Retired Rear Admiral Tobin is the Executive Director of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) Education Foundation. This article was taken from his presentation as a featured speaker at Connecting Technology (CT) Spring 2001.
Where I've Been
Having now worked the military and the civilian side of the IT aisle, I enjoy sharing some things that I have learned along the way and my short-term view for the future. I emphasize short-term, for I have great distrust of anybody who claims to have a technology crystal ball that sees beyond the next five years. I am reminded of many smart people, as recently as seven years ago saying that the Internet will not be a big factor in the future of IT [information technology]. I'll tell you a little about my background and current work. Then I'll give you my perspective on where we have been in the IT world and where we are headed in the interconnecting world that lies ahead.
As a former Surface Warfare Officer, I've spent a great deal of my professional life at sea with a focus on engineering. The Navy sent me to Postgraduate School to study computers in 1969. They said, "Trust us, computers are going to be big—very big." Even though I did earn my master's degree, I did not really get interested in the field until 1980 when I bought my first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 Model 1. From then on I became an unconstrained geek and my hobby became a part of my Navy work and eventually my Navy persona. I put a great strain on my marriage by owning an Osborne 1, a Commodore 20 and a Commodore 64, a Kaypro 10 and several IBM PC [personal computer] clones. My focus has been and continues to be empowerment of end users and—getting more processing power for the money.
My "hands on a PC" reputation landed me a job as the Director of Navy Information Resources, with a second hat covering policy for embedded tactical systems. This was my first tour as an Admiral and I thought my prayers had been answered. However, the mainframe culture that awaited considered me their worst nightmare. Ironically, this tour that I thought would be such a natural was, in fact, the most stressful and difficult of my five Flag Officer assignments. When I tell you I was in Subic Bay during the Gulf War, at the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and the U.S. departure from the Philippines—you get an idea how rough it was being the Navy computer guy.
It was a time of diminishing budgets and the entire culture of the IT world was changing. The old procurement rules made no sense when buying a $3000 PC with a useful life of less than two years. The good old days of long-term paternal contracts including life cycle maintenance gave way to short-term contracts where duration was defined in months rather than years. The competition was intense with battles being waged on the legal and political fronts as well as on the technical and economic frontiers.
Although I'm pleased that I was correct in foreseeing the new directions and perhaps accelerating the process a bit, I now realize how difficult those times were.
Every assignment I've had since then had a strong IT component so I have been able to keep up with what I consider to be a miracle of technological change, that fortunately continues to be led by our nation. Also my wife who is a librarian at the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) is now a more fervent computer user than I am. My splurging for new stuff is no longer marriage threatening but rather is considered insightful technology refreshment.
Where I Am Now
As for my current work, I am completing my third year as the Executive Director of the AFCEA Educational Foundation. AFCEA is the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and I hope most of you have attended one of the 30 or more conferences we hold each year. Our biggest event, TechNet is held in Washington, D.C., every June and we partner with the U.S. Naval Institute for our fastest growing conference—the Western Conference, which is held every January in San Diego. Our Foundation raises money for technical scholarships and we run a small school teaching three to five day niche courses in C4I related subjects. It has been great work for me since I stay connected with the military, corporate and academic worlds.
There are many things I'd like to tell you, but I will focus on how IT, the Internet and exponentially growing connectivity have changed the way we fight, do business and entertain ourselves. A great deal has happened already, but I believe the best is yet to come.
What Lies Ahead
Historically, connectivity has always been a challenging for sailors who by definition are employed in separated units in areas of no physical communications infrastructure. Proficiency with signal flags could often spell the difference between victory and defeat in the days of Admiral Nelson. The evolution from signal flags to lights to HF radio to UHF to SATCOMS and finally digital communications is an interesting story, but today I will talk about digital developments. The Navy actually had digital connectivity between ships in the late 1960's, but at 300 bits per second, not a lot of data was being passed. Looking back at the early days of the Navy Tactical Data System (NTDS) and Link 11, one can only marvel at what was achieved by innovative design and elegant machine language programming.
Connectivity and speed are crucial to the success of network systems and I would add memory and storage as two additional enablers. Also if you want many people to play, which is vital in a network, systems better be relatively inexpensive. It is all coming together now and I would like to talk about two wildly different subjects that share a common thread—the Naval Message System and Napster.
Just as the U.S. Postal System is being overtaken by the number of e-mails sent in the civilian world, the Navy General Service Message system is also being overtaken by e-mail. The yearly number of e-mails exceeded the number of letters eight years ago and is now the dominant way we communicate. What is interesting is that this was not planned. It just happened when all the critical technologies were developed, engineered and most importantly made available at low cost. Some of these technologies were more capable PCs, Internet connectivity, acoustic modems and now T1/T3 [T1 carrier, a dedicated telephone connection supporting data rates of 1.544Mbits per second], DSL [digital subscriber line] and cable modems.
Several articles in Naval journals last year pointed out that four to six e-mails can be exchanged before even the highest precedence Naval message can be processed. We are literally fighting our wars with e-mails. But it was not planned that way. It just happened because our computer literate young people already knew the process and how to use the tools. E-mails to and from home are also a big morale factor in fleet operations and there is an unrelenting press for greater bandwidth from numerous fronts.
Traditionally two of the biggest bandwidth users are Intelligence and METOC (Meteorology and Oceanography). We are doing all right on the larger ships due to available antenna real estate and a stable platform. Smaller ship broadband connectivity is still a challenging problem. A small, high gain, omni-directional antenna will be a breakthrough product for some company one of these days.
Turning to the commercial world there is another phenomena that just happened when the right technologies emerged. In this case the key was data compression. It has been acknowledged that there would be great demand for transferring images and sound once the networks were fast enough or (and this is a big or) a means was found to compress images and sound to make the digital packages smaller. This technology would enable, at the high end—high definition television and, at the low end—the Internet transfer of images and audio recordings. Digital cameras, video and still, JPEG compression and low cost software tools have allowed the general public to flood the Internet with images and are transforming the photography industry, and giving each of us new ways to chronicle and archive our lives. Although this is a favorite subject of mine, I would like to move on to MP3 and Napster.
Napster fascinates me because of the great transformation it has spontaneously created in the music industry, and because it has grown with incredible speed. There was always a great desire to transfer and compile audio files. Two things were needed with existing Internet speeds—a good compression program and a means to play the compressed files. The breakthrough products were MP3 compression tools and solid-state MP3 players.
An average compact disc (CD) audio track is about 30MB in length. It is virtually impossible to transfer these files with a 56KB acoustic modem and very time consuming even on fast systems. MP3, an algorithm developed in Germany in 1992, achieves a ten to one compression. Now that 30MB file is only 3MB. It is still slow on a 56KB modem but moves very nicely on T1/T3, cable modems or DSL. The first MP3 solid-state player, the Diamond Rio, used 32MB of memory and could store about 40 minutes of music depending on the quality of the MP3 files—compare this with a media smart card and an old hard drive. With no moving parts and low power consumption this is ideal for the high-energy person who likes to listen to music while doing other things. It seems we have a few of these kinds of people around. You might ask, Why can't you put MP3 files on a CD and have 10 hours of music on one CD? Short answer—you can. Until recently, there have not been many players other than a computer that can play MP3 files.
The breakthrough software for computer playing is a program called Winamp--shareware that can be found at Winamp.com. The new stand alone MP3 players that range from desktop systems to a portable walkman are starting to move onto the market now and have been available on the Web for a year. The big designers for car systems like, Aiwa, Sony and Kenwood are also starting to include an MP3 capability. Why has this happened so slowly? It appears the industry is trying to slow down the inevitable and squeeze a few more years out of the old paradigm. Competition will soon break this logjam because the big names don't want to be too late breaking into the market. This brings us to Napster.
At Terabyte In Every Neighborhood
Any product that has 60 million registered users must have something to offer. I said that number right—60 million. By comparison AOL [America Online], which has been around for at least 12 years has 29 million users. What Napster does is provide a clearinghouse for anybody wanting to exchange MP3 files. A clever search engine lets you search the files of all the Napster users logged on to a regional server.
On a normal day you will be looking into the computers of 10 thousand users with several terabytes [2 to the 40th power (1,099,511,627,776) bytes. This is approximately 1 trillion bytes] of storage. That is a ton of storage! We are talking IRS and Social Security System Administration size storage. As recently as five years ago that amount of online storage was not available to anybody. Now it is available to everybody. The issues of copyrights and user charges and pirating are valid and need to be worked out, but those who say this technology is going away haven't been paying attention.
So there really is a terabyte of storage in your neighborhood already. Actually we expect 100GB (gigabyte) drives to be standard on desktops in the next year, so all it would take would be 10 power users on your block to have a terabyte in your neighborhood. IBM has recently announced a breakthrough that will lead to an inexpensive 400GB PC drive in two years—so the trend continues.
Final Words of Wisdom
My primary message today is beware of anybody who can tell you where technology will take us five years from now. There are lots of e-mail programs and "Napsters" out there today ready for a spontaneous breakout, and we have to be flexible and fast on our feet to take advantage. Beware of development cycles in IT technology that exceed three years. I once oversaw a large computer development that took eight years. You can imagine what we had at the end of the program—an expensive, large, heavy, power hungry useless box that nobody wanted.
The good news is that these developments are enablers for the entire world. We will be better connected, better informed. If we have to, we will fight better but I'm a firm believer that good communications can solve most of our problems before they get out of control. It is an exciting new world and as [Commodore] Grace Hopper said many times we are still in the Model T era.
Connectivity through networks will be the core of our future systems. Whether it is Network Centric Warfare or a super Napster, IT connectivity will enrich and dominate our lives. The challenge will be to keep up and that is why you are here today [attending CT Spring 2001]. I hope you are enjoying this great technology change as much as I am. I turned 60 years old this year and have no intention of dropping out of the revolution—for the best is yet to come.