I don't envy science-fiction writers. After all, it's getting pretty hard to stay ahead of the curve these days. Take The Golden Age, the acclaimed novel by John C. Wright. Published in 2002, the novel describes a future 10,000 years away in which people are shadowed at all times by a computer assistant ever ready to deliver dazzling tableaux of information and entertainment, as well as crystal-clear, three-dimensional visual connections to others. As it turns out, we may not have to wait 10 millennia to see Wright's vision come to life. Three years should do it.
When it comes to telecommunications, it's hard not to feel as if we're catching up with our own imaginations. Broadband Internet access hurls multimegabyte files at us in seconds, hand-held devices give us our e-mail on the run, Wi-Fi hot spots put us into the office network while enjoying lattes at Starbucks -- mobile phones can even determine our exact location and relay it to the police in an emergency.
But the networked present is about to look as out of date as a 200-pound Pong console would to a PlayStation Portable-packing teenager. A host of new technologies is on the verge of creating a new, even faster-moving "always on" business culture, in which anyone anywhere can reach out and touch almost anyone or anything else -- and not just in text, snapshots, or murky video. At first ding, this might sound like your worst nightmare, especially if you already grumble about our BlackBerry culture. In reality, though, the next wave of electronic connectivity may feel less invasive, and a lot more human, than the current one -- especially to the employees, suppliers, and customers of companies that master it.
What will that brave new world of telecommunications look like? My guess is it will look a lot like this:
10 a.m. You're at the airport waiting to board when you get a video call on your mobile phone from a major customer in Europe. You can tell from a twitch of his lips and his finger-tapping that he's losing patience with the project delays. Your relaxed smile reassures him some, but not as much as the video clips you zap him of the completed mockup that came in from the subcontractors in Bangalore two hours ago.
Such a scene is closer than you think. "The quality of PC videoconferencing is becoming amazing," says Malachy Moynihan, a vice president at Linksys, in Irvine, Calif. New technology already developed by Apple and others relays about 250 times more data than you get with conventional video connections. And such transmissions will look great on the next generation of high-resolution mobile smart phones, thanks to new mobile networks already coming online that send data up to 500 times faster than conventional mobile connections, making even cable modems seem logy.
11:30 a.m. During the flight, you connect your notebook, via the aircraft's local area network, to the screens of engineers in Minneapolis and Copenhagen, and the three of you collaboratively tweak three-dimensional blueprints of a complex new design. As you move your mouse to suggest a change, a supercomputer 2,500 miles away adjusts the design on everyone's screen. Later, you review some freshly updated reports and video clips sent by employees and subcontractors scattered around the planet, all of which were blasted wirelessly onto your laptop just before you stepped on the plane.
In fact, high-end computing vendor Silicon Graphics in Mountain View, Calif., already sells software that allows a PC user to manipulate ultracomplex images via remote supercomputer. Meanwhile, "infostations" at airports, gas stations, and other hot spots will soon use super-high-speed short-range signals to blast huge files onto passing notebook PCs and mobile devices. As for broadband networks on planes, Lufthansa has offered them for more than a year, and other airlines, including Japan Air and Scandinavian Airlines, are following suit.
2:15 p.m. You land and head over to a branch office, where you take a meeting with other top managers. Because your mobile phone now runs on a supersmart network, the device recognizes your location and knows from prior experience that you rarely take calls when you're in this particular conference room. It knows not to interrupt you now, instead taking video messages or routing calls to others in the company. But suddenly your phone does chime -- it's a major customer in South America, someone worth interrupting a meeting for.
The smart, always-on infrastructure will provide people with unprecedented control over who will be able to reach them and in what circumstances, according to Alain Briancon, chief technology officer at InterDigital, a wireless technology and applications developer in King of Prussia, Pa. Within the next five years, telecommunications networks will be able to recognize patterns in your phone use, understanding which calls you always accept and which are screened -- taking into account time of day, location, and even, by noting the location of their phones, who you're with.
5:20 p.m. In a taxi on the way back to the airport, you replenish your phone's fuel cell with a razor-blade-size cartridge and reach your son on the school bus to ask him how the game went. Not so well, he says, beaming you a video clip taken by a teammate's mom that clearly shows the referee wrongly calling him out of bounds on a key play. After commiserating, you call your daughter. She points her mobile phone at the math homework she's stuck on, and you help her spot the mistake in her work. You reach your wife driving back from work; she suggests you tap into the local news back home, which is just now showing a news clip of the damage from a fire across town.
Video-quality mobile phone access will become so inexpensive that you'll probably want to give it to all your family and employees. Not only that, you won't need separate wire phone or broadband services -- you'll do it all through a mobile network, for maybe $80 a month combined. "You'll be able to stop thinking about what it costs to make a call or send a message," says Michael Gold, senior research engineer at SRI Consulting Business Intelligence in Menlo Park, Calif. As for fuel-cell-powered phones, disposable fuel cells are about to hit the market as a replacement for phone batteries; refillables are a year or so off, and thumbnail-size micro-jet-engine power generators now under development at MIT and elsewhere are about five years off.
7:00 p.m. Back at the airport, your flight delayed, too tired to work, you download a movie that isn't in theaters yet -- it's been released on the network first. The picture quality, however, is better than that in your local movie theater, which, unlike your phone, has not yet been upgraded to high definition and surround sound. Your network holds all but urgent or family calls and messages while you enjoy the show.
Entertainment already dominates data usage on phones, and phone fun is only going to get bigger with rich broadband access as users fill their downtime with multimedia sports clips, 3-D games, and, of course, music. Some new music already is going straight to mobile phones. Robbie Williams's greatest hits collection, for example, was released on memory card in December in the United Kingdom. Music videos are starting to do the same.
The new, more intense, more discriminating level of interaction coming to a pocket near you may well prove so compelling that some businesses will want to restructure themselves around it. There will be a lot of ways to do it: Create closer collaborations between more geographically scattered employees and partners; develop deeper and more frequent connections with customers via always-on video selling, training, and service; even sell services delivered by mobile broadband networks. "The number of applications is going to explode," says Sanjay Mehta, marketing director for Portal Software in Cupertino, Calif.
Sci-fi author Wright needn't fret about all this stunning progress robbing The Golden Age of its futuristic punch -- he was smart enough to work in some interstellar travel. Now, there's a technology that will safely lag our imaginations for decades, if not millennia. But here's a bet: By the time we do make it to the stars, our phones will work there.
David H. Freedman, a Boston-based writer and Inc. contributing editor, is the author of several books about business and technology.