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Broadband Library: Two Sides to Every Story: Fall 2009 (September)
Broadband Library is distributed quarterly to all members of the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE). Our "Two Sides to Every Story" columns appear on facing pages to present contrasting viewpoints on a cable/telecom industry topic.
Our columns in the Fall 2009 issue discussed the role of technology in consumer’s lives.
Dave reflected on an RFP his company received in the early 1960s. At the time he believed that what the client was asking for "was simply impossible," but the progress of technology proved him wrong. He observed that projecting technology over shorter time spans is sometimes simpler. Things that appear impossible today may be realized over time through technological progress.
Sandy had a different perspective. Technology is only a small part of what makes products and services successful. She focused on how society’s cultural and behavioral expectations are a primary ingredient in what will reach mass market appeal. Just as people at one point rebelled at "talking to a machine," today’s technologies are running into fears that our privacy is being eroded. Her bottom line: "technology without receptive users is a losing game."
Head Librarian Cathy Wilson asked us to write about technology past and technology future in the context of SCTE’s 40th anniversary. That got me thinking about how hard it is to look a long way forward.
Back in the early 1960s, as the most junior employee of a startup software company in Princeton, NJ, I was asked to frame our response to a request for proposal we had just received. A major city asked us to bid to build a new computer system for the board of education. They wanted an interactive system which would permit students and teachers to type in any question, and the system would provide the answer. This was a very innovative concept for the technology of the time: the only interactive terminals were Teletype machines. The idea was intriguing.
But the request seemed out of range of even the most powerful computer system—the first commercial computers had been installed only a decade before—and I told my boss that we should “no bid”. Large-scale software projects weren’t easy to come by, so he asked why. I said what they wanted was simply impossible: “They want a system where you can get the answer to any question. That’s so far away from reality that we shouldn’t respond at all. Nobody can build such a system today—nobody will ever be able to build it.”
I thought of this as I was Googling for the 10th time today. When I’m doing any kind of research, I always start with Google: “When did this company start selling that product?” “Where did the CTO work before?” “How can I get in touch with Joe?” I may not get the answer to any question just yet, but the Web comes close – and it’s getting better every day.
I was wrong about how far technology could advance in 40 years or so. Getting from “never” to “close” leveraged the compounding effect of Moore’s Law over all that time, some very smart people to develop and refine clever search algorithms, and an innovative business model to fund the computing horsepower required to offer Google for free.
It’s hard to predict technology advancements over 40 years, but cut the period to 15 or 20 years and it’s easier. I had the great privilege of leading R&D at Prodigy for a decade after it was started in early 1984. Most of our vision for the future is now part of everyone’s day-to-day reality: PCs in most homes, connected online with high-speed access over cable and telephone lines; changing business models for newspapers, shopping, banking, and more.
Many SCTE members can recall installing the first cable modems a dozen years ago. Those of us who were part of the broadband revolution could see what the future was likely to hold. Once people started using the Internet for information, entertainment, and email, they would never go back to dial-up. Digital technologies for voice- and video-over-IP were already becoming practical, and on-demand PC video wasn’t far away. They needed time to mature.
Looking forward from here, what can we see that will influence our industry’s future? Fiber is clearly the best way to deliver unlimited amounts of digital information to customer homes—yet our industry is still largely wed to HFC. IP is the universally-accepted way to move digital information around—yet little of cable’s bandwidth and content is based on IP. Battery-operated mobile devices will be ubiquitous in the home and on the road—yet our industry is still largely focused on wired connections to the home rather than wireless connections to the person.
So back to Cathy’s question of where technology will take us in the future. Arthur Clark had it right: “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”
“I had been involved with the cable telecommunications industry for more than a decade when I decided to join the SCTE in the mid-90s. It was at the time when Sandy and I started helping cable operators find their way into the digital age. I have watched the Society move from a focus on RF video to all aspects of digital data, video and voice.”
Technology advances are only one factor in thinking about what technologies will play a role in our lives. Another—perhaps more important—is consumer attitudes toward the capabilities technology makes possible. New technologies will only reach mass market success if people accept what technology brings with it. I’m not sure what label to put on this—perhaps it is “society’s cultural and behavioral expectations”. A few examples may help.
At AT&T in the late 1970s, I worked on translating new technology capabilities into products and services. Voicemail—a technology for managing voice messages in a digital format—had just become feasible, and AT&T was considering incorporating it into central-office based services. Several issues were raised about the technology that might seem strange from today’s perspective:
Caller ID elicited similar concerns, this time about privacy and rights of the caller vs. those of the person being called. Both voicemail and caller ID became mainstream, but it took years for acceptance to catch up with technology. What behaviors and expectations are being challenged by technology today? Many potential new services run straight into our fears that our privacy is being eroded all around us.
This isn’t some paranoid attitude—it’s real. If you doubt it, go online and see how much information about you is easily available. I’ve done it and know that anyone can easily find where I live, the value of my house, the names of my kids, where I have worked and went to school, names of my friends and political contributions. Unless you work very actively to prevent it, your personal details are all out there too.
We make bargains all the time, trading our personal information for things like convenience (Amazon preferences), discounts (store affinity cards) and community (Facebook, LinkedIn). Some of the services at the tipping point for becoming mainstream involve new levels of disclosure about ourselves. In the mobile world, some of these involve location based-services, where we’re asked to trade disclosure—of our current location and preferences—for information on nearby restaurants or movies we’re likely to prefer.
Willingness—or perhaps eagerness—to adopt these new technologies tends to be highly age-correlated. The younger you are, the more you have grown up with different assumptions about the need for privacy and how technology is an inseparable part of everyday life. Verizon’s Loopt mobile service is one example of leveraging this change: Loopt customers can use their phones' location-based services to show where friends are, what they’re doing, and how to meet up with them. For those who opt-in, the “social mapping” service isn’t an intrusion into their privacy—it’s an augmentation of their everyday lives.
Targeted advertising is another area in which privacy questions abound. Even though personally identifiable information may not be required, the notion of basing the commercials you see on where you live, what age group you are in and some of your past behaviors starts bumping up against concepts of what stays within acceptable bounds.
Looking forward, home health care is a fertile area for new information and communication technologies. We’re starting to see technologies that will allow people with physical and cognitive impairments to live independently longer. Will they be willing to have someone monitor how much they’ve walked around their house, whether they have taken their medicines and how soundly they slept? The jury is out—but people generally come around to making these bargains if they have choice about them and if the benefit is important enough. New technologies are only part of the story. Technology without receptive users is a losing game.
“I shifted my focus from telco to cable when I joined Dave in System Dynamics. I confess I didn’t become an SCTE member until the ever-charming Cathy Wilson invited me to co-write this column. I’m delighted to be part of the distinguished SCTE family that includes industry greats like Nick, Yvette, Walt, Tony, Jim and so many more.”
Next: Our columns in the Winter 2009 issue focused on 'always on' applications