The end of 1997 is fast approaching, and, after spending most of it caught in the Microsoft and Netscape crossfire in the electronic commerce trenches, I was quietly hoping for some peace next year. However, every a cursory glance at the technology tea leaves shows that 1998 will be another year of rollercoaster changes.
If you scan through the percolating technologies for next year, they are all about the consumer. That means headaches for the technology gurus in retail, but also for media buyers, who will need to learn quickly about new platforms- from teleputers to wireless shops on our handheld devices.
Take a good look at your old faithful TV. This is the last year that will not carry gizmos like browser software, chips or modems. For all the remote- control potatoes, a new era is coming when hardware will bring them hypertext programme guides, contiguous access to interactive football results tables, allow them to buy an Arsenal scarf online, or type in their e-mail while watching Match of the Day on the small box in the bottom corner of the TV screen. This is coming courtesy of Intel, which will provide us with the kit to let us zap TV programmes but also check Internet Explorer ‘channels’ like The Independent while we are at it.
This may bring a merciful end to the hybrid TV/Web content we have started to see recently. Many programme makers such as NBC add an Internet address for those who want more information on particular topic after the programme. Maybe I am behind the curve, but my computer is not parked next to the TV at home, which means every time there is something useful on the telly that has an URL, like a travel reference, I have to rush off to the other room to log in. It’s very useful but, ergonomically, it doesn’t make any sense. Intel permitting, in 1998 I will be able just to click on the Internet address on the TV screen and go directly to the Web site. So buy Intel shares, as they are major players in the coming convergence. Just consider that in the UK alone there are some 35 million TV sets which will need upgrades to become teleputers.
You will also do well backing Nortel and Rock well, as they will bring you the fastest Internet access yet seen over a standard telephone line. Nortel’s 1 Mb modem with Rockwell’s consumer DSL chipset supports high-speed data transfer that kills ISDN and gives you 17 times faster bandwidth than you old56 K antique. If that’s not enough, Nortel also offers simultaneous voice services over the same line. That will stop BT from milking us for that second line some time before the end of 1998.
For those poor souls who still commute to work by car, there is some joy to come as cars will be getting their own IP addresses. They will be able to report faults to manufacturers automatically. The solution to the problem will be delivered to the driver and specific part reference will be sent to the repair shops. The thought that this will all be taken care of without the need to befriend some beardy mechanic is a big step for the women’s liberation movement worldwide.
Next year will also see your home, office and car turn into virtual shops, with e- commerce notching a 44 per cent jump in trade over the last six months of 1997, and predicted to go up by some 250 per cent by the end of 1998. It makes sense in the UK, where a lot of catalogue companies still don’t provide a local phone number, their call centres lines are often busy and the catalogue stock goes out of date even before it hits the streets. All these ills and more are alleviated by online catalogues that provide ordering at local call rate, no waiting for available operator and real-time stock availability information.
One of the most exciting developments will surely be the death of the kiosk. Despite absolutely no evidence that kiosks can be successful, suppliers of retail technology keep pushing them down our throats, muddying the waters and confusing retailers. Kiosks have been tried in bookstores, airports and shops, and, trust me, they don’t work. The cost of maintenance, connectivity, time needed by consumers to browse and buy simply don’t add up. A recent US report on retail locations indicated that only 3 per cent of trade has been done from public locations, mainly libraries and cybercafés.
So the corpse of the kiosk will be safely buried by the wireless, on-the-go, handheld based shopping. I also hope that 1998 will be the year of prudent content management by publishers and the Internet community. I couldn’t believe the BBC’s new online venture, with its billions of web pages unleashed on suspecting surfers courtesy of ponds 3m in taxpayers/ money. It’s shocking that the BBC should take its anachronistic, obsolete, presence to this new medium, which was building its own content without the help of taxpayers’ money, thank you very much. If I want bland, one-to –many coverage, I turn on the TV. If I want an angle, a point of view or opinion, I go to the Web, to people who speak to me and not millions of faceless TV masses.
Since the Beeb doesn’t rely on advertising, there is no reason to stop pumping out millions of pages for no viewers, wasting both money and bandwidth. Perhaps 1998 will be the year when New Labour shows its true colours and privatises the whole thing. In the age of 200 commercial digital channels there is absolutely no excuse anymore for maintaining this self-indulgent public monster. Taxpayers would rather put up their money to provide connectivity foe schools or better public transport than subsidising production of even more Web pages that simply copy TV.
If the BBC is serious about interactivity, it should take a vote on its Web pages and ask for taxpayers’ opinions. But then they come from the old school that says;’ If you want opinion, I will give it to you.’ That is why in 1998 the Web will win over broadcast, as it allows us to give our opinions, too. Let me know your views on BBC Online at firstname.lastname@example.org