New news. (online communications) (Column)
by Robert Bixby
The many worlds of telecommunications are becoming one world. Over time, we are seeing fewer differences among the various methods of communication--less division, more synergy.
You can send faxes using your personal communicator and your cellular telephone, for example. The person receiving the fax might also be using a cellular telephone, a modem, a laptop, and OCR software to turn the fax into a computer text file. If I want to talk to my son in California, I need only send a message on his beeper, and he will call me back within minutes. My friend in Ann Arbor, Michigan, doesn't even have an answering machine, but I can reach her via the Internet anytime.
Everything is becoming attached to everything else. It is becoming a small (not to mention claustrophobic) world.
Many of the biggest stories on Wall Street have to do with telecommunications. Viacom purchases Paramount. Time Life merges with Warner Communications to form megamonolith Time Warner. Bell Atlantic attempts to merge with TCI in an effort to "wire the world" (a deal that eventually falls through, perhaps in part because of FCC attempts to keep cable prices low).
A few things are virtually assured. Most of the nation will soon be "wired" with fiber optics. Optical transmissions so dramatically broaden the bandwidth that your cable access will include things like movies on demand, a virtually unlimited range of entertainment and information services, and infomercials galore. But what is of interest to computer users is that fiber-optic cable will also provide a more efficient and useful means of distributing software (television programs, music, and movies are now called software as well, by the way). You'll be able to download the latest virtual-reality game in seconds, play it as often as you like on a pay-per-play basis, and then be done with it. You'll never have to worry about installation disks or hardware compatibility because the bytes will come down the cable and the computer hardware will be as standardized as televisions.
But beyond these basic predictions, any vision we can form of the future is probably wrong. The concepts of entertainment are certain to go through severe paradigm shifts over the coming years. Movies as we know them may cease to exist. They may come to resemble something like Access Software's Under a killing Moon, in which you can experience the movie from the inside, following leads and red herrings at will, or just explore an alien environment in realtime--an alien environment populated by big-name stars living out a plot devised by the likes of Elmore Leonard or Danielle Steel. If you're into music, you can jam elements of your favorite music videos (or even your favorite musicians) into a production created just for yourself. If you're into current events, join a salon discussing issues of concern.
One thing that is definitely not assured at this point is whether you will be able to afford access. Should the government provide assistance or tax credits for people who can't afford access otherwise? It's easy to imagine a future world without paper dictionaries or encyclopedias (or even libraries) in which cable access is a child's only means to conduct research or study for school. To paraphrase Ken Kesey, you're either on the net or off the net. If you're off the net, a world of opportunities and experiences might be closed to you.
This column will be about the online experience present and future. I'm counting on you to write to me and let me know your thoughts, your ideas, and your hopes. What do you think the future of online will hold? Does the government have a role to play in standardizing or providing access to the online world? (Vice President Al Gore seems to think so.) Is there any validity to the argument that the government, by its very presence, quashes innovation and creativity? And if so, how will this manifest itself when it comes to the so-called information superhighway?
But don't stop there. I'm also on the lookout for exciting things that are online now: discussion groups, databases, shareware, and so on. If you've downloaded a file that's particularly useful and you want to tell the world about it or if you've picked up a telecommunications program that does it all for you, let me know so I can tell others.
I'm looking for innovative ways to make use of what's available now, too. How are you using the powers of online communications to meet people, make money, and solve problems? There may be thousands of people waiting to hear how you do it so they can give it a try, too.
If you have an idea for a subject for this column, drop me a line. And if you have a question about telecommunications, this is the place to ask.