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Wednesday, November 29, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Information Revolution Will Transform Our Jobs, Lives

This is the last excerpt from "The Road Ahead," a new book by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates. Today he forecasts some of the ways technology will change how we work and where we live. -----------------------------------------------------------------

As documents become more flexible, richer in multimedia content, and less tethered to paper, the ways in which people collaborate and communicate will become richer and less tied to location. Almost every sphere of activity - business, education, and leisure - will be affected. The information highway will revolutionize communications even more than it will revolutionize computing. . . .

The personal computer has already had a huge effect on business. But its greatest impact won't be felt until the PCs inside and outside a company are intimately interconnected.

Over the next decade, businesses worldwide will be transformed. Software will become friendlier, and companies will base the nervous systems of their organizations on networks that reach every employee and beyond, into the world of suppliers, consultants, and customers. The result will be companies that are more effective and, often, smaller. In the long run, as the information highway makes physical proximity to urban services less important, many businesses will decentralize and disperse their activities, and cities, like companies, may be downsized. . . .

The greatest improvement in productivity, and the greatest change in work habits, will be brought about because of networking. The original use for the PC was to make it easier to create documents that we printed on paper and shared by passing around the printed output. The first PC networks allowed people to share printers and store files on central servers. Most of these early networks connected fewer than twenty computers together. As networks get larger, they are being connected to one another and to the Internet so that every user is able to communicate with everyone else . . .

Delivering electronic mail

Future advances in electronic mail will streamline lots of activities we may not even realize are inefficient. For example, think about how you pay bills. More often than not, a company prints out a bill on a piece of paper and puts it in an envelope that is physically carried to your house. You open the bill, check your records to see if the amount and details seem appropriate, write a check, and then try to time when you mail it back so that it arrives shortly before the due date. We're so used to this process we don't even think about how wasteful it is. . . .

Very soon you'll check your PC, wallet, or television set - the information appliance of your choice - for e-mail, including bills. . . .

Within a few years there will be hybrid communications systems. . . .

If you decided to change your will, you'd phone your lawyer, and she might say, "Let's take a quick look at that." She would then call your will up on her PC, and it would appear on your screen as well as hers . . . As she scrolls through the document, the two of you would discuss your needs. Then, if she was particularly adept, you might even watch her do the editing. However, if you wanted a hand in editing the document instead of just watching it run on your lawyer's computer, you could join in and work together. You would be able not only to talk to each other but also to see the same image on your computer screens.

Electronic mail and shared screens will eliminate the need for many meetings. Presentation meetings, called primarily so participants can listen and learn, can be replaced with e-mail messages with spreadsheets and other exhibits enclosed as attachments. When face-to-face meetings do take place, they will be more efficient because participants will already have exchanged background information by e-mail. . . .

Revamping corporate structures

Information technology will effect much more than the physical location and supervision of employees. The very nature of almost every business organization will have to be reexamined. This should include its structure and the balance between inside, full-time staff and outside consultants and firms. . . .

Corporate structures will evolve. E-mail is a powerful force for flattening the hierarchies common to large companies. If communications systems are good enough, companies don't need as many levels of management. Intermediaries in middle management, who once passed information up and down the chain of command, already aren't as important today as they once were . . .

As technology makes it easier for a business to find and collaborate with outside expertise, a huge and competitive market for consultants will arise. If you want someone to help design a piece of direct-response advertising, you'll ask a software application running on the information highway to list consultants with certain qualifications who are willing to work for no more than a certain rate and have an appropriate time period free . . . This system will become so inexpensive to use that you'll eventually rely on it to find baby-sitters and people to cut your lawn. If you're looking for work as an employee or contractor, the system will match you with potential employers and be able to send your resume electronically with the click of a button. . . .

Lots of companies will eventually be far smaller because using the information highway will make it easy to find and work with outside resources . . .

You won't have to go downtown

Geographic dispersion will affect much more than corporate structure. Many of today's major social problems have arisen because the population has been crowded into urban areas. The drawbacks of city life are obvious and substantial - traffic, cost of living, crime, and limited access to the outdoors, among others. The advantages of city life include access to work, services, education, entertainment, and friends. Over the past hundred years most of the population of the industrialized world has chosen to live in urban areas, after consciously or unconsciously balancing the pluses and minuses.

The information highway changes that balance. For those who have a connection to it, the highway will substantially reduce the drawbacks of living outside a big city. As a consultant or employee involved in a service-related field, you will be able to collaborate easily from virtually anywhere. As a consumer, you will be able to get advice - financial, legal, even some medical - without leaving your house. Flexibility is going to be increasingly important as everyone tries to balance family life with work life. You won't always have to travel to see friends and family or to play games. Cultural attractions will be available via the information highway, although I'm not suggesting that a Broadway or West End musical will be the same experience in your living room as it is in a New York or London theater. However, improvements in screen sizes and resolutions will enhance all video, including movies, in the home. Educational programming will be extensive. All of this will liberate those who would like to abandon city living.

The opening of the interstate highway system had a substantial effect on where in the United States people chose to settle. It made new suburbs accessible and contributed to the culture of the automobile. There will be significant implications for city planners, real estate developers, and school districts if the opening of the information highway also encourages people to move away from city centers. If large pools of talent disperse, companies will feel even more pressure to be creative about how to work with consultants and employees not located near their operations. This could set off a positive-feedback cycle, encouraging rural living.

Still a guess

If the population of a city were reduced by even 10 percent, the result would be a major difference in property values and wear and tear on transportation and other urban systems. If the average office worker in any major city stayed home one or two days a week, the decreases in gasoline consumption, air pollution, and traffic congestion would be significant. The net effect, however, is hard to foresee. If those who moved out of cities were mostly the affluent knowledge workers, the urban tax base would be reduced. This would aggravate the inner city's woes and encourage other affluent people to leave. But at the same time, the urban infrastructure might be less heavily loaded. Rents would fall, creating opportunities for a better standard of living for some of those remaining in the cities.

It will take decades to implement all the major changes, because most people remain comfortable with whatever they learn early and are reluctant to alter familiar patterns. However, new generations will bring new perspectives. Our children will grow up comfortable with the idea of working with information tools across distances. These tools will be as natural to them as a telephone or a ballpoint pen is to us. But technology isn't going to wait until people are ready for it. Within the next 10 years we will start to see substantial shifts in how and where we work, the companies we work for, and the places we choose to live. My advice is to try to find out as much as possible about the technology that will touch you. The more you know about it, the less disconcerting it will seem. . . .

From "The Road Ahead," by Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson. Copyright 1995 by William H. Gates III. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a division of Penguin Books USA Inc.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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