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A lot of people try to predict the future. It's fun, and there's no downside, because by the time the future rolls around and its time to see if you were right or wrong, nobody remembers what anybody said anymore, or how much money they lost because you got it completely wrong. That's one of the reasons management consultants and actuaries make so much easy money.

Well, I'm no different, but I'd be willing to bet some money on this one:

If you want to enter a field pretty much guaranteed to provide you a good living, it doesn't take much brains to figure out you should be in something computer technology-related.

But what if you want to go into something with more leverage than just a wage? What should you be in if you want to get yourself an equity position in something explosive?

There isn't going to be another Microsoft, so forget about that. Or, more correctly, there might be another Microsoft, but there's no way to tell who or where that might be, and if there were, others have already figured it out, so you're already behind the power curve. That's why heading Internet-ward is such a crapshoot.

You can always figure out something completely new. This was the case with the original Intel chip, the laser printer and compact discs. It was also true of the light bulb, the Callaway Big Bertha golf club, the Pulsar digital watch, the Singer sewing machine, instant coffee, Prodigy, cassette tapes and VCRs. Inventing stuff is easy. If you know how to market and can round up eighty or ninety million in development money, people will probably buy it.

So if you have an idea like that, by all means go for it.

But those are unpredictable. The question is, assuming you're not an Edison, where should you be to maximize your probability of being in the right place?

You see, the problem with many of the things I've mentioned above is that they weren't invented to fill needs; their invention created needs people didn't know they had. That's why they were so unpredictable. People didn’t notice that they stank until underarm deodorant was invented. Ovens were just fine until the microwave was invented. I personally had no problem with dial phones until pushbuttons came along and I used to love my typewriter.

So what can we predict?

Well, like I said, inventing stuff is not the hard part.

Delivering it is.

And that's where the money is going to be.

I've mentioned Edison and the light bulb. Edison was more hard worker than genius. He was a tinkerer, not a scientist. He didn't really understand the physics underlying many of his inventions, most of which were mechanical anyway; he just played with things until he got it right and, in fact, wasted an extraordinary amount of time. He tried literally thousands of substances as filaments for the electric light before he stumbled onto tungsten because he didn't know enough science to narrow his search.

The people who invented the transistor, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time exploring the physics of semiconductors, then pretty much got right to the correct materials relatively quickly.

But Edison's real genius was a practical orientation almost without peer. As soon as he got the light bulb working he knew that, in order to get people to use it, he was going to need a way to get power to them. So he got right down to inventing generators, power stabilizers, transmission lines and distribution facilities.

What he provided was the infrastructure to make the use of his wonderful invention practical.

What he created was ConEd (Consolidated Edison), without which his light bulb would have been merely a laboratory curiosity.

So what's that got to do with our little problem?

Everything. I already told you that inventing cool stuff was easy, but that delivering it is hard.

So what's the coolest thing in computing? The Internet.

And what's the biggest problem in computing? Bandwidth.

Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be carried by a communication system. Saturate the system (i.e., run out of bandwidth) and you can't send anymore stuff. If your business is sending stuff, and you're out of bandwidth, you're out of business. Pretty simple, really.

What kind of stuff? Television signals, telephone traffic, e-mail and Internet access. And as the first two items go digital, everything floating around the system gets transmitted through the same communication system, because once things are digital, they can all use the same infrastructure. That's why you can send e-mail, get on the Internet, send a fax or an electrocardiogram and have a telephone conversation, all through that little jack on your wall.

A good infrastructure for moving all that data around doesn't exist yet. You may think it does, because everything seems to work just fine through that little jack, but the phone system pretty much sucks. The lines are too dirty for really high speed communications and the available bandwidth doesn't come close to being enough.

You see, there are a couple of things that people would like to send to your house that they're not sending now on a large scale because the phone system can't handle the bandwidth. I'll get to that in a minute.

First, let's talk about infrastructure a bit more.

Building a new infrastructure is an enormous undertaking. Imagine if there had been no phone system before today what a huge job it would be to wire up every house and business in America. You'd have to start from scratch with new telephone poles, switching centers, local and long distance distributions lines, not to mention tearing up walls in every house and commercial building in the country to do the interior wiring.

And that's if you could convince everybody to go along, which you could only do if everybody believed in advance that it was worth it, which is not bloody likely. (Edison did it by building a small but fully functional demonstration facility in lower Manhattan and wiring up everybody in the neighborhood for free. But the light bulb's potential utility was obvious, because everybody already had a gaslight in the house. On the other hand, two-way interactive television was demonstrated in a community in Columbus, Maryland a few years back. You know a big splash that made.)

That's why the people who made television happen early on took the easy way out: they sent the signals over the airwaves so they wouldn't have to lay wires down anywhere. Everybody already had electricity, so all they had to do was buy a television set and slap an antenna on the roof. And broadcast facilities were already in place because of radio.

What they did was piggyback on existing infrastructure.

And that's what we're doing now with e-mail, the Internet, fax, etc: piggybacking on the existing telephone system, which wasn't designed to handle any of it.

And it's not working all that well. We need something different.

The last major infrastructure implementation in America was cable television. This was done for several reasons. One reason was that broadcast technology didn't have enough bandwidth to deliver more than a handful of television stations to consumers.

Furthermore, it was too unreliable and too prone to interference, and it wasn't cost-effective to deliver signals to outlying areas, otherwise known as "untapped markets." Satellite-to-home transmission didn't exist yet, so the best solution was to lay down a network of high-capacity wires and hook up individual homes.

But boy, did they blow it, and blow it bad. They didn't see the exponential rise in demand for bandwidth. Current cable technology won't be able to handle it. First of all, it wasn't designed for it; it was designed for television. So once again we're bastardizing one infrastructure in service of another need.

Of all the known and near-term anticipated technologies, there's only one that can conceivably provide the bandwidth to handle all the traffic. It isn't broadcast or satellite technology, it isn't the phone system, it isn't twisted-pair and it isn't coaxial television cable.

It's fiber-optics.

Glass filaments that can carry incredible amounts of data in remarkably small lines. Nothing even comes close to their current and potential capacity.

The problem is, we've already got the other infrastructures in place. There are telephone poles, electrical wires and television cables galore messing up the landscape.

Trying to slap a bunch of fiber-optic cables on top of that mess will not go down easy with John Q. Public. It will also cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

But it's the only way to solve the problem. So who's going to do it?

Therein lies the answer to where you should plant your career flag.

The way you want to figure this out is by asking the one question that underlies every major innovation since the printing press: Who's going to make the most money?

And the way you start to figure that out is by asking what it is that they'd like to do with current technology but can't. It's fairly obvious, and almost embarrassing that it's not yet possible:

What can't they do?

They can't deliver the movie you want, when you want it, directly to your home.

You have to go out and rent the damned thing. The entertainment giants lose money every time you do that. And "you" do that several million times a day, which adds up to a lot of money. Or you don't do it at all, and read a book instead or, God forbid, play with your kids, which costs them even more money.

Believe me, that gets their attention.

The only way the Time-Warners and Disneys of the world are ever going to get movies-on-demand into your living room on a grand scale is by stringing fiber-optic cable right to your door.

As I said, it's a massive and expensive undertaking. But it's also a massive and lucrative opportunity. And once those little glass cables are in place, the ancillary benefits will also be massive: crystal-pure high definition television, near-instantaneous Internet access, universal on-line banking…it could even replace the existing telephone system, which never anticipated digital telephony.

Right now, the only sector with the resources and the incentive to undertake such an effort is the entertainment industry. Everybody else can pretty much do what they're doing for a little while longer without it all falling apart.

(I'm a strong proponent of charging on a by-the-bit basis for Internet access in order to keep usage in check: why should you absorb the cost of clowns who gobble up precious bandwidth downloading porn for free?)

The telephone system works, you can watch television, you can get on the Web and send e-mail, you can move faxes around, all without major problems.

But Ted and Mike can't send you a movie. Your closed wallet haunts their days and nights.

One of these days they're going to figure out how to open it.

And that's where you want to be.

 


from: A Practical Guide for Everyday Living, by Lee Gruenfeld
* Copyright 1997, 1998 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved

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