Not everyone remembers the aspirational “information superhighway” prophesied and planned for in earnest in the ’80s by most prominent tech and telecom companies. The idea was that we’d all be linked together through a combination of your television and PC for movies on demand, interactive print, video games, and home shopping. The leading technologists of the day believed that streaming high-fidelity video and graphics was the key application of networked computing and that only TV and telecom broadband had the required piping to make it happen.
Bill Gates famously predicted in the original version of his 1995 book The Road Ahead that the information superhighway was the path to networked computing and that it would only take off when high-fidelity graphics/video streaming was possible in the early 2000s.
Around the same time, a small startup led by Marc Andreessen released Netscape, the world’s first internet browser for the World Wide Web. The Netscape team believed that networked computing didn’t need high-fidelity graphics or streaming video to be useful - that the internet was ready to change the way people connect to one another with simple text, graphics, and tools that would let developers experiment with novel web applications.
One year later, Microsoft released the Internet Explorer browser and Bill Gates substantially revised The Road Ahead to focus on the Internet revolution that was at hand. The browser wars began and the information superhighway was forgotten as the internet quickly changed everything about how we connect, work, live, and play.
The best laid plans of futurists and engineers…flopped like the Betamax. Networked computing happened. The information superhighway did not. Because while its proponents were waiting for the information superhighway to be feasible, the World Wide Web and the Internet happened instead.
They sat on their heels waiting for high-fidelity entertainment use cases while in the interim, the Internet, with low-fidelity graphics, became available immediately to everyone, everywhere, for everything. The early adopters were prescient enough to jump on the web wagon early, thereby gaining a considerable advantage in technology, ease of commerce, and communication efficiency. And many businesses that lagged in adoption wound up bankrupt.
Why this sojourn into sepia-toned ’net-and-web tech history? An analogous dynamic is playing out right now regarding the metaverse, an evolution of the internet that combines synchronous communications with multiplayer gaming for interactive real-time community- and content-based engagement within digital worlds.
Today, the average technologist is under the misapprehension that significant world-building and widespread use of the metaverse is still five to 10 years away. Why? Because the common consensus is that it requires high-fidelity 3D graphics, 6G internet, and virtual reality.
If we’re to learn anything from our failed foray into the information superhighway, we need to realize that the real-time interactive internet – AKA the metaverse – is happening right now. It does not need high-fidelity 3D graphics, futuristic internet, or VR. And it is not being driven by the big tech companies (which shall remain nameless here), where “all the users already are.”
The amorphous shape of the future “metaverse” that technologists and big tech are waiting for is just like that “information superhighway” idea of yesteryear that assumed that the primary purpose of computer networking was high-fidelity entertainment.
Is the information superhighway fallacy repeating itself? Is the primary purpose of the Metaverse entertainment? Does it need high fidelity 3D graphics pixel streaming over high broadband internet that won’t be available for years and mass market VR adoption? Or will people find value in a real-time connection to a new form of community, which they can access from their existing hardware with their existing internet connection? Will engineers wait for the nebulous metaverse of the future before they start innovating? Or is the next generation of tech unicorns using available real-time APIs and SDKs to experimentally build metaverse applications right now?
Yes, evolving the look and feel of the original internet into high-fidelity graphics and streaming entertainment took decades and more money, time, and effort than I could possibly conceptualize. And there, the foretellers were half right. It’s taken a full 40 years to evolve the look and feel of online games like CompuServe’s “Islands of Kesmai” with its scrolling text (ASCII graphics) to the likes of today’s hyper-realistic “Red Dead Redemption 2” online mode.
The footings were there, even at the beginning of the Internet. All the elements necessary to build what we see today–and what awaits us tomorrow, could and would all be built upon that early substrate. Not only developed by engineers but co-created with the masses, a recursive feedback loop that proves the internet’s own point.
The footings of the real-time interactive internet are enabling the co-creation of the early metaverse by its users. World by world, it expands. Some metaverse companies, such as Topia.io, already provide innovators with a highly accessible metaverse experience with developer tools so that users and companies can experiment with building interconnected virtual worlds, real-time interactive experiences, and novel metaverse applications and plug-ins...
That future metaverse of our wildest imagination is only a few trillion collective clicks and happy evolutionary accidents away.
Consider that before the "information superhighway" existed, Amazon started in 1994. Netflix started in 1997. Had these businesses waited until enough bandwidth existed for high fidelity graphics, they would have missed out on $50B in market cap creation between them, and likely we'd be celebrating other household names in their respective categories.
That same first mover advantage exists right now in the real-time internet. Companies like Meta and Microsoft are trying to build the information superhighway again, while companies like Topia are giving experience designers, developers, and organizations the tools to become the next Netflix, Amazon, and eBays of the real-time internet with a loyal following long before virtual reality adoption makes that a viable mass market technology. And Topia's technology will also power the VR and extended reality future - so innovators can get started building real-time applications and have a decade head start on everyone waiting for VR, then bring their users seamlessly into extended reality.
If you're reading this blog and you know that real-time internet will disrupt the internet as we know it, you've found your Netscape. Topia's patented peer-to-peer technology, scalable state server, and interactive credentialing system means you'll be partnered with the platform that can offer you the most secure, most flexible, and lowest cost real-time interactive communication technology that has ever existed. Start building that business you've been dreaming about and no matter where the puck goes from here, you'll be able to skate to it.