My least favorite question is "what's the next big thing in technology?" for a lot of reasons, from the excessive importance put on "big things" (whatever that means) to the small matter that I still can't predict the future, despite many years of fruitless practice.
What I usually say is that the industry I'm watching most closely these days is energy, not IT, and that not only do I not expect a new "big thing" in IT anytime soon, but we're still just figuring out how to absorb the genuinely revolutionary advances of the 1990s. It's hard to look around at the Web landscape today, from cloud computing to social networking, and see anything that wasn't at least sketched out a decade ago.
With that in mind, I happened to be reading a 15-year-old interview in Wired between Kevin Kelly and George Gilder, and it struck me as profound today as it was then. (Recall that this is before the Web!). Gilder has always been something of a hero to me, and it was delight to be reminded why. Choice quotes:
Gilder anticipating "Free" and, while he's at it, YouTube:
In every industrial revolution, some key factor of production is drastically reduced in cost. Relative to the previous cost to achieve that function, the new factor is virtually free. Physical force in the industrial revolution became virtually free compared to its expense when it derived from animal muscle power and human muscle power. Suddenly you could do things you could not afford to do before. You could make a factory work 24 hours a day churning out products in a way that was just incomprehensible before the industrial era. It really did mean that physical force became virtually free in a sense. The whole economy had to reorganize itself to exploit this physical force. You had to "waste" the power of the steam engine and its derivatives in order to prevail, whether in war or in peace.
Over the last 30 years, we've seen transistors (or switching power) move from being expensive, crafted vacuum tubes to being virtually free. So today, the prime rule of thrift in business is "waste transistors." We "waste" them to correct our spelling, to play solitaire, to do anything. As a matter of fact, you've got to waste transistors in order to succeed in business these days.
My thesis is that bandwidth is going to be virtually free in the next era in the same way that transistors are in this era. It doesn't mean there won't be expensive technologies associated with the exploitation of bandwidth - just as there are expensive computers employing transistors; but it does mean that people will have to use this bandwidth, they'll have to waste bandwidth rather than economize on bandwidth. The wasters of bandwidth will win rather than the people who are developing exquisite new compression tools and all these other devices designed to exploit some limited bandwidth.
Kelly asks "What is the fabric of the network?"
Photons. Electronics are not good for communications. Photons - optical computing - are. What makes photons so great for communication is they don't interfere with each other. They collide and pass on unaffected. You can send them two-way, and they are not subject to electromagnetic disruption. Many signals can flow through one fiber. But the fact that photons don't affect each other means they are cumbersome for computing, since you want interactions in computing. You need to have the charges affect one another - that's the heart of computing. The heart of the transistor function is that you can control a bigger force with a smaller force. But photons don't control each other. So for computing functions I still think that electronics will prevail; but for communications, photonics will prevail.