast of technologies that has really delivered the goods. Without them, 3G would have remained just another method to access the backbone network.

The following snapshots from one perfectly ordinary day last month show how the coordinated application of a whole slew of technologies has subtly but distinctly altered our lives.

Bristol – May 1, 2008, 12:57 pm

Beads of sweat form on the face of Jim McKenna, a 24-year-old technician, as he studies the guts of a damaged generator. McKenna is a member of a rapid response team, looking after mission-critical power generation facilities across Southern England.

“Dave, I’ve located the damaged circuits, I think I can repair it, but the control unit is non-standard and I’ve not seen one like it before. Can you help me out here?”

McKenna’s voice is picked up by a tiny transducer microphone embedded in a Bluetooth-enabled hands-free earbud. The bud is so small it nestles unobtrusively in the technician’s ear. The earbud is wirelessly connected to the small transceiver on McKenna’s belt. His voice activates a ‘push’-to-talk connection to his controller in the Scottish technical support center. The word push is in quotes because it is his voice that effects the push, leaving McKenna’s hands entirely free.

In the Edinburgh-based command center, David Sanderson, an experienced engineer, maximizes the image from one of a half-dozen sub-screens that compete for his attention. Each screen shows live pictures from his team of technicians with data about their location and degree of job completion.

Sanderson taps the screen again and, 400 miles away in Bristol, a tiny camera on McKenna’s smart glasses zooms in on the generator specification plate. Sanderson peers intently at the screen:

“I see a code on the side panel. I’ve highlighted it for you. Can you scan it? I can then pull the circuit files for you”.

Seemingly in mid-air, a red circle appears around a barcode away to McKenna’s right. The heads-up display in McKenna’s glasses maintains a fix on the code even though he moves his head. He leans across and uses the camera to scan the code, which is instantaneously transmitted back to Edinburgh where the circuit plans are uploaded from the database. Sanderson extracts the relevant section before speaking again to McKenna.

“Jim, I’m initiating the synchronization, you should have it in a few seconds.”

The 3G transceiver on Jim’s belt receives the information and immediately routes it to his smart glasses via Bluetooth. As Jim looks at the damaged circuitry, the heads-up display begins to superimpose the circuit diagram over the actual circuits, adjusting for size. He spends a few minutes comparing the damaged circuits with the schematic images. He calls for more backup.

“Dave, the problem is definitely in this sector of the step-down circuit,” McKenna points to a series of circuit boards, “is there a suggested workaround in the troubleshooting file?”

Within minutes the heads-up display starts guiding McKenna through a series of measures that isolates and bypasses the damaged circuits. Within 20 minutes, McKenna successfully reboots the system – power is restored.

Five years ago, very little of the above could have been done as efficiently and intuitively. Field service engineers needed substantial experience to tackle complex tasks – they also had to carry heavy, often ruggedized PCs and a whole series of manuals on CD-ROMs. Technical backup, where available, was a cellular voice call.

Liverpool Street, London, May 1, 2008, 2:32 pm

Joanne King, an equity analyst, is meeting a buy-side client. As they settle into the soft leather chairs of the meeting room, she slides a flexible plastic sheet across the table. The sheet is printed with electronic ink. The latest marketing pack was downloaded to her mobile terminal on the way over in the taxi. She taps the screen of her smartphone and the slide set appears on the sheet. As Joanne and her client discuss the vagaries of the stock market, they are able to use virtual tabs to flip between ‘pages’ within the pack. When the client requests more information on the balance sheet of one of companies they’re discussing, Joanne is able to pull down the necessary information, adding it to the slide set.

Partway through the discussion, Joanne hears a subtle tone in her ear indicating an urgent communication request from her personal digital assistant. She apologizes to the client before initiating the communication path. “Wildfire, what’s the problem?” she knows that Wildfire will only override her no-interrupt rule if an issue requires immediate attention.

“An air traffic control strike in Paris has disrupted all flights. Your 6 pm Brussels flight is showing a two-hour delay and may be canceled. The best alternative is to take the Eurostar train. Services leave at 16:30 and 18:30.”

After a moment’s thought, Joanne comes to a decision: “Book the 16:30, please.” Conscious of the topics still to cover in her meeting, she adds, “Can you also have a taxi waiting when I am through here?”

Wildfire confirms the instructions and drops back into meeting mode. Joanne apologizes to the client and resumes her meeting. Meanwhile, Joanne’s software agent communicates with various travel services, canceling her flight reservation and booking the rail service.

Having learned from Joanne’s prior behavior, the agent books a First Class seat in a carriage toward the front of the train. The agent also communicates with a taxi firm – a car will be waiting when her meeting is completed. The agent is authorized to spend money within predefined limits. Simultaneously, the agent modifies Joanne’s expense report and calendar.

Joanne’s dinner date with friends in Brussels will be hard to keep given the change in travel plans. The agent negotiates with the diaries of her three dinner guests and the reservation computer at their chosen restaurant. A new reservation is agreed and four diaries are updated accordingly.

At the conclusion of her meeting, Joanne leaves the slide set contained in the pre-punched flexible display. Her client will be able to store it in standard folders and refer to it at leisure. Solar cells ensure that there is enough power to display the material without having to worry about battery charge.

As she heads for the taxi, Joanne’s location-aware PDA recognizes she is in motion and, therefore, ready to communicate. “Joanne, you have 2 voice messages, 23 business e-mails and 12 personal e-mails. How would you like me to handle them?” Joanne chooses to listen and respond to a voicemail on the short taxi ride to Waterloo, deferring the e-mails for the train.

Once in her seat on the Eurostar train, Joanne unfolds a screen and keyboard that work alongside her 3G smartphone. Bluetooth provides the link between the smartphone, screen and keyboard. The Light Emitting Polymer screen is extremely lightweight and flexible, yet delivers high contrast and color resolution. Power consumption is low.

Joanne spends an hour responding to the e-mails before kicking off her shoes and taking out an e-book to settle down to listen to some music. She is particularly looking forward to a new album she bought on the way to the station. A song she was unfamiliar with came over the radio in the taxi – loving it, but not knowing what it was, Joanne recorded a quick burst. Vodafone, her service provider, was able to identify the music and offered to sell her the single or album. In anticipation of her long train ride, she chose the album. Leaning back in her seat, she lets the cool beats ease her to Brussels.

In 2003, one-on-one presentations were either made from a PC screen or delivered on regular paper. Meeting interruptions were either obtrusive or impossible, and changing travel reservations on the fly typically required several people – often with intervention by the traveler herself. Meanwhile, mobile e-mail was possible but only on large-screen PCs, compromised by size, weight and power consumption, or devices with screens and keyboards too small for anything other than limited responses.

Hyde Park – May 1, 2:18 pm

Mike Lee is on his way home from high school. He flips his skateboard down three steps and dives for cover in the bushes, the sound of gunfire ringing in his ears. Peering through the leaves, he holds a small flat panel console in front of him. He scans through 120 degrees, concentrating on the screen. The intense rhythms of electro-house are now the loudest sounds he hears, but there is also the distant rap of gunfire. On the screen, he sees the surrounding park, but in addition, the occasional outlandish figure appears, flitting between hiding places among the trees. “Josh! Where are you?” Mike demands in an urgent whisper.

“I’m by the lake dude. Surrounded. Can you get down here? I’m running out of ammo.”

Mike swings around, looking toward the lake through his device. He sees Josh’s position highlighted on the screen. He turns back, takes a deep breath and starts jabbing buttons on his device. Explosions and smoke fill the screen. Then running to the path, he jumps back on his skateboard and carves down the hill to the lake, pitching into the shrubbery next to his buddy Josh. They proceed to engage the advancing enemy in a frenzy of laser grenades, gunfire and whoops of delight.

After a few minutes, they both hear the words they have been waiting for, “Well done men, you have completed Level 12. Hit the download button to move on to the next level.”

Mobile gaming, even as recently as 2003, offered a relatively poor user experience. Simple Java games were the norm. Games now not only involve online buddies but they are also immersed into the surrounding environment, massively enhancing the experience. 

3G has come a long way from its ignominious start. However, the real catalyst that has made it a life-changing technology has been the incredible range of diverse technologies that have emerged to support the growth in wireless voice and data applications.

 Cast List:

3G smartphones – Nokia, Motorola

Bluetooth earbuds – Sound ID

Heads-up display – Microvision

Voice-driven push-to-talk – Sonim

Voice control – Advanced Recognition Technologies

Personal digital assistant – Wildfire

Electronic ink pad – E Ink, Philips Electronics

Music capture – Shazam Entertainment

Foldable Light Emitting Polymer Display – Technology from Cambridge Display Technology

Augmented reality game console – Nokia N-Gage 4

Intelligent mobile agents – Hewlett Packard

Geo-location technology – Openwave

Where are these companies in 2023?

My original cast of technology characters has seen mixed fortunes, some are still around but with different owners while others have disappeared altogether. Few are still going in their original business niche:

Nokia and Motorola are brands that are still making mobile devices, but in different guises than in 2003.

I don’t know what became of Sound ID. There is an app called SoundID created by Sonar Works, but it is different and unrelated to the Sound ID identified in the article. But Bluetooth True Wireless earbuds are now a huge market.

Microvision is still in business but has shifted its focus to LiDAR in the automotive space.

Sonim is still in business and still making ruggedized devices, including push-to-talk devices for the safety and security sectors.

Advanced Recognition Technologies was acquired by Scansoft in 2005.

Wildfire was an innovative voice-controlled personal assistant that was acquired by the operator Orange in 2000. But Orange killed the service in 2005.

E-Ink still exists, although Philips parted ways with it in 2005.

Shazam still exists but was acquired by Apple in 2018. When it started in 2002, you had to dial a short number and hold your phone to the sound source. Users would then receive an SMS with the song title and artist.

Cambridge Display Technology is still around. It was floated on Nasdaq in 2004 and acquired by Sumitomo Chemical in 2007.

Hewlett Packard is clearly still around. However, it doesn’t make intelligent software agents. But then again, neither does anyone else, at least not in the way portrayed in the article.

Openwave no longer exists, although many of its businesses have been absorbed into other entities.

Peter Richardson

Research Director Peter has 27 years experience in the mobile industry with extensive experience in market analysis and corporate development. Most recently Peter was Global Head of Market and Competitive Intelligence at Nokia. Here he headed a team responsible for analyzing and quantifying the industry. Prior to Nokia, Peter was an equity analyst at SoundView Technology Group. And before that he was VP and Chief Analyst of mobile and wireless research at Gartner. Peter’s early years in the industry were spent with NEC and Panasonic.

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