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Closing the Digital Divide with an Integrated Vision Initiative

April 29th, 2000 - Chuck Flink (Feedback Appreciated!)

On April 8th and with updates on the 22nd I posted an article suggesting an Internet Future that involves the serious integration of the TV and other electronic entertainment media with the computer and Internet.  As a vision, it's not very revolutionary, having been in the movies and science fiction nearly as long as these technologies have existed.  What is significant is that we're on the verge of making this real in our day-to-day lives.  And this can have revolutionary impact on the Information Technology industry and the broader society.

In this vision, the distinct concepts of our PC age, e.g. "computer" and "operating system", become so totally integrated in the concept of an entertainment appliance that most people cease to think about them.  Much as "engine displacement" and "drive shaft torque" are pointless details to today's car buyer (replaced by "performance" if at all) these internal computer details will cease to be relevant.  Everything will have a chip in it as a matter of course.  What will be important in the customer's mind will be: "What can I do with it?"  Only the hobbyists, academics, engineers and technicians will care about "clock speeds", "registry keys" and "protocols".  

This is also essentially "not news" until we start looking at the consequences to our industry and society, and the many ways in which the vision can be derailed for selfish, narrow-minded purposes.  The potential is for a plateau in the evolution of Information Technology where it becomes as universal as the telephone, as commonplace as the TV and as important in the minds of the majority as the automobile.  I've previously drawn the analogy between the automobile of the 1950's (and the birth of the Interstate highway system) and the current state of our computer industry (and the Internet.)  

This vision has the potential of creating a new plateau of equality in our society that no current educational, poverty or racial policy can achieve.  This vision has the potential to close the Digital Divide, bringing children from the inner-city and the suburbs to true equal access to an opportunity for an informed, educated, productive life.  This is a societal goal that should override many an argument over market turf, "traditional markets" and redefine the concept of competition and market dominance in our industry.  It is a forward looking vision that we need to work together toward.

Besides vast simplification of the user interface and the indirect education of the populace on how to use it, the result can well be a closing of the Digital Divide that we've seen open up between the rich and poor in our society.  It can put the information revolution in the homes of children who would never have access unless it is integrated with the entertainment media that their parents consider more valuable than education. 

I've felt so strongly about the potential for this technology that I've written a couple of letters to.... shutter.... politicians and lawyers suggesting how they could get what they want while actually helping society!  (I told you I was full of novel thoughts!  In this case I'm not quite sure if this is novel as in "new" or as in "fiction", but we'll see if the lawyers and politicians can actually be moved.)  Here are copies of the letters for your consideration.  Please feel free to take the themes and write your own senators, representative and presidential candidate.  The first letter was aimed at the politicians, the second at the DoJ lawyers.  Yes, I know I'm a wide-eyed dreamer to think they would listen to a positive solution to the Microsoft case, but it is Spring and with life blooming all around the nation, one does feel hope for even.... gasp.... lawyers.

Dear politician:

I'm semi-retired after 30 years in the computer and communications R&D (Navy and Bell Labs).  I volunteer occasionally as a tutor at my wife's public school and I'm shocked at the impact of the "digital divide" on our youth and fearful of where it will lead society.  Here in NC, we've wasted time, talent and money trying to "wire" schools for the Internet only to see the technology become obsolete in a matter of a very few years.... and never become good enough to have the impact it should.  My suggestion:

Technology is on the verge of merging TV, Radio, Magazines, Phones, etc around PCs connected with broadband services.  If done right, the cheapest way to have a TV will be to have one with an integral PC providing Internet, telephone, and much more.  The economics of multiple-use guarantees this:  having one "wire" to the home that does all is cheaper than having one for TV, one for Internet, one for alarm systems, one for etc. (And the same economy that works for "wires" applies to processors, memory, screens, etc.)  The integration is clearly cheaper, in the long run.

Thus, when an underprivileged parent buys a TV purely for entertainment, that parent's children will have in their home the "virtual PC" and Internet access the need to be educated in 21st century technology.... virtually at no extra cost!

The same will apply to the TV in the classroom.... and the child sick at home will be able to participate in class via the TV at home and the one in his/her class.  The public library will be right there on the same TV the child learned to use while watching Sesame Street!

THIS should be our “digital divide” elimination process!  Let’s not spend public money fielding obsolete technologies; spend it on moving to the point where every child has access by virtue of it coming through the most basic entertainment services his/her parents are sure to invest in!

The government's HDTV initiative and various Internet and Broadband initiatives multiply in value and complement each other through this process of integration.

Read in detail how this is developing in:  Internet Futures: The Two ULTIMATE Internet Appliances”  There are many who agree with the "integrated vision" described in this article.

For this to happen, however, industry must aggressively begin integrating technology rather than having market turf wars over, for example, where the TV ends and the PC begins (to show only one instance of cross-market stress.)

The DoJ case against Microsoft will be mistakenly used by many industrialists as an excuse NOT to integrate, with the result being prices and complexity that keeps this technology out of the hands of the poor while benefiting the bottom line of a lot of narrow-focus industries.

Example:  the cable-box industry will certainly oppose being absorbed into the PC industry, the TV makers will fear losing their market to computer monitor makers, the broadcast industry will resist having their shows delivered over broadband Internet (possibly recorded and re-played on demand) even more than they've argued about the shows being carried real-time by cable providers.   …especially when they see a market leader being ‘taken down’ (in the public perception) for having integrated a browser and an operating system!

Please provide LEADERSHIP to ensure that the industry builds toward a major milestone for society rather than decade after decade of wasteful turf wars.

I'd suggest an "integrated vision" initiative through the FCC and the National Bureau of Standards under the leadership of the Whitehouse science/technology office to encourage industries to build toward this long-term vision of the cheapest/easiest information appliance for the home/office... and do it for our children!

Please pass this on to <insert your favorite presidential candidate> and any others that would like to see the "Digital Divide" narrowed!

Now, to put some spin on the same issue, this time aimed at the Department of Justice:

Please consider this....  I'd rather see us do something positive to force these companies to close the "digital divide" and bring better technology to the marketplace.  May I suggest you look at: http://www.activewin.com/editorials/charles_flink/ink/18.shtml

There is the real potential for avoiding 10 -20 years of turf wars and, instead, reaching a plateau in the technology where true benefits to the consumer (and the children of the underprivileged) can be achieved in just FIVE years!

Let's not waste more time and money trying to convince anyone that your side (whatever side) is right.  Fact is, the DoJ should reclaim part of the $4 Billion that AOL paid for Netscape, given that the intellectual property on which the Netscape Navigator was based properly belonged to the citizens of the US who paid for the development of the Mosaic browser, the training ground for the developers of Navigator and the prototype (effectively) from which it grew.

Further, Sun's success was based on the large investment DARPA made in Berkeley UNIX, the basis of the Sun operating systems for over 20 years.  There is a LOT of guilt to go around.

If however, we take down MS, Sun, AOL and Oracle the chilling impact on the technology market will put us back at least a decade.  (I'm sure there are good examples in the history of Oracle of monopolistic practices.... how else did they succeed in crushing so many good DBMS competitors over the years?)

Let's instead focus on a POSITIVE remedy!  We need a major initiative by government to TAKE US TO THE NEXT LEVEL, where Microsoft's Windows will be effectively obsolete and so many of the "boundaries" that lead to complexity and in-fighting are erased.  TVs, PCs, browsers, operating systems, etc. are all artifacts of the history of technology and do not represent any fundamental boundaries in the technology that will last long.

The "Integrated Vision" has been shown in our movies for years; it has been written about by many authors; it is long overdue and owed to our children.  The TV, telephone, radio, movies, print and Internet are CERTAINLY coming together in an integrated, ubiquitous platform, just as surely as the automobile transitioned from a "rich person's product" to a commodity forming the basis of the progress of the 1950's.  All the technical barriers are falling, as described in the referenced article. 

What we badly need is to ensure that the narrow-minded "my company first" mentality driving all the companies I've listed above "gets out of the way" of the progress.  That progress is certain to eventually close the digital divide and level the playing field better than ANY court-ordered solution.

I suggest the DoJ go to Sun, Oracle, AOL, Microsoft and others and propose we spend the next 5 years establishing a set of consensus standard and interfaces that will guarantee competition while moving the technology to a plateau beyond the artifacts of the past mistakes by all involved.  Rather than forcing a bloody war between these big players, one which will ultimately require the DoJ to return and after-the-fact say who played fair and not,
use this opportunity to form a government sponsored, National Bureau of Standards administered, integration and standardization effort.... don't just require Microsoft to publish it's APIs!  Let's get together and decide upon a standard set of APIs capable of allowing ALL these companies to compete on a level field!

Turn this "negative" thing into a POSITIVE step in overcoming the barriers to technological innovation and integration that are delaying the progress we all KNOW we can make!

You have invested so very much, directly and indirectly, in this effort to achieve "justice" with regard to Microsoft.  Don't waste your effort in petty "restrictions" on one company when there are many doing similar things to benefit selfishly themselves, or on the formation of two monopolistic companies where there was one!

Take a POSITIVE step.... close the "Digital Divide" with an Integrated Vision Initiative!   Thanks for your consideration.

Now before you flame me, please understand that I do not like inviting the government into our business.  I'm writing the above letters because, frankly, government has already stepped in and is in serious danger of doing more harm than good.  I'm writing to help our industry find a positive way out of the dilemma of government oversight.  I hope we in the industry will wear our "citizen" hats for a while and realize what tremendous good we could do for our children and our society to encouraging an Integrated Vision Initiative to start closing the digital divide.  It is the "right" thing to do technically as well.  let's get to it!  Write your boss.... it's a business opportunity for heaven's sake!  Write your politicians.... it's potentially a grand win-win situation with great photo-ops for them!  Write your ISP, your cable company, your long distance provider telling them you'll drop their service if they act in a reactionary way to this opportunity.... embrace the future!

Caution:  obviously, with 15 years in the government and 15 years in AT&T (and 16 years of Catholic education) I'm far more a true believer and idealist than successful business guru!  I'm convinced this is in the long-term interest of all involved, but harbor no doubts that the "cliff" rising up to this "plateau" is strewn with many a loose bolder that can break loose and flatten the adventurous entrepreneur that makes a misstep.  All the more reason to cooperate in this endeavor instead of waiting for the bodies to start to pile up!  ....embrace the future!  Support this initiative.

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