Why the multimedia future has taken 10 years to arrive

The first public trials of online services were run in the early 1990s amid a flurry of predictions about the brave new world that technology was poised to deliver. But only 10 years on has much of this reached the point of mass reality. The key to its ev

Ten years ago I wrote a book that described the way experts thought the world of technology would develop. I told of “home banking, home shopping, electronic mail, advertising and educational programmes… an interactive version of Yellow Pages”. All these were about to arrive – in Quebec, on a system run by the cable company Videotron. Nothing to do with the internet; indeed in 40,000 words I mentioned the ‘i’ word just once.
My book, ‘Multimedia – Now and Down the Line’, was based on interviews with a spread of gurus and industry people, and tried to paint a picture of the “multimedia future”. I have recently classified my experts’ predictions into four categories: About right; Wrong; Optimistic; and Pessimistic.
The longest, just, is About right. My experts predicted online shopping with accuracy, even forecasting that “the streets will once again be cluttered with grocery delivery vans”. They could see we would have instant access to all sorts of data, that televisions would have flat screens, that smart cards would be loaded with money, that networked games would be big business and that many people would work from home. They even saw that shareholders would be served in a different way: “Shareholders will receive a company’s multimedia annual report down the line. It will include the chairman’s fireside chat…”. Look at Shell Transport and Trading’s latest online annual report to see that prediction made electronic flesh.

The ones that got away

The Wrong list is headed by virtual reality. “VR is a cousin of multimedia and one which, when the two are grown up, will become inseparable,” I wrote. I predicted that in the first 10 years of this century we would regularly put on helmets and cybergloves to hold virtual conferences with our colleagues round the world. I even suggested that we might soon take to tele-dildonics, where the virtual activity would be more intimate.
My optimism included an assumption that intelligent agents would become widespread. We would have electronic “servants’ who would look after our totally networked houses, calling the repair service when the washing machine broke down, finding the newspaper cuttings we needed, cancelling the milk; and so on. We would talk to it, and it would talk to us.
Predictions that virtual reality was an inevitable winner were, I think, based on an over-technological view of the world: ‘It is possible, so it will happen’. But while it has value in specialist areas, such as training and design, most people’s experience of virtual helmets has put them off for life. The market is also failing to drive intelligent agents and voice recognition and synthesis. Both, like VR, have a certain spookiness consumers have yet to accept. They will both become more widespread, but it will be a slow process.
The Pessimistic list is by far the shortest, but also the most fundamental. I described how networks consisting of “groups of powerful desktop machines that could talk to each other on an equal basis” were springing up. Some belonged to one company – CompuServe was then dominant – some to closed groups (such as the academics’ Super Janet), while some were open to anyone: “The biggest open system, Internet, now has 20m subscribers.” That was all I wrote.

What a difference an internet makes

Two questions. How did I (or rather the people I talked to) fail to see the potential of the internet? And how different is the 1994 view of the online future from the future the internet brought. The answer to the first is simple: the internet exploded because the World Wide Web was developed to run on it, and the web was in its infancy: Mosaic, ancestor of today’s browsers, was released only in September 1993. It was not surprising that few people had yet spotted its significance.
The difference between a world with internet and a world without may appear not that great. The experts did after all predict much of the online world that we now have. But they were working with an assumption that multimedia would be broadcast – that is, originated by relatively few sources. In fact, thanks to the web, it is originated by several million sources. I was describing a proprietorial world, where the interactive television would be the main carrier and cable, satellite and telecom companies would battle it out to provide the most attractive services. Publishers, broadcasters, film companies would have huge power because they would be the sole providers of ever more valuable content.
What the internet did was enable every company and millions of individuals to become content providers. It also allowed them to try out all sorts of different commercial and non-commercial models that have, in a Darwinian process that could never have been achieved by a proprietorial model, thrown up dating, finding old friends, selling beanie babies and other unlikely activities as the big winners of multimedia.

The delay that created demand

It is all a lot more exciting than it would have been, though paradoxically it has meant that many of the developments predicted 10 years ago have yet to appear. There was an assumption that we would move quickly to a broadband world, because the early fruits of online multimedia (as it was always called then) would be films and even television programmes delivered down the line. Cable and telecom companies would bring fibre optic cables to our homes, or at least close enough to complete the loop with thick copper ‘co-axial’ cables, so that shortage of bandwidth would not be a problem. Data transfer would thus be a spin-off of broadcasting; and we would presumably pay a subscription to a satellite, cable or telecom company to be allowed to watch the chairman’s fireside chat.
ADSL, the technology that now underpins most broadband services, had been invented 10 years ago and BT was testing it in the UK – to provide video on demand services. Video-on-demand is in my Optimistic list; it is just starting to happen, but is hardly at the forefront of the technological revolution.
Shortly after my book was published, a number of “full service trials” were conducted. These involved providing fibre optic links to every home and business in an area, setting up home shopping banking and video-on-demand services, and seeing what happened. The answer coming from places like Orlando and Quebec was: Not much. The most popular online activity in Orlando was buying stamps. Now, of course, we know that there is huge demand for all sorts of online activities – but that is because it was allowed to develop slowly, and cheaply, over the internet. It seems, looking back, that the internet helped the “multimedia revolution” most by slowing it down – literally. Now we are moving to broadband, but for once the technology is not ahead of the demand.
In other words, we may now be in more or less the position I thought we were 10 years ago: ready to roll into a broadband world. Comcast recently bid for Disney because it is a valuable ‘content provider’, the same reason that Viacom bought Paramount in 1993. Tele-dildonic suits may yet become a favoured Valentine’s Day gift.

First published 07 April, 2004
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