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How Quaint Was the Internet in 1981? And What Will Be Quaint 33 Years From Now?

January 18, 2014
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What might a glance back at the past say about the future of information technology?


On Jan. 18, The Huffington Post, exploiting a YouTube video, brought us all back to a moment in 1981 that emphasizes how far we’ve come technologically in 33 years (as if the readers of this publication needed to know how far we’ve come). What happened is this: someone dug up an old segment from a San Francisco television news station, which began with the reporter saying this: “Imagine, if you will, sitting down to your morning coffee, and turning on your home computer to read the day’s newspaper. Well, it’s not as farfetched as it may seem!” And they posted it on YouTube, and HuffPost posted an article with a link to that video.

The report went on to note that over 500 people among the estimated 2,000-3,000 home computer owners in the San Francisco Bay Area had just responded to a marketing offer from San Francisco’s then-two daily newspapers to receive news online over something called—what was it?—THE INTERNET. The report further discussed the fact that eight newspapers in the United States had launched an experiment, and were beginning to send subscribers online versions of selected news articles. The content was purely text-based—this was in the pre-Windows world, of course. But the sense of “futuristic things” was definitely clear in the report.

Of course now, in hindsight, we can all chuckle at the sweet naivete of practically everyone (except perhaps Bill Gates and Steve Jobs?) 33 years ago. Indeed, the HuffPost story’s headline was “The Internet in 1981 Was Just So Adorable.” But then, as we all know, things actually got serious, and pretty soon (well, maybe not quite so soon, but within 15 years, anyway), masses of people were reading their newspapers online. And pretty soon, it all felt, well… pretty real.

Reading the HuffPost story and watching the embedded video actually brought me back to 1991 rather than 1981. And that’s because 1991 was the first year I attended the HIMSS Conference. Back then, there was little clarity as to the broad trajectory of healthcare and healthcare IT. And walking the exhibit floor in those days was an exercise in confusion, basically. Those who were in the industry in those days will remember. There was a lot of what was semi-politely called “vaporware,” and because of the broad lack of industry clarity, vendors were going in all sorts of directions strategically and technologically, while provider leaders spent a number of years implementing closed information systems that not only had limited functionality, but couldn’t in any way talk to each other.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, I’m very much looking forward to the HIMSS Conference this year, for a wide variety of reasons. One will be to see what vendors are doing and saying at HIMSS this year, at a time of far greater clarity in the policy landscape, the business/industry landscape, and the technology landscape. What’s more, the strong link between the technologies being developed and actual, immediate, even urgent needs, around population health management, care coordination, accountable care, revenue cycle management, and so on—is making this the most exciting time ever.

I’ll be writing much more about this in the next several weeks as we prepare to participate in HIMSS14, but seeing this HuffPost article and its associated video really triggered memories. And also prompts me to wonder, I wonder what we’ll be finding quaint 33 years from now? The possibilities boggle the imagination.