Consider the automobile.

The automobile was the first of the three great empowering technologies of this century. It gave each of us personal control over our transportation, just as the telephone gave us control over spoken communication.

The automobile and personal computer – the third empowering technology – have many parallels, so the history of the former may provide insight into the future of the latter.

Early cars weren’t very useful. Slow, unreliable, hard to drive, and self-maintained, they were a hobbyist’s device, inferior to the biomechanical technology — the horse and buggy — they eventually replaced.

Early PCs were for hobbyists, too, and of little practical value. Slow, unreliable, hard to use and self-maintained, PCs were inferior to … well, to everything.

Cars needed roads to be useful: first, paved roads in cities; later the interstate highway system. PCs needed networks: LANs and WANs at first, and more recently the Internet. Both personally empowering technologies require a shared, flexible infrastructure.

The automobile’s user interface wasn’t standardized at first, nor was it simple and intuitive. Even though standardization of the interface, as well as innovations such as the electronic starter and automatic transmission, made cars easier to drive, driver’s education is still required.

Likewise the PC, but as with the car, we’ve experienced a trade-off: As cars and PCs became easier to use, they became harder to maintain. Most of us now pay professionals to maintain them for us.

As the automobile attained near-ubiquity, manufacturers resorted to styling gimmicks, such as tail-fins, for differentiation. The PC is just entering this phase: The iMac’s styling gained more attention than its capabilities.

As car manufacturers ran out of new ideas, competition appeared from an unexpected quarter: Japan. American manufacturers had to compete on reliability, performance, and efficiency. The PC’s future history includes this step. The PC hasn’t gained any important new functionality in years, and Windows isn’t its only unreliable product. If the history of the automobile carries over, PC hardware and software will become more reliable over the next several years. Reliability will come both from new competitors, with Linux as Toyota, and through improvements to the brands we’re buying now.

Automotive history yields one other prediction. The “experts” hate the automobile. It’s wasteful, creating urban sprawl and traffic jams while costing more than mass transit. In theory, we should all prefer the alternatives, yet we don’t. Why?

The automobile is a personally empowering technology, in contrast to all of the alternatives available to us. For the same reason, all of the experts predicting the end of the PC era are wrong. Some of the misnamed “thin-client” technologies will succeed, but only in the way that mass transit has succeeded – as an adjunct, not as a replacement.

Happy New Year

With this issue, we’re about to start the last year of the 20th century and the first year of the “oughts,” as in “double-ought”, “ought-one”, and so on through ought-nine. As I pointed out two years ago, decades are eponymous, but centuries are not: The boundaries of decades and centuries aren’t aligned.

I’m also beginning my fifth year of writing this, my weekly love affair with and group-therapy session about the impossible job of leading an information systems organization.

We’re neither entering the new millennium nor finishing the old one. Assuming you define millennium as “two thousand years after the birth of Christ,” you missed the party. Herod was alive when Christ was born, and died no later than the year we now reckon as 4 BC. We’ve also changed our calendar system twice. Nobody actually knows exactly when the new millennium started, but the event was several years ago.

Two years ago I predicted we’d all just shrug and schedule a year-long party to avoid offending anyone. At best I’ll have been partially right, because of all the companies that are imprisoning critical staff over the New Year in case of Y2K problems.

I’m claiming victory in advance on another Y2K score, though: Two years ago I predicted we’d all muddle through. This isn’t, however, a victory over the doomsayers. Their predictions of Y2K disaster weren’t wrong.

They were, in science fiction writer David Brin’s term, self-preventing prophesies. We should thank, rather than scorn, the prophets.

Regrettably and ungratefully, we won’t.