Convergence of Technologies

In The 21st Century

Vic Napier

 

Introduction

One of my earliest memories as a young child was watching a TV show called ďBurkes Law.ĒIn it, Gene Berry played a millionaire police investigator who solved murder mysteries every week.Being a millionaire in those days carried with it an obligation to have cool gadgets.The gadget that struck my post toddler mind the most strongly was the telephone that Burke used from his chauffeur driven Rolls Royce.

Having a telephone in oneís car was such a challenge to my concept of what was possible that I remember a lengthy and spirited discussion among my pre school peers as to whether such a thing were even possible.Most of our fathers worked at Marshall Space Flight Center so we eventually got the word, that yes, telephones in cars were quite possible, but only for the fabulously rich.That made Amos Burkes phone even cooler.

Mobile communications has moved from an ostentatious show of wealth in the 60ís, to an expensive accouterment of questionable value in the 80ís, to a ubiquitous communications device in the 21st century. Most technologies that we now take for granted followed this path.They started out huge, expensive and of questionable practicality and became small cheap and indispensable for life in a technologically oriented and dependant world.

Voice Over Internet Protocol

Something Iíve been interested in for a long time is whatís now called Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VOIP.Every year or so since the early 1990ís Iíve tested the waters of internet voice and video conferencing to get an idea of how well the technology is moving along. Over the years VOIP has made steady progress.It started as a technical challenge embraced by hard-core net geeks and offered little in terms of practical use or pragmatic application, and have progressed to the point that companies like Vonage are attempting to ride this new technology into the new century.

VOIP is now being marketed on the basis of low rates for long distance service, particularly international calls.But that wonít last long.Vonage and other companies offering VOIP telephone service are in a position to offer a lot more than low long distance rates.The real promise of VOIP is unifying all data communications under one carrier technology.

Converging Technologies

Right now we use various technologies to move different kinds of data.Landline phones, cell phones, cable and broadcast TV, FM and AM radio, all use different kinds of technologies to deliver content to customers.Each of these types of information is distributed by different companies, using different technologies with separate but interconnected infrastructures.Earths communication system is ludicrously redundant and inefficient. But that is about to change.There are a number of technology trends that will be landing in the consumer marketplace at about the same time.They are mutually supporting and all will take advantage of dramatic changes in the way that data is moved from place to place.The world of 2007 is going to be much different from the one we are now living in.

Smart Phones

A new generation of cellular phone is hitting the market now, and itís implications are enormous.Imagine a cell phone that doubles as a mobile computer.Itís here.This yearí smart phones are packing 300 MHz processors and 20 megs of RAM.That may not sound like much, but itís enough to run mini versions of Microsoft Office that are fully compatible with their full featured brethren.The phones come with infrared ports and synchronization software to share information with any other device that will listen.†††

Media Optimized Notebook Computers

Notebook computers sporting screens as wide as 19 inches are now entering the market.Not only are the screens bigger, but most importantly they are optimized for viewing movies at a 16:9 ratio, the standard for theatrical productions.No more black bars on the top and bottom of the viewable screen.And the screens themselves are getting better.LED technology Ė Light Emitting Diode Ė is giving way to OLED, Organic Light Emitting Diode.Pictures will be brighter, better and more detailed than ever before.

Speakers/Microphones/Cameras Integrated into Headgear

Bluetooth technology is being used to integrate the sensory aspects of cell phones into hats and glasses that are nearest to our human sensory organs.Put on a pair of these glasses, hang your cell phone on your hip and others will be able to see what you are looking at while you grocery shop and discuss your selections with you before you buy.Head Up Display Ė projecting an image on the lenses of the glasses is technically possible, and needs only the economy of large scale production to be introduced to the consumer market.

Personal Video Players

Apple recently introduced an iPod with an LCD that will play video.Right now itís not much of a threat to the existing line of much larger personal video players that have been available for several years, but be prepared for the screens to get larger, and possibly projectors and cameras to be built into iPod size gadgets.

The Road to Wireless

Telephone companies re the lumbering dinosaurs of telecommunications.In order to stay in business they must constantly repair and maintain tens of thousands of miles of wire, switching equipment, communications towers, and satellite systems.†† This is a complex and expensive system that grew out of the telephone technologies of the 1950ís and 60ís.Itís a business model that had run itís course years ago, but keeps being reinvented to serve the needs of new developments like cellular telephony, but itís days are clearly numbered.

An unmistakable sign of the end of the traditional telephone systems is the fact that it has begun to rely on influencing state and federal legislatures to act against competing companies and technologies.When companies and industries begin challenging their competitors court and suing their own customers for using new technologies, (as the recording industry is doing),there can be do doubt that things have become so disrupted that the end of something is near, and the beginning of something else has started.

Municipal WiFi

After a controversial start wireless internet technology is coming to a number of cities across the United States. City government is beginning to see the value of using internet technology to connect a wide range of people and devices to one another.We arenít just talking about city employees sending emails to one another, or distance learning becoming available to municipal residents with a wireless card, although those are the most obvious early applications.

Automating utility monitoring is the immediate reason for creating to city wide WiFi systems, but it wonít stop there.It costs an incredible amount of money to send people with clipboards to every house and apartment in a city to simply write down numbers and bring them back to an office where clerks enter those numbers into an accounting program.Itís much cheaper and easier to record utility use with remote sensors and wireless transmissions.

But that is just the beginning.Computerized monitoring via wireless sensors of soil humidity leads to automatic watering done only when itís needed.No more paying for watering baseball fields that donít really need it, or for that matter, parts of baseball fields that donít need it.††

WiFi creates an opportunity for increased police and fire communication.In the event of natural disaster when cell phones donít work, VOIP phones still will.Municipal WiFi also opens the door to increased observation and centralized management of police and fire activities in progress.

Finally, democratizing surveillance by creating a way for citizens to monitor the activities of the police can become a reality.†††

Business Alliances

Business alliances are being built around the growing certainty of technologies converging with one another and resulting in a single infrastructure that will unify all communications under one transmission standard Ė the wireless internet.A number of companies are offering new ways to deliver digital content to customers wirelessly.Sirius and XM Radio are demonstrating that satellites can be used as a means to transmit digital content to customers wherever they are, eliminating the dependence on ďhot spots,Ē expensive wires and unsightly towers.Disney and Apple signed a joint venture in October paving the way for digitizing full-length movies for delivery via the internet.A quietly increasing trend is for FM radio stations to stream their content over the internet to anyone who wishes to listen.

It always seemed to me that one of the major promises of the internet would be the ability to connect people both visually and audio, with one another.The ability to communicate in that kind of a rich environment would open up all kinds of new opportunities and businesses.

Think of it Ė with a bandwidth wide enough to support high definition video the transmission of movies into our homes would be no different from watching a rental from Blockbuster, except without the drive to the store, standing in line, scheduling returns to avoid late fees, and the ever present chance of losing or damaging the expensive tape.What about things like counseling, in which a therapist could be separated by half a world form a client, yet still have the presence and immediacy of face-to-face sessions?And if it could be done for counseling, it could be done for teaching as well.That kind of capability is on the horizon right now.

And that kind of open-ended opportunity means the end of some industries that have dominated the economic landscape for decades and the ascendancy of others that are yet to be named or heard of.

Expanding Applications

Right now a lot of attention is centered on movies downloaded right into your TV from the internet, but thatís just unimaginative dreaming coming from the big movie houses.I can imagine all sorts of applications and capabilities.The promise of high bandwidth VOIP goes much father than simply making phone calls all over the world cheaply, especially when one considers the capabilities of smart phone technologies now hitting the consumer market.

Not only will people be able to receive audio over the net, but they will also be able to transmit video and data from their smart phones.That means that anyone can produce their own electronic newspapers, TV and radio shows anywhere and any time.

The first images of recent tragic bombings in London were delivered to the world not by established news stations, but by people taking quick pics and short videos with their cell phones and emailing them to friends, family, and yes, news sites.And that wasnít an organized attempt to distribute news; it was ordinary people using mobile internet nodes Ė cell phones Ė they routinely carried on their bodies.The era of ďwearable computersĒ is here.

There will be terrorist attacks in the future, and the next one may occur when people have access to high-speed wireless internet that will be capable of carrying lengthy high quality live video images.In addition, the ability to edit and add commentary will be inherent in the telephone instead of a desktop or even laptop computer.The tools to do what now require bulky computers will be small enough to carry in a cell phone.The only concessions to size will be dictated not by the needs of electronics, but by our huge and clumsy fingers.Everyone will be a reporter, and the world will have the ability to witness significant news events as they happen in real time.Maybe more significantly, the ability to put ones ideas opinions and analysis in front of the world will be increasingly available to everyone.

That is the promise of VOIP and high speed broadband wireless internet access.

But it doesnít stop there.A number of other technologies are on the verge of distribution that when combined with the concept of VOIP will change things forever.

Voice to Text

Take voice to text technology.Back in 1999 I was in graduate school recording my reactions to lectures onto a digital recorder and replaying them into the voice recognition engine of my Word program on my desktop computer.I was intent on making the drive from campus into something more productive than a boring and dangerous journey.This was in the days of 450-megahertz processors and a whopping 256 Megs of memory, yet I was able to turn the recorded lectures into recognizable text.Far from perfect, of course Ė I had to spend some time correcting the mistakes of the technology, but as a proof of concept experience, it was very exciting.

 

Think about how that goal will run in a year or two with the addition of high-speed high bandwidth VOIP technology.Anyone speaking into a microphone could have his or her voice digitized, accurately translated into text or foreign languages, transmitted over the net, and downloaded as text or audio in just about any language.This would be a boon for schools and the online education movement.How much do you suppose people would pay for a lecture form the foremost expert in any arcane subject you can think of?There is certainly room for business ideas here.

The Future of Consumer Decision-making

Do you want to bring the technology closer to home and apply it to challenges that are more mundane?OK, imagine that you are passing the grocery store on the way home from work at about the same time your wife is passing the hardware store on the way home form her work.You both enter the stores at about the same time but you are on opposite sides of town.Since you are the one who does all the repairs around the house, and your wife is the one who does all the cooking around the house you should both hop in your cars and drive across town to trade stores, but that makes no sense in light of the steadily increasing value of gasoline and time.You are both in the wrong places, but with VOIP and smart phone technology, geography doesnít matter.You can save a tremendous amount of time, money, and fuel by simply connecting to one another with your telephones/video cams/wearable computers.

Hereís how itís done.

You go into your respective stores, turn on the video cams on your phones glasses or hat, and place a call to one another.As you each walk up and down the aisles of the store, you point your camera to possible purchases and ask your partner for input on purchase decisions.In addition to being able to access the expertise of one another, you also have the capability to go online and check prices at online stores.That fancy Kohler faucet the wife is pointing her video cam at might have a slightly better price in a hardware store in Des Moines that has an online store.At the same time, your wife might be accessing the specialty food store near the state line to see of that batch of grommet grilled fish is fresher there, and how much express shipping costs.

This is the promise of VOIP and high speed broadband internet connections, and all weíve done is picking up a few things on the way home from work.

Letís not forget whatís happening at home while you and the missus are out shopping.Youíve got a movie buffering onto a hard drive for tonightís entrainment, the last of the stock quotes for your unique mix of investments is downloading into your financial software, and the kids daily attendance and homework data is being downloaded into your school report folder.You will need to review it tonight after the movie because the online conference will be held tomorrow.You have some questions for the teacher and online counselor based on the research you did at the Montessori web site.Also, the ADHD symptoms the teacher claims to see in your son are not supported by the online psychiatrist you consulted after getting your last download form the school.

This technology isnít years away, its already invented and being used right now.The thing that is keeping it out of our lives it is purely a business issue.Until recently business hasnít been able to put together a profitable system to get this level of technology into our homes on onto our bodies, but that is changing very quickly.

Big Business Positions for the Future

Disney recently signed a deal with Apple, giving Apple rights to offer a number of popular TV shows for download on the internet.For $1.99 you can now download last nightís episode of Desperate Housewives.But only if you have a DSL or cable modem, a huge hard drive, fast processor and recent bus technology on your processor and motherboard.Or one of the new video capable iPods or bluMobile video cubes.The only people in this market are the Early Adopter geek crowd.From a business perspective, the market is not large enough to justify the expense needed to offer the service.What is Disney thinking?

 

They are thinking about the future.And not the future that stretching into infinity, but the future that spans months, or maybe a year or two.Here is what Barry Diller, ex CEO of ABC Entertainment, Fox Television and Paramount Pictures has to say about it:

 

"I see my company [InterActiveCorp] getting involved in...producing, financing and distributing filmed digital product, in half-hour, hour, and two-hour movie form," said Diller,"The reason it (will) come naturally is because we all know everything is going to be in digits."

Diller mused on how the convergence of the PC and TV will alter the landscape of entertainment creation, distribution, and consumption.The search box, he said, will be at the heart of media access."I think it's going to be one world.Convergence is going to allow for a potential change-up of the players."

Diller Touts Original Web Programming

By Stefanie Olsen, CNET News.com

†† Published on ZDNet News:

October 6, 2005, 5:40 AM PT

 

 

You can bet that Diller isnít thinking about people watching two-hour movies on the two-inch screens of iPods.Heís thinking ahead to the widespread availability of high-speed wireless broadband that can be accessed at home, on the road or anywhere else that people might be.

But what company is going to get all these high-speed data bits from the people who create it to the people who want to experience it?The best that existing telephone companies seem to be capable of is filing lawsuits preventing WiFi, and offering overpriced wireless connections for laptop computers.

There isnít a carrier that will handle all these different kinds of data because the carriers now are all organizations that were originally created to administer old-fashioned 20th century technologies.With the exception of a few brand new VOIP startups, none of the telecommunications companies in operation today were formed to address the technologies we are talking about.Most were formed in the late 20th century when the biggest concern was how to finance a 21st century telephone systems with revenue generated with 20th century technology and organizations.Thatís why they are doing what they can to stifle connectivity of any systems other their own, such as pressuring municipalities to forgo citywide high-speed wireless networks.

Disney, Diller, and the cell phone companies recognize the warning sign.For years, consumers have had to meet the needs by creatively using existing technology in ways it was not designed or intended.The advent of high-speed broadband wireless technology is going to give consumers much of what they have jury rigged for the last ten or fifteen years.

Think about it Ė for years parents have slapped a DVD into a laptop computer and put it in the back seat to keep the kids occupied during long trips.Not exactly what the engineers who slaved for years to create the first laptop computers had in mind, but it fills a need.Auto manufacturers caught on and started installing DVD players in the headliners and seat backs of passenger compartments; coincidentally at about the same time satellite radio became available.

How ironic!While you drive your car you can have your choice of hundreds of digital quality music, talk and sports radio stations beamed from a satellite, but your passengers are relegated to watching video imprisoned on a DVD disk that they either thought ahead to bring, or happened to find on the floor.

What is needed is a 21st century company with no baggage from the 20th century to divert attention form competing in a marketplace the most people have no inkling of.Yet.

What we are talking about is the creation of a brand new company that has no financial, operational or infrastructure ties to the 20th century.We need a company that sees VOIP cell hone systems as a initial step to a worldwide company that administers and delivers huge amounts of digital content from anyone to anyone.The company that can compete in that market will own the digital movement of information all over the world and will be in a position to dwarf companies like Microsoft in the shade of their creations and acquisitions.