David Pogue's Tech Predictions

The service was fantastic, said Pogue, but no one could figure out how it was funded. "How do you make money off of free?"

by / May 21, 2007

David Pogue, New York Times technology columnist, CBS correspondent, author and -- as those who attended his keynote presentation last week at GTC found out -- a sit-down comic and pianist, said that trying to predict the future of technology is stupid. Western Union said "the telephone has too many shortcomings as a means of communication," IBM predicted maybe five computers would be enough for the world. And in 1981 Bill Gates said 640K of RAM should be enough for anyone. Actually, said Pogue, he didn't say it, it's a myth, "but it is awfully fun to pretend he did." Then Pogue presented five technologies for the future.

Prediction Number One: Free Land-Line Telephone Service

Land line phone calls will be free, because of VoIP such as Vonage, Skype and others, said Pogue. Today, you can plug an existing phone into a box that plugs into a cable modem, $15 to $20 per month, for unlimited calls, no taxes or fees (he hesitated briefly noting that perhaps he should avoid making that point to a government audience.)

"That box is your phone number," he said, "plug that into the cable modem and you receive your calls anywhere in the world." It has every feature known to man, because it's only software. 250 million people have downloaded Skype software and can call other Skype users anywhere in the world, over the Internet for free. He said free several times to make sure the audience got it. "Free as in 'nothing!'" And for two cents a minute you can call to a regular phone anywhere in the world. "I would not invest in telephone company stocks," he said. He did say that AT&T is starting its own VoIP service.

Pogue said that there are a few problems with such services -- such as needing to use a headset and thus, "looking like a dork."

Pogue used Futurephone as an example of some interesting new business models that have popped up. The company was offering free phone calls to any overseas country as long as the callers wanted to talk. The user called into an Iowa access number and then dialed the country code. That's it. The service was fantastic, said Pogue, but no one could figure out how it was funded. "How do you make money off of free?"

The answer was that the federal government supports rural telephone exchanges for a fraction of a cent per minute. Iowa, for some reason, gets three cents per minute. So Futurephone went to Iowa, increased telephone traffic by a huge amount, split the subsidy with the telephone exchange and everybody was happy. Well not everybody. AT&T got them shut down, said Pogue, and the legal wrangling is under way.

Prediction Number Two: RFID

RFIDs are reflective transmitters the size of a grain of sand. They are basically unregulated and each has "18 thousand trillion possible codes," according to Pogue. A library that embeds RFID chips into books and library cards, allows the user to simply pick up books and walk out past a reader and everything is logged. "The University of Nevada has RFID in all books," he said, "and the first time they scanned them all, they found 500 supposedly lost books that were just mis-shelved."

But RFID chips have no power supply, and remain live forever, so someone could scan your trash, said Pogue, and find out a lot about you.

Prediction Number Three: Ala Carte TV

Akimbo, said Pogue, was the worst thing he every reviewed. It was a great idea -- a set-top box through which viewers would supposedly have access to every TV show ever aired. But none of the networks was willing to play ball. It ended up having Turkish

sitcoms, Web videos and British children's' programming, said Pogue. While there are some tricky copyright issues to resolve, said Pogue, Apple, Google and others are getting into video, movies, etc.

Prediction Number Four: High-Definition TV

The federal government will turn off analog broadcasting in 2009, said Pogue. The reason is that with digital media, you can pack more into the available spectrum, and the government can auction off the surplus. That means replacement of hardware such as camcorders, TV sets, etc. Sony and Toshiba have competing standards for high-definition DVDs. Sony's Blu Ray and Toshiba's HD DVD are incompatible, each hoping to become the dominant standard. "Each has lined up half of Hollywood," said Pogue, so no matter which type you get, you can't watch half of all movies. This "stupid plan," said Pogue, means nobody is buying either.

Prediction Number Five: Web 2.0

Pogue's definition of Web 2.0, he explained, are sites that are solely filled up by user submissions such as Facebook MySpace and digg.

Digg for example, contains user-rated articles. "Everyone on the Internet looks for interesting articles," he said. "You submit it to digg and it appears for everyone else on digg. They rate it." With millions of people sifting through and rating submissions, said Pogue, "The really good stuff goes to the top."

In England, he said, the government runs a petition site. Anyone can start a petition, it's non-binding, but people join the petitions, and it tells the government what people are thinking. Craig's list, said Pogue, is responsible for the demise of newspaper classified ads. People submit their videos to YouTube, their photos to Flickr. And while commercial radio has 59 minutes of ads per hour, "You can now go online and find podcasts of banjo-playing nuns," or "how to horseshoe Shetland Ponies," and whatever else might be of interest. One guy, said Pogue, does a live podcast every morning from his car on his way to work.

New technologies didn't destroy old technologies, said Pogue. TV didn't destroy movies, VCRs didn't either. Instead, new technologies increased interest and fueled growth.

Wayne Hanson

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.