Survey asks Network World readers to reflect on 20 years in networking

Readers talk about the past, present, future of the network industry.

It's hard to remember what life was like 20 years ago. And it's harder still to figure out how we got anything done back then.

"I can't imagine life without the PC, e-mail, my DVR, air conditioning in my car, home and work," says Brett Case, a LAN coordinator at Ross Stores in Pleasanton, Calif. "Did I mention life would be miserable without DVR?"

The benefits of tech tools aside, more than 70% of Network World readers surveyed said their standard of living is better today than it was 20 years ago. But it's not all good news. Some 11% said their standard of living hasn't changed, and 10% said they are worse off (8% are too young to remember).

Asked whether they would do it differently if they could do it all again, fewer than half of the respondents said they would pursue the same path in technology. A whopping 37% said they like the tech field but wish they had taken a different path, while 12% said they would eschew tech altogether, and the rest weren't sure.

The survey went on to ask readers to reflect on a range of subjects, including who have been the top industry visionaries and what were the biggest tech flops.

Not surprisingly, respondents picked Bill Gates as the individual who has made the biggest impact in the last 20 years, though some said he was just in the right place at the right time.

David Green, president of NetGreen Consulting in Bluffton, S.C., sees both sides of the argument. "Bill Gates is the ultimate example of brains and luck meeting under happy circumstances."

Other respondents said Gates was brilliant in how he built Microsoft, especially with the various acquisitions over the years, but they stopped short of calling him a visionary.

"He outbluffed IBM and snookered Apple," said Harold Finz, who is a software architect at CitiGroup in California. "But he's not a visionary. He always let someone else pave the way, take the chances and then he'd either learn from their mistakes or else buy his way into the field."

Thom Count, a network consultant at Genzyme in Cambridge, Mass., gave Gates more credit, saying Gates' predictions have all come to fruition. He said that even when Gates was producing Basic for CPM machines, he could see the bigger picture.

Although not listed in the survey, readers wrote in Cisco CEO John Chambers, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Intel's Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore as other industry visionaries.

More important: PC or Internet?

Asked which technology they couldn't live without - the Internet, PCs, cell phones or PowerPoint - 51% said the Internet was all important. But many readers noted there is something of a chicken-and-egg dilemma when it comes to weighing the Internet against PCs.

"I don't know that the Internet would have become so prevalent without the Web sitting on top of it," says Kai Hintze, senior systems programmer at Albertsons in Boise, Idaho. "And the Web wouldn't have become nearly so widespread without the fairly standard graphics terminals that PCs provide."

True enough, but Wayne Hainsworth, network engineer at Tidland in Camas, Wash., said simply: "Without the Internet, my job would be a bit more difficult; without PCs, I wouldn't have a job."

Readers, in fact, credit the PC with delivering the greatest increase in corporate efficiency. E-mail was a close second.

"The PC is a general technology that provided across-the-board productivity increases," said Matthew Simpson, manager of e-commerce and intranet at MOL. "E-mail is just a more efficient and personalized form of messaging technology that already existed in most industries."

One survey respondent went as far as to call e-mail a drain on productivity, but others ascribed loftier accomplishments to its wide adoption. "Never in the history of man has collaboration on projects been so easy and cost effective," said Jim Norris, director of IT for Cochise County in Arizona. "The face of politics and society has been impacted by [the ability of] common citizens to exchange ideas and information as never before." He said changes favoring democracy in Eastern Europe can be attributed to the Internet and e-mail.

Shouldn't have worked

It isn't likely anyone will ever credit ring tones with anything that grand. Ring tones topped the list of technologies that respondents thought would flop but somehow came out on top.

"Ring tones? Self-indulgent, annoying, ought-to-be-illegal technology," summed up Simpson. "The thing that frosts my flakes, I can't just pick a 'normal' ringing sound for my company-issued phone. It's got to be some kind of symphonic nonsense."

Blogging came in a close second. Hintze said he can't see what the fuss is about. "I don't see how blogging differs from online articles, other than now there is software to make blogs easier to post."

Other write-in answers added by respondents included text messaging, Skype and social-networking sites.

On the flip side, topping the list of technologies that received the most hype but petered out was ISDN, what Simpson referred to as "I Still Don't Need."

Respondents said ISDN failed because of interoperability problems, lack of widespread deployment and the fact that there were too many standards. "It had lots of potential that was never realized," Hintze says. "But advertising was just enough to whet your appetite without really telling you how and where to get it, while execution was sporadic."

Next big thing

Asked to ponder what the next big thing 20 years out will be, respondents said wireless broadband. "Deliver me from the bounds of the cable and DSL monopolies, please," Simpson pleaded.

"The impact wireless broadband has on technology is enormous and will continue to grow," Hainsworth said. "It's a natural extension to today's hardware technology."

Green said wireless broadband will be the biggest technology change since the growth of television. "It's also going to present the most challenges regarding reliability, security and business models to support its use."

Other technologies that could leave a mark include nanotechnology, personal area networks and biological computing.

"I really think RFID is going to be used to answer two of life's most persistent and troubling questions: Where are my keys and where is the remote," Finz says.

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