What if?

Ever have a few drinks with friends and start playing "what if"? You know, what if I had gone to a different college? What if I had married someone else? What if I had become an accountant?

The possibility that we could have done better, come off worse, been happier, gone further, whatever, fascinates us not only when things go wrong but also when things go right.

Now in the 15 years that Network World has been covering the network industry, we've seen amazing changes in products and technologies as well as radical changes in the fortunes of various companies. But what if things had been different?

So let me buy you a drink and let's play "what if."

The way we're going to play is to start with the reality. For example, Cisco Systems Inc. is an amazingly successful company that knew what it was good at. Now we go to fantasy. What if Cisco had failed to commercialize routers or, more likely, got distracted?

There must have been a point when some executive in Cisco said: "Hey, everyone is making out like bandits building gaming consoles, we should be in that business!" The consequence might have been Cisco owning that market, and Nintendo and Sega becoming also-rans.

1986: Reality - The National Science Foundation (NSF) created NSFNET.

Fantasy - NSF didn't have enough money and NSFNET didn't get built. This slowed the growth of the 'Net by a half dozen years and the Internet Engineering Task Force and Internet Research Task Force were never formed so the big dogs of the computer industry drove the standards process. The result was that cost and limited reach of the 'Net kept it out of the public's grasp until 2000. By then, AOL was so powerful and ubiquitous, no one cared about the Internet anyway.

1987: Reality - Kaypro, the king of CP/M luggables (remember CP/M? - it came before MS-DOS), lost $19.4 million on sales of $21.8 million. This drove the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings and a long slide into obscurity.

Fantasy - Kaypro survived this blip and went on to become a PC manufacturing powerhouse. It was so successful that Compaq, Dell, Gateway and others never got a chance to get big, and Kaypro today has 80% of the PC market and all PCs look like high-tech ice chests.

1990: Reality - Microsoft ended its OS/2 development partnership with IBM and went its own way with Windows 3.0.

Fantasy - Microsoft stuck with OS/2, failed to develop Windows 3.0, then IBM bought Microsoft a couple of years later when the stock price tanked. Bill Gates left after a year and went broke trying to build electric scooters for a mass market that didn't exist. He now lives in a small duplex in San Luis Obispo and is a cashier at Staples.

1991: Reality - Tim Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web.

Fantasy - He didn't. He created the World Wide Library with a counterintuitive system for finding and accessing "books." The system was quickly forgotten. Gopher was adopted instead. Nobody really cared much about it. AOL became the de facto Internet access tool.

1993: Reality - NCSA Mosaic for X Window, created by Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, was released.

Fantasy - As Berners-Lee didn't produce the World Wide Web, forget that release. Andreessen remained in obscurity until leaving NCSA and achieving an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest number of body piercings.

1994: Reality - Computing power continued to grow according to Moore's Law.

Fantasy - It didn't. By 1995 the rate of adoption of PCs slowed to a crawl and mainframes began to re-establish their dominance in corporate computing. A long, sullen silence fell over data processing as glass houses expanded to accommodate the raw machinery. The Internet was small and quiet and spam was never invented. AOL became the de facto Internet access tool.

1997: Reality - Eric Schmidt, formerly Sun's CTO, took over the reins at Novell. Novell became moribund a few years later.

Fantasy - Larry Ellison resigned from Oracle to run Novell and introduced the company to the art of marketing. In 1999, Novell performed a hostile takeover of Sun and merged with Time Warner in 2001. Ellison appeared as the cover model on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.

I could go on revising history all night (or until the bar closes), but I'm about to run out of space. What is so intriguing is that there were so many points in the past 15 years where any or all of the industry could have headed off in a different direction. But of all the possible versions of the present that we might have preferred to see, at least in this one AOL doesn't own the Internet. Yet.

Check with me in another 15 years - we'll play "what if" again. Next time, you get to buy the drinks. Cheers.

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