Ten key IT challenges for the next 20 years

As has often been noted, one of the stranger things about the fast-approaching millennium is our almost total inability to see or talk past it. Way back in the 1960s, people were wondering what life in the year 2000 would be like. Yet, as the decades rolled by, our societal horizon somehow hardly budged, and now the whole Y2K issue seems to have shrunk much of our vision down to just a few short weeks. Amazingly, we still don't have a way to even pronounce the coming decade of the '00s.

That's at least one reason to look forward to 1/1/00. It will finally force us to face the future that's rapidly racing toward us. Toward that end, here's my list of what I think will be 10 of the most decisive IT industry challenges of the next 10 to 20 years. Consider them long-term issues worth monitoring.

Putting the physical world online. The early years of the Web have been dominated by people, screens and keyboards, but the next great wave will involve cars, appliances, houses, cameras, sensors, plants, genes, the human body and most of the rest of the nondigital world. Indeed, the integration of the physical world with our increasingly ubiquitous network infrastructures could easily lead to even greater societal changes than those we are experiencing today.

National infrastructures. Developed and developing countries all around the world are now essentially in a race to build advanced, high-bandwidth telecommunications infrastructures. Which nation will get there first? How much will it matter? What would happen if the US wound up trailing badly? One thing is for sure: Some countries are moving much faster than others.

Globalisation. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has been rushing toward ever-higher levels of national convergence, with capital markets, business regulation, trade policies and the like becoming increasingly similar. This homogenisation is particularly important to the expansion of the Internet. Despite the recent anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle, the current faith in global markets is unlikely to unravel unless the world suffers a prolonged economic downturn.

Societal equity. Although the Internet has clearly helped accelerate the growth of the US economy, there is little doubt that it has also widened America's already world-leading income disparities. If this trend isn't reversed, or at least stemmed, some sort of backlash is all but inevitable. Unfortunately, given the winner-take-all nature of many technology businesses, further widening seems almost certain, unless, of course, the stock market crashes.

Intellectual property. Although we often think that intellectual property protection is inherently desirable, there is such a thing as too much protection. Thanks mostly to large campaign donations and other forms of corporate lobbying, patents are now being steadily extended into all sorts of dubious areas, including Internet processes, food types, seeds and even genes. Similarly, copyright protection terms have become ridiculously long, given today's fast-moving world. Resentment in the developing world is steadily building and will be increasingly seen as justified.

To round out the top 10, I would add the Internet's contribution to the increasing dominance of English among world languages; the protection of individual privacy, especially for medical and financial information; the risks and benefits of a completely online political process; possible international resistance to America's software and Internet hegemony; and, finally, the wild-card threats to our industry from hackers, terrorists or even war.

That's plenty to think about once we get past the next two weeks.

DAVID MOSCHELLA is an author, independent consultant and weekly columnist for Computerworld. Contact him at dmoschella@earthlink.net.

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