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The Future of All Media Was Written in 1993. Kinda.
The Future of All Media Was Written in 1993. Kinda.
By Mike Halleen

In 1993 Time Magazine published a landmark cover story called "The Info Highway” and got nearly every prediction about the coming information age right. Except they got it all wrong, at least in one crucial aspect: they missed the Internet.

The article, written by Philip Elmer-Dewitt, is fascinating in its prescience and serves as a platinum example for anyone trying to predict the future.

(To his credit, Elmer-Dewitt did end the article with the note that they could have it all wrong and still be surprised, and his follow up work over the next several years tracked the surprises and road bumps that were to come.)

For those of you too young to remember, the early nineties weren’t like today. We had a down economy, a war in Iraq started by a Bush, a young Democratic President following a Bush, and Jay Leno had just taken over The Tonight Show. Ok that was too easy, but really the Cold War had just ended and we didn’t know what was going to follow it. Things were in transition. There was a sense of newness in the air.

I had been promised in the late eighties (yes, personally promised) that someday something called "ISDN” would allow us to balance our checkbooks on our TV screens. That was nice, I thought, but is that the best application anyone can come up with? Actually "Cool!!” was what I thought, but in hindsight… is that the best application anyone can come up with?

The phrase "Interactive Television” started getting thrown around, though no one knew what it meant. The big ideas back then were stories where the audience made decisions for the character (which is contrary to the idea that plot comes from character) or to let the viewer buy the sunglasses off someone’s face or order a pizza during a commercial for a pizza (which is contrary to the idea that I just want to sit and watch TV in peace!). These are still the ideas being thrown around today.

The digital revolution was just beginning to appear on the distant horizon. The "dot com” era had not yet begun. The "home computer” trend of the eighties had been a bust. Cable TV was still delivered using a box that showed the channel number in red LED lights on the front of the actual box, not on screen, let alone showing the name of the channel, the show you were watching, or what was coming up later.

I remember wondering why I couldn’t just pause TV like it was a video tape. (Remember video tape?) When I saw the quality of the first offline Avid systems, I had my answer: Even high end digital video systems at that time were not capable of playing back video with anything approaching acceptable quality.

We didn’t have words like bitrate or streaming, but I knew instinctively that it was just a matter of time until TV would be delivered in ways that would bring about radical time shifting with serious effects on scheduling, advertising, audience measurement and the very basics of broadcasting norms.

I would try to explain to my friends and family, and they would just cock their head sideways and say "interwhat what what?”

When I picked up the April 12, 1993 issue of Time it was a revelation. "YES!” I thought, "This is what I’m talking about! When do I get this? I want this.”

Not only did I want it as a consumer, I wanted to make a career out of it. It was the distillation for me of a turning point in history, a vision for my own future as a professional in "the new media.” An inspiration.

Now it’s seventeen years later and many of the predictions have come forcefully true, while others radically not, at least not yet, so let’s take a step back and have some fun.

Following are quoted excerpts from the 1993 article with my notes and updates.

"Coming Soon to Your TV Screen”

It didn’t come to the TV Screen, it came to the computer first. Some parts of it did end up on TV eventually in the form of video on demand systems from cable companies, and more may still, but the interplay between the ten foot experience and the two foot is still not settled. WebTV, BD-Live, Yahoo Widgets, the Roku, Xbox Live, the Wii-Browser… all are (or were) platforms to provide interactive online services on a TV screen, but do people want them? (DVRs don’t count.)

Plus the first wave of a whole generation of kids are now exiting college where they had free wifi in the dorms and laptops and smart phones with them everywhere they went. This is where they watch "TV”. These kids will be the adults who may never buy a traditional television set in their lives. (and are very morally relaxed regarding piracy, but that’s another topic)

Speaking of WebTV, the recent announcement of Google TV is bringing more focus onto the TV as an interactive medium, but no one’s got it right yet. People don’t want browsers on the TV, they want content.

"Imagine a medium that combines the switching and routing capabilities of phones with the video and information offerings of the most advanced cable systems and data banks.”

Phone + Video + Information

What is being described here is nothing less than the "Triple Play” bundle offered by the big players in the space today.

What they miss here, and the biggest miss of the article is the assumption that it would be the "switching and routing” of the contemporary systems, even those deemed the "most advanced” that would provide the interactivity. The packet based switching of the Internet Protocol (IP) was not even a contender. More on that later.

"Instead of settling for whatever happens to be on at a particular time, you could select any item from an encyclopedic menu of offerings and have it routed directly to your television or computer screen."

Spot on. They even do include the computer screen and not just the TV.

Seems simple now, but this was profound in 1993. Actually it’s still not so simple now.

"A movie? Airline listings? Tomorrow’s newspaper or yesterdays’ episode of Northern Exposure? How about a new magazine or a book? A stroll through the L.L. Bean catalog? A teleconference with your boss? A video phone call with your lover?”

Netflix. Expedia. Hulu. The Kindle. Skype. Sexting.

It’s not just airline listings, but price comparisons, bidding, e-ticketing and paperless boarding passes. It’s not just the LL Bean Catalog, but meta catalogs, affiliate programs, Groupons, Ebay, digital goods, Pay Pal, virtual currencies. Ecommerce on a massive scale with unprecedented consumer access to information.

Who cares about tomorrow’s newspaper or magazines? News is now a constantly updating and rolling cycle of information. New brands emerged like Slate or TMZ that have no print counterpart.

But again other than cable provided VOD and the emerging "over the top” market, very little of this occurs on the TV. For now.

"Already the major cable operators and telephone companies are competing – and collaborating – to bring this communicopia to your neighborhood.”

"The final bottleneck — the "last mile" of wiring that takes information from the digital highway to the home — has been broken, and a blue-chip corporate lineup has launched pilot projects that could be rolled out to most of the country within the next six or seven years.”

"Driving this explosive merger of video, telephones and computers are some rather simple technological advances:
— The ability to translate all audio and video communications into digital information.
— New methods of storing this digitized data and compressing them so they can travel through existing phone and cable lines.
— Fiber-optic wiring that provides a virtually limitless transmission pipeline.*
— New switching techniques and other breakthroughs that make it possible to bring all this to neighborhoods without necessarily rewiring every home.”

We all thought it would be the cable companies or the phone companies making it all happen, but the Internet appeared from out of nowhere and surprised the industry. It would be a few years before cable and telephone would become Internet service providers and get themselves back into the position they wanted to be in.

Ironically, the traditional "switching” systems of cable TV are themselves being replaced in some markets with technology that while not open to the general Internet, uses the IP system of packet switching. Fios from Verizon is such a system although pulling that fiber into "the last mile” was recently halted due to its expense and limited adoption. For now.

*Note how fiber-optic is described as "virtually limitless.” How many times have new technologies carried the promise of being infinite or free, only to find their limit later when the demand rose to fill the supposedly inexhaustible supply? Keep this in mind as gigabytes turn to terabytes. Someday I’ll be complaining I don’t have enough yottabytes to store the latest holographic virtual world in the grain of sand sized device floating under my eyelid.

"Now the only questions are whether the public wants it and how much it is willing to pay.”

Yes we want it, but what will we pay? As Hulu plans a premium service and Apple pushes the "there’s an app for that” model on the iPad hoping to put the "internet=free” genie back in the bottle (See There’s a charge for that?) this is still one of the great unanswered questions at the heart of the business of entertainment.

The downstream effects have caused strikes among the creative unions, brought about the (low cost) reality TV phenomenon, and created new relationships between content companies and technology vendors to enable things like video players that don’t let you skip advertising, the HDCP standard, and Selective Output Control (the ability to disable all but the piracy stopping HDMI outputs from a device, which was just approved by the FCC).

"Next spring Hughes Communications will introduce DirecTv, a satellite system that delivers 150 channels of television through a $700 rooftop dish the size of a large pizza pie.”

"But to focus on the number of channels in a TV system is to miss the point of where the revolution is headed. When the information highway comes to town, channels and nightly schedules will begin to fade away and could eventually disappear. In this postchannel world, more and more of what one wants to see will be delivered on demand by a local supplier (either a cable system, a phone company or a joint venture)…”

This was one of the most exciting things I had ever read, "A postchannel world.” This has partly happened, but not to the fully radical extent I think it still will.

Radical time shifting will eventually mean shows will not be limited to weekly release schedules or thirty minute time slots. (see DVRs Still Suck)

And of course DirecTV now offers hundreds of channels, and the dishes are free.

Note the assumption that again it’s the phone company, cable company or a joint venture that will be driving (not a third party like Netflix or Amazon).

Also how the phone and cable company are referred to as a "local supplier.” These are now national suppliers, there are no more local phone or cable providers.

Finally "channel” is just yesterday’s word for "brand.” You know what you’re going to get from HBO vs. Disney vs. Spike, but you don’t need a channel to access those brands. You only need the appropriate economic relationship with some distribution entity, and perhaps a widget or app carrying that brand. (in the short to medium term, this will likely require a contract with a cable or satellite provider even if delivered via a custom app, the "TV Everywhere” concept)

"As new ways of packaging and delivering these shows emerge, skirmishes over copyrights and program ownership are likely to become increasingly bitter and complex.”

Disclaimer: I do work for Disney, but no proprietary knowledge is necessary to cite the very public conflict between Disney and Starz over Disney’s product being sold on iTunes, then Starz’s subsequent licensing of content to Netflix for instant streaming without having explicitly cleared such use with Disney. There was speculation that Disney would eliminate that loophole in its renegotiated contract with Starz, but as if this writing that has not happened.

Look at the all out war, let alone skirmish, between the cable operators and the networks over affiliate fees. This is the biggest driver behind why the Internet cannot really offer "free” video to your TV. As more and more people use it, it is moving from being a niche loophole for those who could figure it out to a legitimate distribution point that has to carry its weight like the rest and stop giving it away.

"The same switches used to send a TV show to your home can also be used to send a video from your home to any other — paving the way for video phones that will be as ubiquitous and easy to use as TV…”

Skype and iChat have shown demand for personal two-way video, but for some reason the classic "video phone” never took off. LG and Panasonic are now offering Skype on TV sets with cameras attached, so we’ll wait and see how that goes.

I love the assumption that a video phone in your TV would be as easy to use as TV. No interactive service in a TV is anything like using TV. TV is easy to use because you just sit there.

"The same system will allow anybody with a camcorder to distribute videos to the world — a development that could open the floodgates to a wave of new filmmaking talent or a deluge of truly awful home movies."

"Mitch Kapor [of the] Electronic Frontier Foundation, wants the superhighway to do for video what computer bulletin boards did for print — make it easy for everyone to publish ideas to an audience eager to respond in kind. He envisions a nation of leisure-time video broadcasters, each posting his creations on a huge nationwide video bulletin board.”

This is astonishingly right, more than ten years before YouTube, here’s YouTube. Score one for Mitch Kapor.

The term they used to use was "video dial tone”. The idea was that through your cable box you could plug in your camcorder and "upload” (though we didn’t have that word at the time). Of course, the cable companies did not make this happen, this kind of innovation needed the real disruptive power of the Internet. However the mobile phone providers did later enter this fray with phones that became camcorders and can upload directly to YouTube and others.

Video Dial Tone, meet Android. (do phones even have dial tones anymore?)

"It's easy to imagine families exchanging video Christmas cards. Or high school students shopping for a college by exploring each campus [by] interactive video. Or elementary schools making videos of the school play available to every parent who missed it."

Now we just take these things for granted.

"In the era of interactive TV, the lines between advertisements, entertainment and services may grow fuzzy.”

"This is the vision that has the best minds from Madison Avenue to Silicon Valley scrambling for position at the starting gate."

The lines between content and advertising were already blurring with product placement and sponsored content that goes back to the golden age of TV. (see Commercial Creep: The Merging of Commercials into Original Programming)

Advertising online has obviously become a major industry, but the really interesting stuff will come when ads on TV can be targeted directly, or consumers can choose the ads they want to watch (and cannot skip them, if that genie will fit back in that bottle).

Google seems to want to lead in this space, but the advertising community hasn’t fully woken up to the idea that the current model is strictly 20th century. This will be fun.

"Meanwhile, TV Guide is racing against InSight, TV Answer and Discovery Communications to design electronic navigators that will tell viewers what's on TV and where to find it.”

Replace "electronic navigators” with portals, search, and recommendations.

Replace "TV Guide, InSight, TV Answer and Discovery” with YouTube, Yahoo, Tivo, StumbleUpon, and again Google.

This has still not been solved and the process of "discovering” content as a consumer has evolved along with everything else.

One of the most critical developments is the growth of social networking as a means to promote and find content through the people you know and trust. A.K.A. Viral Video.

"The Government is the dark horse in the race to the information highway. It got into the business almost by accident: thanks to [Al] Gore's lobbying during the 1980s, it funded the fiber-optic links that form the backbone of Internet, the sprawling computer grid that is for students, scientists and the Pentagon what Prodigy and CompuServe are for ordinary computer users.”

This and the one that follows is the only reference to what we know as "The Internet” in the article. They refer to it simply as "Internet” and all but dismiss it as a non-profit Prodigy and Compuserve used by a few elites outside the mainstream. Prodi-what and Compu-who?

"Internet has grown into the world's largest computer bulletin board and data bank, home to 10 million to 15 million networkers who use it for many of the purposes the information highway might serve: sending and receiving mail, sharing gossip and research results, searching for information in hard-to-reach libraries, playing games with opponents in other cities, even exchanging digitized sounds, photographs and movie clips.”

"Digitized sounds”? You mean music? Hello Music Industry, Napster calling on the Video Phone.

Mail, gossip, research, games against remote opponents, photos, movie clips. Yes all of the above. And then some.

"Purposes the information highway might serve?” Actually it was and became the highway. It’s as if the cowpaths and dirt roads rose up and surrounded the concrete and steel construction project that never took hold.

"If they watch a lot of news, documentaries and special- interest programming, those offerings will expand. If video on demand is a huge money-maker, that is what will grow. If video bulletin boards — or teleconferencing, or interactive Yellow Pages, or electronic town meetings — are hot, those services too will thrive and spread.”

All of the above have succeeded to varying degrees. Full screen on-the-TV-set video on demand is the only one not fully provided by the Internet and still dominated by the traditional TV providers. Will "over the top” products change this, or will the triple play providers overtake the open standards and close the net? Either way, the consumer will still have to pay something.

"Arrays of computer disks can hold hundreds of movies, a week’s worth of TV programming, and a library of information.”

Try tens of thousands of movies, years worth of TV, and all the world’s libraries’ information.

"A converter box in the home will decode the words, sounds, pictures, or movies and send them to your TV, computer, printer, picture telephone, hand-held tele-computer or some as yet unimagined device.”

Replace "converter box” with modem/router.
"Decode and send” with download.
"Hand-held tele-computer” with smart phone. ("hand-held tele-computer”? Priceless)
"As yet unimagined device” with the iPad.

"Get [news] directly from the wire services and the network feeds.”

Wire services and networks as the only source of news? Wow, missed that one. Blogga please!

"Current films. For a price you can order Hollywood’s newest releases.”

Films currently in theaters, not so fast other than a few exceptions for indie experiments and of course pirating. However the windows are shortening and now some VOD is expected to start immediately after the theatrical release and well before the physical disk release. (as long as the "analog hole” is plugged using selective output control)

"Computer companies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun want to build the huge file servers that will act as video and information libraries.”

"Such software companies as Microsoft and Apple want to build the operating systems that will serve as the data highway's traffic cops, controlling the flow of information to and from each viewer's screen. "

File servers and operating systems have become commodities. Small fish. What Microsoft, Apple and others want to control is the economic relationship.

"The government is more likely to play a critical role in cutting through the thicket of state and federal regulations that have grown up over the years to keep the local telephone and cable-TV monopolies out of each other's business. "

The communications act of 1996 is a topic for an entire series of articles, but the quick version is that in the 1996 act the "triple play” of television (cable and satellite), telephone, and a loosely defined "other” category were all set up with very different regulations. Today companies under these various designations compete against each other but under different rules so while the monopolies may be much less secure than they once were, the regulation has still not kept up with the technology or the market.

Then there’s the Net Neutrality debate that pits the democratic freedom of what we now think of as the Internet against the simple fact that it is a privately owned and controlled network, not all that unlike the "switched network” originally assumed to be the Info Highway’s foundation.

"The telephone companies, with their switching networks already in place, want to build the superhighway and control what travels over it. The cable-TV companies, with their coaxial systems, think they should own the right-of-way."

Cable companies have become ISPs, and though the Internet began as a government funded system, it’s the primarily Telco companies that ultimately own the crucial pieces.

It may just be that in three years, when I write the "twenty years later” version of this article, we will in fact see the telcos and cable companies taking over the position they were expected to after all.

"Just as likely, it could veer off in surprising directions and take us places we've never imagined.”

Yep. And it continues to.

This article is open for comments at The Hollywood Geek.

Mike Halleen is Senior Product Manager for Emerging Platforms at the Disney Interactive Media Group and blogs about entertainment technology at The Hollywood Geek.