Up in the proverbial ivory tower that is Microsoft's Redmond campus, nothing must rattle Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates's cage like the news that broadband adoption isn't proceeding according to plan. Today, fewer than 15 percent of US homes are wired with broadband cable modem or Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) access. With Gates's company moving toward an interconnected future called .NET, this is dire news indeed. Without a nation wired with fast, always-on connections, is Microsoft's plan to bring .NET to the masses a technological house of cards?
.NET indeed relies on connectivity, but Microsoft is writing the first generation of .NET services—most notably those included in the Hailstorm initiative—knowing that most people now use slow connections, such as 56KBps modem connections. Most of the questions I hear from users, however, address connectivity. At a recent local user group meeting, I discussed .NET and what we can expect. After the admittedly boring talk—I'm no Mark Minasi, alas— hands shot up: "So, I'd need a cable modem to get .NET, right?"
The concerns are universal, but the answer might surprise you: No, you won't need a cable modem to take advantage of .NET. Will .NET be a better experience with a cable modem? Of course—but Web browsing is better with a cable modem, too. Any technology linked to interconnected services needs a connection, if only fleetingly.
In the future, broadband Internet will be like electricity: You won't think about it because it will always be there and always work. You switch on a light to read before going to bed without questioning whether it'll work—and someday .NET and broadband Internet will be as universal and reliable. Until then, you'll be able to use whatever modem you have to access .NET.
The .NET strategy assumes that PCs will remain central to our personal and professional lives despite the proliferation of non-PC devices. This prediction makes sense—more sense than the "post-PC" doom and gloom we hear from Sun Microsystems and other Big Iron companies that have no stake in the PC's success.
Expect wireless technology to spread rapidly during the next 12 months, and to spread to non-PC devices such as Pocket PCs, Palm devices, Internet-enabled cell phones, and the like. I've been using an 802.11b-based wireless network at home for the past few months, and nothing beats freeing yourself from wiry shackles. Once I get broadband access outside the home—perhaps through the burgeoning Ricochet service—my family will never see me again. OK, I'm kidding, but for someone who works at home, the ability to get out and still get work done is very appealing. This technology will change telecommuting forever.
Speaking of cell phones, a limitation I face when traveling is the sheer number of devices I must lug along. I use a cell phone for voice communications, a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) for personal information management, an Iomega HipZIP for personal audio, and a Nintendo GameBoy for the occasional stress relief (hey, I'm human). Shouldn't all of this functionality be available on one PDA-sized device? One that reads eBooks and offers voice recording and maybe even digital camera functionality? And shouldn't that device have 24x7, geographically independent Internet access so I can check my eBay auctions (and corporate email, of course) whenever and wherever I want? It's coming, and today's PDAs almost fit the bill.
.NET will make all of this technology more useful. Broadband enhances the experience, but it's not required—yet. Just as the idea of today's powerful Pentium III and Pentium 4 systems seemed like a distant possibility in the days of the 386-SX and Windows 95, broadband will become a reality, too. Someday.