A State of the Convergence Rap by
(This is a transcript of an actual live presentation made at
the Multimedia Expo in San Jose, California, October, 1993.)
Is this on?
What will be the technology of the
future mass media? The answer is simple and it is certain. It is DIGITAL.
If you crack open a microwave oven,
a computer, a clock, a videogame console, a smart telephone, a TV set,
a fax machine, an automobile, or an electronic piano, you will find
inside some silicon chips. In all sorts of machines, digital technology
is replacing gears, cogs, tubes, strings, springs, and things.
This has been called the Great Convergence.
Many different things are becoming the same thing as they are reimplemented
with digital technology. If you look at it strictly in terms of the
technology, the convergence is coming along nicely. But if you look
at it in terms of business and society, it is not converging, it is
wildly diverging, unable to keep up with the technology, resulting in
the Great Confusion.
So, what's the difference between
a television set and a telephone? The answer was once obvious. It is
getting less clear, because they are made of the same stuff.
What is the difference between a cable
television company and a telephone company? That is also getting less
and less clear as the cable companies announce their intention to carry
telephone traffic, while the telephone companies hope to deliver video.
Telephone companies have gone from
being the most stable of companies to endangered species as the pressure
of digital technology tears down the traditional boundaries that once
differentiated industries and protected them from each other.
Once a big happy monopoly, the phone
companies are now under attack. The weapons of their enemies are transistors,
lasers, and optical fibers, which, ironically, were all invented by
the phone company.
Having experience in the technology
doesn't necessarily equip you for the confusion. No one knows this stuff
better than the computer industry. For example, IBM no longer seems
to know what business they are in or in what direction their future
lies. What chance then does a company have that doesn't understand what
And so we find ourselves in a period
of Great Confusion. Out of this will come a new mass medium, which will
either absorb or significantly transform everything that came before.
That's what I think anyway.
We are a long way from the point where
it is obvious what the new medium is going to be, though you might not
know that from what you hear at this conference.
In the computer industry, the way
you establish a standard is by convincing enough people that you are
right. If you can get the right consultants, editors, competitors, and
even some customers to agree that you are right, then it turns out that
you are, even if your really aren't. If you can turn enough influential
early adopters, then you can establish yourself without giving the bulk
of the market a choice. Microsoft has been particularly successful at
The computer industry has been eager
to press an early advantage, declaring that the New Medium is a simple
amalgam of PC and CD-ROM. They have been hyping it for years, but it
isn't taking off.
The reason is simple: The Mass Market
doesn't respond the same way as the Data Processing market. The Mass
Market isn't interested in support for mission critical applications.
It has a more important concern: It wants value.
This is first semester stuff, but
it seems to have completely eluded the computer-centric new media folks.
Walk up to an exhibitor on the trade show floor, and ask him if his
wares are "good enough." Chances are he'll say "Yes!
So it should come as no surprise therefore
that Hollywood is interested in these dreams that stuff is made of.
They can see that this business is mostly just hype, and nowhere do
they do hype better than in the entertainment capital of the world!
There is also an art crowd that has
grown up around this stuff. Producing multimedia can be fun, and is
much easier to get funded than a motion picture. The problem is that
there seem to be more people who want to make it than there are consumers
who want to buy it.
And ever since Hollywood figured out
which side its bread is buttered on in home video, it is receptive to
any notion which says they can sell their products in yet another format
and get more money for free.
There is a lot of hype around the
whole Hollywood meets Silicon Valley thing. Most of it is mercifully
forgotten after the press conference, but some of it has been great,
like the digital film production techniques which were pioneered at
Industrial Light & Magic.
But while movie special effects continue
to get better, CD-ROM is a rapidly aging 10-year old technology, which
at the present rate of technological evolution is very old indeed. It
is an evolutionary dead end.
The future is in networks.
What will be the technology of the
future communications networks? We know with absolute certainty that
it is DIGITAL. Someday, all telephone networks will be digital. The
telephone companies know that this is true, they know that they must
do it to remain competitive, they know how to build it. Technology is
easy. Comedy is hard.
The part they are unsure of is how
to make money at it. They are under attack in exactly the same way they
attacked the telegraph companies a century ago. They know they have
to adapt, but they don't know what to become, and even if they did,
regulatory restrictions may constrict them. So we have seen what had
once been very respectable companies doing outrageous things like speculating
in videogames, or conducting an expensive advertising campaign to sell
products that don't exist.
The thing that makes telecommunications
so wonderful is also what makes it so difficult. It is only really useful
when everyone is hooked up. Full deployment of a new technology is extremely
expensive. And because technology advances so quickly, there is a significant
risk that the wrong technology will be used. By definition, it is large
Unlike multimedia, a phone company
can't sell 40,000 units of something and then declare that they've established
a billion dollar industry. They have to do it for real and the stakes
are very high.
It is frightening. Fail to act: extinction.
Move, you have a chance. But take the wrong step: extinction.
It is like we're at the end of the
Corporate Cretaceous Period. The big dinosaur companies somehow know
that they lack the genetic material to survive in the next age, so they
are madly mating with each other, hoping to find the assets and intelligence
to continue to dominate in the next age.
And so we've been witnessing the Dance
of the Dinosaurs, where they go pairing off in unexpected ways, each
hoping that the other knows where it's going. It's like a crazy high
stakes game of follow the loser.
This state of chaos cannot exist for
long. We will eventually reach the point where it is obvious what the
New Medium is, and when that happens, we will see a rapid transition
to a new state of stability. In the process we will see some companies
fail, some industries diminish, and amazing wonderful things seeming
to come out of nowhere.
The new medium will be the largest
open system in the world. It will reach everyone. It will be inherently
secure. It will transform the Global Village into a community. It will
make money for a lot of people.
A new medium that is less than that will not dispel the confusion.