Who cracked the crystal ball?

Chicago has Jerry Springer, but Comdex Canada West ’99 in Vancouver countered with Tom Henderson.

Henderson, vice-president of engineering at ExtremeLabs in Indianapolis and chair of The Cracked Crystal Ball Panel at Comdex, said he wanted the power panel session to have the same audience interaction as the Springer show — minus the swearing, fighting and rudeness present in each and every episode of that over-hyped talk show.

The two other panellists were Matthew Feldman, president and CEO of TUFANS Technology Inc. in Seattle, and Philip Lightstone, president of Lightstream Technologies Inc. in Markham, Ont. After a brief introduction of the panel members, Henderson did what he set out to do – he kept the interactive discussion informal and informative. Audience members laughed at the panelists’ jokes, shared some themselves, and debated back and forth on whether it is the crystal ball or our IT vision that has been cracked.

And although the discussion did not stick to any one topic for long, audience members had the opportunity to ask panel members questions and state their concerns on where the industry is going.

Not surprising, the first item on the agenda was Y2K.

“How many of you are deathly afraid of flying on Jan. 1, 2000?” Henderson asked the audience. “It’s kind of a failing of the computer industry that we have to face some of these issues. A friend of mine who has a 1986 Buick GMX will not be able to drive that car on Jan. 1, 2000. The system inside the car will not allow the engine to start.”

Henderson then fired out a number of issues.

“How many of you want to believe in the network computer and the promise of Java? How many of you have bought Oracle stock hoping that Larry Ellison has the key? Does the fact that we have so many products coming to the marketplace cause you difficulties?”

According to Feldman, the industry needs to step back and take a good look at what’s going on.

“You don’t have to release new technology every two years,” he said. “Why don’t we try improving what we already have?”

If the crystal ball is cracked, Feldman asked, who’s responsible?

“Are we cracking our own crystal ball? Are we not putting enough demand on companies to fix Y2K, not putting enough demand on companies to make sure their products are good before they come out, are we not putting enough demands on companies that sell half truths? And do we try to return the products if they don’t meet up to the sales literature?”

One audience member voiced his concern about Microsoft Corp.’s role in all of this.

“I’d like to know what the panel thinks about whether or not Microsoft owns the crystal ball,” he said. “Someone mentioned that there’s going to be no future without Microsoft or Microsoft will always be there. Does the consumer have the option to make decisions in the future or are those options already taken away?”

Lightstone said it simply: “When was the last time you bought a computer, a PC Intel-based computer, and it didn’t come with a Microsoft product?”

Another audience member agreed and said most of the computers in his office run Windows 95 on Pentiums.

“But the biggest hurdle that people have in the office is their state of mind — they see a PC and they expect Windows to be on it,” he said. “But there’s not a big learning curve to any of these applications. Word processing is basically the same. Microsoft has become state of mind.”

When he put Solaris Intel on a PC in the office, he added, end users asked what it was because they automatically expect Windows to be the operating system.

But Henderson pointed out that maybe it’s possible that Microsoft has educated a lot of people who would never otherwise have touched a computer. “Has the company given them their first computer experience, so that’s the frame of reference? Does this mean it’s going to be much tougher in the future for other companies to develop computer operating system environments?”

After the panel and audience tired of kicking Microsoft around, one audience member asked the group if they think e-commerce will one day replace resellers.

Feldman doesn’t think so. “There are a lot of mail order catalogues out there and there’s still retail stores,” he said. “It’s the same thing with e-commerce – it’s just another way to buy but there will always be retail stores.”

Lightstone doesn’t believe it will replace retail stores either because people enjoy going to the mall. “They enjoy the shopping. You can’t get that via e-commerce,” he said.

Another audience member questioned the panel on how fast they think user expectations for bandwidth, for capacity and for features are going to get ahead of the industry’s ability to provide them.

“That’s called research and development,” Lightstone said. “We’re constantly seeing bandwidth — faster Ethernet, gigabit Ethernet. I think the real trick is leveraging an infrastructure, a cable or cableless infrastructure, to deliver bandwidth. I think if you spoke with R&D folks 10 years ago they would have told you no way you’re going to be able to make a network go at gigabit speeds. I’m wondering when terabit Ethernet will come out.”