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Internet Futures: The Two ULTIMATE Internet Appliances

April 8th, 2000 - Chuck Flink (Feedback Appreciated!)

Let's take a look at where we're going.  As engineers, website builders and Internet entrepreneurs, we'd be more efficient in building our technology and industry if we had an idea of the type of Internet we expect to have in 2005.  If you're a lawyer trying to figure out how to modify the industry's behavior to ensure the maximum advantage for the consumer in the future, I'd think you'd want to read along also.  Certainly, if you're any type of active participant in the information revolution, this article is for you!

What I'm going to do is provide a suggestion of where the next "stable point" in our industry will be found.  I predict (boldly, as only fools like myself dare to) that this "plateau" in Internet development is achievable over the next 5 years.  I believe this point will represent a plateau in the evolution of the Internet:  innovation will become relatively incremental and slow for years after this plateau is reached.  Any product designed and built over the next few years is likely to slip silently into oblivion as the rush to this stable-point draws all of the Internet and electronic industry energy into a race to build:  the Two ULTIMATE Internet Appliances.

Following the same sloppy math that has folks talking about having already started the new millennium, and to be honest about the fact that this story has more to do with ideas than schedule, I'll give us to the end of 2005 to achieve our 5 year goal.  I'll provide pointers to the technical trends that will make the end-point not only possible, but inevitable.  The timing of this evolution will be highly dependent on decisions outlined at the end of the article.  But first, the vision itself is one of integrating the personal computer out of existence distinct from....  well, read on!

The Integrated Vision---

In our home today we have telephones, TVs, clock radios, CD players, boom-boxes and the occasional "home entertainment center".  Now imagine every room that has any one of these instead having a "screen" on the wall that performs the functions of them all.  In addition, the Screens can take dictation and function as a private secretary.  Each Screen is also your daily newspaper and all the magazines you could ever wish for.  It is your intercom and infant monitor.  It is your alarm clock and reminder service.  When not performing one of these functions (and sometimes while performing them) the "screen" is you window on the world of art and/or nature, presenting views of your favorite art-work or your favorite parks. 

The theme is to suppress the artifacts of the technology and emphasize the functions that enhance the esthetics of our lives!

Do away with distinct boxes called computers and printers.  Cut down on the "things" cluttering our lives and instead, help us focus on the ideas and communications that draw us together and lift us above the artifacts around us.  Cut down the clutter on our tables and desks, not the trees in our forests!  Help us manage our lives by giving us a simple, common interface to each other and to our world.    The heart and soul of entertainment is the communications of ideas; break down the barriers between learning and living by integrating our intellectual tools with entertainment.  Reduce the technological artifacts and maximize useful functionality by merging the gadgets into the minimum number of appliances with the maximum functionality.  Integrate the personal computer, telephone and television.

You've seen it in the movies!  You've read about it in science fiction.  Now get ready to have it in your home!  This is the Integrated Vision just a hand full of years away, if we make the right decisions!  Let's review the building blocks, consider the consequences and begin to decide the best way, as a society, to bring the advantages to our lives with the minimum of cost and disruption.

The 7 Contributing Technologies---

There are seven key technologies that are coming to the home over the next 5 years.  Taken together, reinforcing each other, the outcome is virtually inevitable.  The question is primarily in the timing and the details.  Politics and law, finance and competition can seriously impact the schedule and who the winners and losers are, but the integrated vision is the inevitable outcome of minimizing the cost and maximizing the performance of all the communications and entertainment devices described above.

1) Broadband Services:

We are about to witness an explosion in high-speed data service to the home.  We already have nearly 2 million homes subscribing to cable-modem services like RoadRunner and @HOMEDSL service will rapidly overlap the same market.  AT&T is making great strides in wireless broadband service to the home and there are various companies investing many billions to provide low-earth-orbit (LEO) two-way satellite coverage to the home.  All of these services are focusing on providing over an order-of-magnitude data-rate improvement, the result of which is a revolution in the entertainment value and overall utility of the Internet.  Remember how the television changed the lives of America during the 1950's.  This qualitative change in the value of the Internet, alone, will doubtlessly fuel much of the changes over the next half dozen years.

2) Digital Television:

The FCC has dictated that there will be a revolution in television over the next 5 years.  Huge sums of money have already been invested and much more is in the TV industry pipeline.  I have very serious doubts about the broadcast side of this business.  I believe the TV stations are going to be under unbelievable pressure from the broadband providers.  Frankly, there may be little reason to bother with actually broadcasting TV once the cable industry (let alone other broadband services) finish their build-out.  But the Digital Television revolution will contribute two very important components to the integrated vision described above:  a) an order-of-magnitude reduction in the cost of high-resolution displays (both projection systems and flat-panel screens);  b) very significant qualitative improvement in the visual and aural content of television productions, virtually merging the movie and TV "content" industries into a universal format for the production of entertainment.  This will produce an irresistible revenue stream from consumers that will not buy a computer today, but will spend many times as much over the course of a year in "entertainment" expenses. 

3) Voice Recognition and the GHz Chips:

The news about Intel and AMD offering chips with clock rates over 1 GHz is just the latest step in an accelerating race to create ever more powerful (and cheaper) microprocessors.  The question many ask is, "What do we need all that speed for?"  I'll tell you.  You'll need that speed and more and more memory too to have the next generation of computer interface:  all speaker, continuous-speech voice recognition.   The technology is waiting in the wings for the right price/performance ratio to be met.  Further, higher performance also improves compression and rendering of video and audio improving the quality and reducing the price of digital television delivered over broadband services.

4) Rewire-less and Wireless LANs and WANs:

We're already seeing the "phone-line network" cards appearing in the computer stores, offering 10 Megabit Ethernet performance over your household telephone wiring without disturbing telephone service.  Within a year or two you'll be seeing the same performance possible with chip-sets interfacing household power wiring.  You will literally connect your Internet appliance (e.g. "screen") to your household LAN by plugging it in.  All the remaining setup will be automatic.  If having to plug it in is too much trouble, e.g. keyboards, drawing pads, headsets (with microphones) for private hearing (conversations), or your personal ID for credit card purchases, the Bluetooth technology is well on the way to providing wireless LAN services.  Naturally, since this is using the same technology and protocols as the power-line LAN, it is trivially integrated with the "screens" we've been talking about.  In fact, all the screens in your house are interconnected with the wireless devices to form the household LAN.  This LAN is the basis for all the communications and entertainment delivered over the "screens" in the vision presented above.

A "gateway" provides access to broadband services and digital television reception.  Though there are many "screens" in a home, there only need be one gateway connecting to the broadband service point, be it DSL, Cable-Modem, Wireless Broadband or LEO Satellite.  The gateway device can be made redundant yielding high-reliability for small business locations and can in fact multiplex between multiple broadband services to make the access independent of failures of land-lines, service centers or other service provider infrastructure.

Since all communications and entertainment share the same protocol and security framework, your household, small business or departmental LAN will be accessible from anywhere via the Virtual Private Network (VPN) technology (IPsec, L2TP and PPTP) being fielded on the Internet today.  The gateway device functions as your firewall and VPN server allowing you to securely access you home or office regardless of where you are in the world.  Your cellular phone or PDA or laptop will functionally be on you (virtual) private WAN whenever you authorize secure access.

5) Personal and Network Security:

And talking about security!  A half dozen technologies are waiting in the wings to provide you with Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) based encryption and authentication services.  It will not take a genius to use these technologies either.  You will have an ID on your watch or in your shirt pocket that uses Bluetooth or similar technology to identify you to the nearest "screen" and authenticate whatever level of service you desire.  Of course, higher levels of authorization will require unlocking via voice prints or pass phrases depending on the level.

Rather than the "flat" Internet of today, the future Internet will merely be the interconnecting fabric for a hierarchy of VPNs defining specialized services and access to personal and corporate "spaces".  The same wireless token that authorizes access to your home LAN and your cellular phone/PDA will also authorize access to your business, bank records, credit, etc. via these VPNs.

In fact, the Internet will essentially be treated legally like the public streets:  virtually free, open to all, policed and G-rated.  The encrypted VPNs riding over this public conduit will be the basis for secure commerce as well as political, personal and moral privacy.  The poorest family will be able to afford to allow their children to roam freely in the public Internet without expense or fear.  Likewise, the privacy and liberty rights of all individuals will be protected by technology and law, yet isolated from the public eye.

6) ISP/ASP Evolution and Virtual PCs:

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) of today will make very little (if anything) from providing access to the future public Internet.  The profits will result from the value-add that comes from providing access to private spaces via VPNs, both those directly supported and managed by the ISP as a service and those independently owned but riding through the ISP's infrastructure.  In addition, the ISP will evolve to also be Application Service Providers (ASPs), hosting websites and application tools for remote use by individuals, families and companies, worldwide.

With the growth of broadband access from virtually anywhere, why own a PC?  Store your data in a private space rented from an ASP and access it via your personal, family or corporate VPN from wherever you are.  Of course these "virtual PCs" will not be for everyone.  Some will want laptops or PDAs and the independence of maintaining their own storage and applications at their office or home.  But many, especially those who only occasionally require the use of application software, will follow the "terminal services" or virtual PC model just as readily as 40 million users now keep their email via HotMail and many more via other services (Yahoo, Netscape, etc.)

7) Embedded Software, Internet Appliances, etc.

Perhaps you've noticed that the above vision makes little or no mention of boxes called PCs or of operating systems such as Windows or Linux.  In fact, notice that the theme of the entire vision was to make artifacts of the technology disappear while emphasizing the desired services to the user.  Details of the technology certainly interest us as engineers and maybe as historians or hobbyist, but as consumers these are the very distractions that convince us that technology is more complexity than it is worth!

Our objective as engineers of this revolution is to so integrate the software and hardware as to make the very concept of the "computer" disappear.  We don't see folks going to the store asking for the technical details of their refrigerators, stoves and other appliances.  Likewise, there should be little or no interest on the consumer's part about the internal workings of the Internet Appliances they buy.

We're just beginning to see the next wave in the evolution of the software industry:  embedded software.  So far, the general purpose processor and the general purpose operating system has been king.  Because of the relatively small quantities involved and the rapid rate of change in protocols, applications, user interfaces, etc. it has been cheaper to build on relatively general purpose platforms.  We are beginning to see cell phones, micro-gateways and the like built on embedded versions of Linux, Windows, and specialized OSes.  Technology like Bluetooth takes this to the extreme of embedding entire protocol stacks, authentication/encryption services and complex frequency-hopping packet radio management into a chip with a target price of $5 by 2005.  Add to this voice recognition as the user interface and there is little justification for talking about operating systems and computer architectures outside of the server farms run by the ASPs.

The Two ULTIMATE Internet Appliances---

So, to recap, we have a sketch of an universal or ultimate architecture that merges communications and entertainment, home and business, private and public, local and remote.  It offers an architectural plateau which, once reached, can be replicated over and over again in ever cheaper and smaller technology with little impact on user training, requiring little or no new vocabulary to expand indefinitely, and with minimal artifact and maximal functionality.  There are basically only two types of components that form the basis of the client-side of this architecture:

  • Screens

Screens supply the human interface.  They hang on the wall like a big LCD or plasma display, sit on a desktop or in the corner of the room like a TV.  They can be similar to a projection TV.  You can buy one or many, big or small depending upon your budget.  They have these features in common:  large, fast color display controlled by an embedded microprocessor; integrated speakers and microphone; self-configuring LAN connection (via power-line, phone-line or wireless technologies described above); embedded windowing OS managing the display, communications interfaces, etc.; options for voice-recognition and external devices via Bluetooth (e.g. headsets, keyboards, mice/track-balls, drawing pads, cameras, etc.)

The use of a screen as a personal computer is not possible in/of itself.  There is no local disk storage, no backups, no floppies, or any other moving parts.  The only software is that necessary to support the functioning of the Screen as the integrated terminal that it is.  The windows manager functions much like any browser, e.g. IE5.  There is a 'screen top' and it might well be 'active' in the Windows 98 sense, but frankly, who cares!  The user does not need to interact with a keyboard and mouse unless he/she wishes to.  The system is entirely manageable via voice command.

The screen can display one or more windows dedicated to live TV feeds or can present full-screen Digital Television format shows.  Any format video feed arrives at the screen via the LAN connection in MPEG or similar compressed multimedia data stream.  The microprocessor and associated video hardware is optimized to efficiently decode and encode multimedia streams presented via the LAN or attached devices (cameras, etc.)

  • Gateways

Gateways supply the translation between broadband service and the household / office LAN.  If the household / area LAN is based on the preferred power-line technology described above, simply plugging in the Gateway initiates the sequence in which the device determines the other devices in the LAN and establishes if it is the first gateway device for this LAN.  Their only other "must connect" interface is the connection to the broadband service.  Depending on your provider, this is either DSL over twisted pair, Cable-TV feed, or the connection from some form of wireless broadband (satellite or fixed-wireless).  The home / office owner can optionally choose redundant gateway devices or gateways that simultaneously connect to more than one broadband service.

Also optional is connections to legacy printers and devices such as floppy drives, backup tapes, CD-burners/readers, etc.  Most new versions of these devices will connect wirelessly via Bluetooth or other interfaces to Screens.

The Gateways house the local storage cache and optional local hard disk storage (for customers not wanting to out-source storage to ASPs.)  This local file cache provides services to the Screens throughout the house, including proxy-caching of web pages, etc.  Gateways are firewalls and VPN gateways, protecting the household / office LAN from the public Internet available (directly or indirectly) on the broadband media.

Gateways used in Cable-TV based broadband networks also house the Cable-Modem for Internet access and the "tuners" necessary to translate legacy TV signals to MPEG format feeds to local screens.  This service is enabled whenever a user at a Screen requests a video feed from one of the TV channels available on the cable TV system.  For DSL based networks, the conversion to MPEG will be off-loaded to the broadband service provider's facilities where converters will often be shared between subscribers interested in viewing the same channel.  Radio stations will be converted to digital (multimedia stream) format either at the station by the station owner or at the broadband service provider.  Essentially all the functions of a modern "digital cable" cable-box will be performed as a function of the Gateway under remote control from Screens throughout the home, office, department, etc.

The Key Steps and/or Missteps---

There are a number of technical objectives that need to be overcome to reach our objective, and there are many ways in which progress can be delayed and the whole effort derailed.  I'll summarize a few of the immediate technical "bumps in the road" and a major legal/political one:

  1. I'm sure the first objection presented by the engineers reading this has to do with bandwidth.  Certainly, we want 100 Megabit rates on the LAN, but the technologies I've listed (phone-line, power-line and Bluetooth wireless LANs) do not currently operate at this rate.  In the past year we've seen order-of-magnitude increases in the rates available with phone-line LANs.  I certainly believe the gap between 10 and 100 Megabits per second can be closed through one or another mechanism over the course of the next several years.  My point:  the architecture and operational model presented above is the key idea.  The technical details can be resolved over time by new technology.  Compromises in performance or expandability can adjust the time frame for implementation to accommodate meeting the 2005 "goal". 
  2. There is currently no standard for passing Digital Television over the Cable-TV infrastructure.  I don't pretend to solve this for cable-box builders and broadcasters.  I do, however, propose bypassing the problem:  Don't broadcast Digital Television (HDTV) as a Radio Frequency carrier in the conventional sense over the cable infrastructure.  Convert the Digital Television video feed to a compressed multimedia data stream and pass it over the same technology used for high-speed Internet access.  I realize HDTV bandwidth is very significantly greater than conventional video feeds and if converted into MPEG or similar compressed formats would still require more bandwidth than available in one conventional TV channel (as used by Cable-Modems today).  I'd envision sending the HDTV feeds down additional channels in parallel with the standard Cable-Modem channel.  Needless to say, a household with several Screens would need a Gateway with several 'tuners' and 'cable modems' in order to support several different HDTV and conventional TV feeds simultaneously.
  3. Of the 4 broadband technologies listed, only Cable-TV would be able to support the total bandwidth to the home this Integrated Vision would require for receiving multiple HDTV feeds simultaneously.  The other three mediums could include more conventional 'tuners' and antennas under the control of the Gateway.  The tuners built into the gateway could then receive live broadcasts from the air, both HDTV and conventional TV, convert them to MPEG (or whatever) and distribute them to Screens throughout the home / office via the LAN.
  4. This vision requires a tremendous amount of integration across traditional business / market boundaries over the next few years.  Given that we've just seen major litigation about an Operating System vendor interfering with a browser vendor in a monopolistic way, I can imagine there could be lots of "turf wars" blocking this integration.  On the other hand, if the parties take a very progressive, customer focused view and cooperate toward achieving the objective, there will be claims of collusion between what should be competitors and someone will claim being injured, virtually whatever the outcome.  I hope we can focus on what is good for society and proceed with minimum litigation.

Impact on our Lives---

If we were to focus on the end-point, achieving the integrated vision outlined above, very many of the artifacts that make our modern lives so complicated would disappear.  There would be no distinction between TV, entertainment center and computer.  In fact, the home computer would virtually disappear.  In its place would be the ultimate communications device, providing universal service to all citizens. 

I'm reminded of the motivation behind allowing the Bell System monopoly in the early part of the 20th century:  universal service.  The objective was to make the price so low and the interface so simple and standard that virtually anyone, anywhere could afford to have a phone.  I look forward to the day when every household has a Screen and Gateway.  The finances are not the barrier.  Virtually every home today has a TV, even if they don't have a phone!  If we simply choose to follow the near inevitable scenario suggested above, the cost of including Internet, video-phone and computer services within the cost of the TV will be far less than the cost of each of the independent devices that populate our homes today.

We already know our children know how to operate our TVs and VCRs better than we do, and unfortunately spend more hours in front of them than we'd like.  Imagine if the very same device provided them access to the classroom when they are sick, access to the library when they are doing homework, access to their friends when they are lonely and access to their work when they become adults.  And this same access is available from virtually anywhere they may travel.  Computer literate?  Do we ask if today's children are TV literate?  Every child will be an expert at using the key device necessary to function effectively in the 21st century, and they'll learn it while watching Sesame Street.  Now, that's impact on our lives!

Every individual would have equal access to the world's knowledge and computing resources, paid for by the very thirst for entertainment that seems to be so much of a distraction for today's youth.

Impact on our Industry---

In the long term, the impact on our productivity will be striking.  If the 90's represent an explosion of productivity due to the computer finally becoming sufficiently widely used, imagine how much more productive the workers raised under this model would be?  Access to the functionality provided by computer systems would be as natural as watching TV or using the telephone are to our children today.

In the short term, there could be major dislocations.  TV manufacturers will have to compete very directly with computer manufacturers to produce Screens and Gateways, the bailiwick of neither.  There will very likely be a rash of mergers as companies struggle to bring together the right mix of know-how and manufacturing resources.  Cable-box and cable-modems will cease to exist as independent devices, absorbed as interface boards plugged into Gateways like yet another TV-tuner board for a PC.  The many manufacturers of SOHO routers and firewalls will find themselves either making Gateways or out of business.  The software industry will be transformed from one selling copies of programs for every desktop to developers who sell software to large-scale service providers (ASPs), renting time on server farms to customers only when those customers actually need to use the software.  There is much more to say about this potential dislocations in the industry, but the long term efficiencies that result from sharing hardware and standardizing service interfaces far out-weigh any short term costs.  The end-point is not in doubt, only the schedule by which we reach it and the amount of waste we produce in the meantime.

We have the potential of making a great leap, or the potential of wasting years arguing over intermediate steps with no long term significance.  I hope we have the wisdom to focus, focus, focus on the end-point, and achieve it.

Life on the Plateau---

In the 30 short years I've been in the computer industry, I've seen tremendous changes in the technology.  For much of those 30 years, the promise of the technology was not fulfilled.  Only in the last decade, with standardization around the PC and the simplification of the World Wide Web, has the promised efficiencies begun to materialize into improved productivity.  I've often drawn an analogy between the computer and automobile industry.  The first 20 years of the computer industry was like the first 20 years after the invention of the automobile:  many entrepreneurs building short-lived companies and unreliable, incompatible products.  Eventually Henry Ford standardized production methods, components, and the Model T became the prototype for generations of cars thereafter.  Microsoft, Intel, and the many lesser players in the PC revolution created the Model T of the computer industry, the "Wintel" PC, largely standardizing the interfaces and forming the prototype for what's to follow.

In the 1950's the automobile became the "birthright" of every citizen.  It became the "glue" that held industry together.  Every teenager learned to drive and was ready to literally grab the wheels of industry once they graduated.  I'm struck by the parallels between Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System and the World Wide Web.  Both came along when the "vehicles" to drive upon them were beginning to be put into the hands of the masses.  And both marked an explosion in the productivity of society resulting in a blossoming of the economy.

Following the 50's, the automotive revolution reached a plateau.  Cars were practically interchangeable.  Change from year to year was more cosmetic than anything else.  In the automotive world we've largely lived on a "plateau" for most of the last 40 years.  What change occurred was gradual and easily absorbed by the consumer.  The car became a standard tool of 20th century living, no more mysterious than a hammer or plough were to our ancestors 100 years earlier.  I believe we're approaching such a plateau in the computer industry.

I believe the Screens and Gateways vision I've outlined above provides a fair model of the plateau we're coming to in the computer revolution.  We'll no longer expect people to learn how to "look under the hood and tweak the magneto".  We'll absorb the computer into our daily lives as an integration of the television and the newspaper, the postal service and the telephone.

And we'll enter the 21st Century on a new plateau, an intellectual plateau in which communications and computation and information manipulation will be as commonplace for the ordinary citizen of coming decades as "cruising" was for the teenagers of 50's!  As the car made physical travel around our county virtually effortless compared to horse and buggy days, the integrated information age will simplify our intellectual lives and allow us to finally return to the simpler life we all seek.

The Future Beyond---

I'm excited!  I'm eager!  I want to see us get there ASAP and at as low a price possible! That's why I'm publishing this article.  I want every citizen to see what the future can hold, if we make the right decisions.  I want every citizen to ask his cable service provider, his computer vendor, his TV salesman, his telephone company and his Congressman to make it happen!

If you too feel this five year plan should be the goal of our industry, write me with the links to the technologies, companies, academics and political leaders that can help make it happen.  Contribute your energy and inspiration to the cause!  Oh, it will happen in time without vision and direction.  It is an obvious and inevitable evolution of the technology.  But if we simply "let it happen", we'll be in for years of wasteful turf wars among the industrial leaders as each works to benefit their bottom line rather than the society as a whole.  I don't want to see more "browser" and "operating system" wars!  If we can open enough eyes to the vision of where we're going, the obsolete and intermediate artifacts that are mere steps to the future will fade away into the insignificance they deserve!  

Select Feedback & Follow-up:  (Provide your own Feedback!)

1) "wleighton" (Monday, April 17, 2000) comments:

you're not the only one thinking this way...

And Bill provides a link to the Forbes 5/1/00 article:  Soup Up Your Phone Jack by Peter Huber.

Right On!  Excellent article.  I'm honored to be in the company of a thinker like Peter.  (Of course, I'm usually a couple of weeks behind my target publication date, not weeks ahead!  I guess that's one of the lessons I have to learn to make money at this!)

We shouldn't be surprised, however, that there are lots of people thinking along these lines.  I did say the Integrated Vision was already described in the movies and was an obvious and inevitable evolution of the technology!  Peter's reporting on the recent progress in the technology and encouraging people to do what he did in his home, build a home LAN similar to the one I have here.  Peter reports on 3 things coming together to form the home LAN, I report on 7.  I'm more oriented toward providing links to the technology for entrepreneurs to follow.

Peter's focus is on what is neat now, mine on what is coming in the next 5 years!  We both point out the turmoil this will cause in the industry, but I'm not sure Peter sees the great advantage merging entertainment and the Internet has in closing the "digital divide" and educating our children for the 21st century.  See the 6th feedback below.

 2) "mikey" (Monday, April 17, 2000) says:

Interesting article ............ But !

I know far tooooooo many people that won't buy into the gameboy mentality ( palm pilots ) , Nor will they ever think of giving up the freedom of their custom built computers !!!!!!!!!!! Nor will they buy into such junk as webTV , Xbox or for that matter any other ' Controlled Device ' !!!!
 
To the average user yes some of this sounds awesome , to the rest of us that can see through the hype and  are concerned !
 
Don't get me wrong still like your article !

I think another way to express Mikey's opinion would be: "The only way you'll get my computer from me is to pry it out of my cold, dead hand!"  Let me assure you, I'm not trying to take anything away from you, I'm trying to give more to others who have no appreciation or interest in technology!  Here's my reply:

Thanks, Mikey....
 
You're certainly right that there are LOTS of people that will want a computer of their own.  There are LOTS of people still interested in ham radio, customized cars, super high-fi systems, etc.  Heck, I live in North Carolina and the NASCAR business around there is wild!
 
The vast majority, however, only want cars that get them from place to place reliably.  I use to be a ham radio operator and as a teenager put together a lot of my own transceivers, etc.  But the hobbyists don't move the industry.  If so, we'd still be putting together custom hi-fi systems from components ordered from catalogs!  Instead, the vast majority of folks simply go to Circuit City (or the like) and pick out the TV or boom box of their choice.... often at a fraction of the price the old component systems would have cost.
 
Incidentally, I was surprised a couple of months back when I went out to buy a new TV for my 83 yr old mom.  She wanted it to have a "brown" wood-grain case.  I went to 6 stores!  Unless I was prepared to buy a real-wood cabinet home entertainment system, everything was black plastic except for a few off-white models.
 
Yes, it meant less choice for my mom, but the price was great.  After decorating it with the pictures of the grand-children, she didn't mind it was black plastic!  ....what was once a luxury, with profit margins funding lots of customization options, is now a commodity with low price being the first 3 requirements!
 
The commoditization of the PC and it's ultimate integration may seem to some of us (including me) a terrible lack of appreciation of the technology and a limiting of personal choice, but there are more important goals for the society as a whole to consider.
 
My personal goal is to see that every kid has access to a safe Internet and the educational benefits that can result from learning how to use what will be the day-to-day TOOLS of the 21st century:  email, word processing, website building, etc.  Every one of these kids, even the ones in the ghettos, have moms and dads willing (and eager) to buy a TV and a boom-box.  If we evolve an entertainment integrated Internet, as described in my article, the kids will have their educational opportunities as a side effect of their parents opting for entertainment.
 
Well, hey..... it's better than state lotteries funding education, isn't it!?
 
-Chuck

 

3) "Charles Marcus Durrett" (Monday, April 17, 2000) reminds me:

Hmm, familiar.   I started a company 5 years ago http://webbook.com/ to
build such devices.  Even got a patent on it
http://www.patents.ibm.com/details?&pn=US05964830 .

Chuck

I hope you're not planning on making your millions by suing everyone who tries to implement this vision.  If you had the idea years ago, then what have you been doing to bring it to market?  I'm not going to get into patent law reform but simply remind everyone of the objective of the patent system:  to promote investment in progress by protecting the entrepreneur willing to go forth and risk all to bring an idea to market!

Some patent holders (I'm sure Mr. Durrett is not one of them!) treat the Patent System as a cross between fishing and trapping.  They stake out an idea and attempt to lure license fees from any entrepreneurs who consider bringing the concept to market.  If they don't get a bite "up front" or some entrepreneur backs into the idea from another direction, these patent holders take the entrepreneur to court and take away his/her profits after the fact.  Clearly, this defeats the "public good" objective of Patent Law and favors a Nation of Lawyers rather than a Nation of Laws.  It is incumbent on a patent holder to do all he/she can to bring an idea to fruition as soon as possible.  Sometimes this involves publicizing your ideas and seeking partnerships to bring them to market.  Sharing is not just a joke kindergarten teachers play on us.  Sometimes half-a-loaf is better than ripping the guts out of your competition, especially if the gut-ripping denies children of advantages by delay or cost increases.

I personally will die relatively poor in money and rich in ideas.  In fact, I give my ideas away very freely.  After all, what brains I have are "on loan from God" (to quote someone I only occasionally agree with otherwise).  What matters is progress, not who's idea it was....  after all, they're God's!  Ever consider the origins of the word "inspiration"?

 

4) Old curmudgeon and good friend "Mel Haas" says:

DSL is going nowhere.  In each installation there are several different, incompatible interface and provisioning standards (hundreds of permutations and combinations by the time it reaches the installer and customer).   There just isn't enough bandwidth and quality in the local copper subscriber loop.
....
The ISDN story all over again.  Nothing gets sold without enthusiasm and feeling for the customer's needs.  Without salesmanship, leadership, and vision, there isn't a chance of making DSL work in the marketplace.
....

I'm being unfair to Mel, deleting many comments of a positive nature that supports my theme, but I wanted to focus on the DSL question for a moment.  There was a recent couple of articles on DSL and Cable Modem solutions, the last being a reaction to positive remarks about DSL: Cable enthusiasts pipe up.  The fascinating part is the variability of results from the many Talk Back respondents.  Clearly, DSL and Cable are the pits somewhere and they are close to nirvana elsewhere, but never equal anywhere.  Remember, I said DSL would "overlap" the same market as Cable Modems.  I didn't say overtake!  In fact, later on I pointed out the overall bandwidth limitations of DSL relative to the new digital fiber/cable infrastructure used to carry digital cable and the Internet over cable modem services.  But then I showed that even this fits within the Screen / Gateway model by allowing the Gateway to merge DSL traffic with TV and HDTV signals received from broadcast stations (satellite or conventional).

There is a huge market growing for DSL and lots of defenders.  I think it fits the small-business model better than cable.  Businesses are likely to have large phone bills already.  Adding broadband to the bills makes sense.  Homeowners who don't have cable TV may also fall into this category.  For most residential customers, however, the TV cable is an ubiquitous as the telephone wire.  The price advantage of cable favors it in this market today; the bandwidth advantage may favor it in the future.

The whole point of referring to Broadband Services was to avoid debating which technology had the lead.  The key point is that there are at least 3 or 4 competing technologies that will provide sufficient bandwidth to qualitatively change the way the Internet is used.

 

5) "Tony Schiavone" (Saturday, April 22, 2000) suggested I missed a Broadband option:

....Another technology for broadband that if it works could revolutionize the market is being done by a company called Media Fusion (www.mediafusionllc.net) in Dallas.  Apparently they have figured out how to use the power lines for high speed data transfer. ....

Tony also suggested fiber to the home is not out of the question and likely the ultimate solution for bandwidth if we're serious about finding ultimate anything.  I'll take this opportunity to drop another link for two-way satellite service: broadband access from space.  This article has some estimates of the market sizes for DSL, Cable and satellite over the next few years.

6) various correspondents seemed to miss my point about education and entertainment:

Lots of politicians have decried the "digital divide" and have proposed various expensive and wasteful efforts to put laptops (or the Internet) in the hands of grammar school children.  Meanwhile, the parents of the majority of the children that suffer from the "digital divide" are spending inappropriate percentages of their income (very understandably) on entertainment to distract themselves from their poverty.  Wouldn't it be great if the cheapest and most popular mechanism for entertainment was also the very technology needed to close the "digital divide"?

I think we're coming to a point in time where the needs of society and the efficiencies of technology coincide.  Rather than "backing into it", I'm trying to encourage it's quick adoption!

There simply is no way to more quickly and cheaply a) wire schools, b) wire ghettos, c) raise Information Technology literate children, and d) give every child a (virtual) PC than to integrate entertainment and education around the same few technical building blocks.  Even the least computer literate parent wants a TV and a phone.  Why wait blindly for the inevitable integration?  Let's look ahead and intelligently work together toward this common goal! Let's do it before more children fall into the digital divide!

If you agree with me, pass the URL for this article onto a friend in education, politics or technology.  As always, feedback very welcome!

 
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