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Seeing the Forest Beyond the Trees

To fully understand the broad implications of any new technology, it's important to see the forest--not just the trees. That's common sense, one might think, until it comes down to trying to separate the forest from the tree people.

In the first 20 years of television's analog-to-digital transition, the tree people--usually with something to sell or a status quo to maintain--have tried to block a clear view of the forest. Along the way, their delusions have sold the equivalent of several Brooklyn Bridges.

Yet, there have been a few visionaries along the way who resisted the distractions and brought genuine clarity to where this transition is headed. One bastion of "forestry" was the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A decade ago, when the Media Lab was the epicenter of research into futuristic digital television technology, it was the target of ridicule by many traditional broadcasters. The vision of the lab's leaders, men such as Nicholas Negroponte and Andrew Lippman, was written off as na•ve pie-in-the-sky.

Time, however, has been on the side of these bold thinkers. Their "paperback movie" became the DVD, the most successful digital video technology in the world. And now, their predictions about personalized media are rapidly coming true. The people of the Media Lab "got it" long before most of us even learned to use a Web browser.


The "forest," in essence, allows the personal access and use of any media on demand, anywhere, anytime. As it applies to television, it means the viewer can watch and interact with any program of choice at any moment on a wide range of devices.

The end game--fully personalized, on-demand media--was a clear, articulated vision. It's wasn't pie in the sky after all. The difficulty has come in implementing it on a wide scale.

Finally, we are well on the way to implementing this vision, though there are still no shortage of wannabe gatekeepers who would like to control the menu of our media choices. The good news is they will probably lose.

The winners--not necessarily any of today's brand name players--will provide a reliable pipeline with low-cost bandwidth that will serve any content offering to anyone who desires it. That pipeline will probably consist of some networked combination of fiber and wireless technology.

Forget the concept of channels, primetime, or sweeps. All of it will eventually fade away. In a world of endless bandwidth and universal access, the kid who makes a personal desktop video in his bedroom should have equal distribution opportunities to corporations such as Time Warner and Viacom.

Back in 1993, I interviewed Nicholas Negroponte, the Media Lab founder, for this publication. That was the era when John Malone's "500 channels" and Al Gore's "information superhighway" were being bandied about at media events.

Forget this hype, Negroponte told the readers of TV Technology, all the viewer wants is the right television program at the right moment.

"You don't want 500 channels in your home. You really want one channel in your home," he said. "You just want it to be the right channel. I want to see the lines on that highway rotated 90 degrees so that I don't receive 500 channels, but I receive a single channel in 1/500th the amount of time.

"Zooming down that pipe will be a little packet with my name on it," Negroponte continued. "It will come out like personalized packaged media I can play at my leisure in my VCR. This is very different from radiating 500 channels."

Those words were spoken in 1993. No one talked about IPTV back then. In fact, most of us were yet to use the Internet in a serious way. Negroponte's ideas were fresh and radical. But his predictions didn't end there.

This idea of receiving personalized on-demand media "assumes a receiver that has sufficient memory and intelligence to absorb these packets," Negroponte observed. Again, bingo, that receiver--when streaming media was announced two years later--would become the personal computer.

Yet, as I look back over Negroponte's predictions, it's uncanny how accurate he was in naming who would first deliver his vision to American homes. It would be a telephone company, he predicted--specifically Bell Atlantic, the company now known as Verizon.

Last year, Verizon became the first American company to begin an ambitious project to wire its customers with fiber-optic cable. Later this year, it expects to begin delivering telephony, high-speed Internet and video-on-demand to subscribers. Back in 1993, Negroponte termed this video delivery concept "thin-wire television."

The telco will deliver "a single channel of video-on-demand," Negroponte predicted. "That interests me much more than 500 channels because I know that at the server end, there could be not 500 but 10,000 programs. Now, if you took the cable strategy, you could radiate all 10,000 and you choose just one. That's silly. I'm going to choose the one at the transmitter and then tell Bell Atlantic--or whoever the provider is--to deliver it to me now in real time and literally on demand."

It's also interesting to note Negroponte's predictions about HDTV. In the larger digital media scenario, he saw HD as a secondary technology. "None of us really goes home at night and agonizes with our spouses about picture quality. We agonize about programming," he observed.

Where HDTV does appeal, he suggested, is for special events--such as big sports contests--when a high-resolution image is desirable. For this extra resolution, viewers might pay a premium.

"You might pay-per-view, per bit. Say you have a 3,000-line display at home and a big sporting event is coming up on Sunday afternoon. A lot of friends are coming over to watch. In this case, you might want to pay more to receive more bits for a higher resolution picture of the sporting event. But it's unclear to me that you would want to pay more... when watching the news."

Finally, Negroponte predicted the demise of the traditional TV set and set-top box, predicting open architecture display systems that could be configured to the media choices of the end user.

"The advice I'd offer is to stay tuned to the general purpose computing environment," he said. "Your TV set is very likely to have an IBM or Apple logo on it, and you'll find that the general purpose computing environment will be very friendly to video and audio. Some of the special purpose equipment that we've been accustomed to is going to lose its significance."

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.