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Technology Predictions from 1997

This is a little essay I wrote as an e-mail in 1997 in part of a thread of messages to my college buddy lawyer friend in Washington who worked for a Communications Law firm. We always had these debates about politics and television back in the late 1990's.


I have always thought about the future, and sometimes I would write down my ideas. At this time I was working at one of the first web site building companies and no one was buying. I wasn't going to give up on what I knew was going to be the future.


I had been dreaming about what will happen to what we knew then as broadcast television in the future. Here is my fantasy which includes rough descriptions of:

  • A future commercial version of the International Space Station

  • SpaceX

  • The SmartPhone

  • The Tablet Computer

  • YouTube

  • DirectTV

  • Streaming TV

  • Targeted advertising

  • Cloud Computing

  • Contact Management Systems

and several other currently existing or still yet to be realized technologies.


A few of these ideas were in their infancy, or in the dreams of others, or not in existence at all in 1997. Certainly none were "main stream". They were still mainly ideas or prototypes.


Remember, this was written in 1997 when the internet was just being "born". Flat panel monitors and TV's didn't exist. Most people got their internet (if they had it) from a telephone line and a dial up modem.


Granted, I didn't get it all "right" but I tried to explain the core ideas of my fantasy of integrated media technology that would be all encompassing and completely imbedded in our lives. I think I nailed the big picture fairly accurately. As a 35 year old novice computer engineer/programmer I didn't "dream big enough" to overcome the 1997 laws of physics when it came to technology.


For example, I didn't envision hard drives gaining huge capacity and shrinking to tiny microchips.

This is a 1 Gigabyte Hard Drive in the late 1980's and a 1 Gigabyte SD Memory card in 2007

Today there are MicroSD cards that can hold 128 Gigabytes or more. The image below shows a SD memory chip like the one held above which holds 64 Gigabytes and a MicroSD chip which holds 32 Gigabytes. Much larger Gigabyte sizes for both formats are available.


I didn't envision the degree of the advances in cellular telephone technology. I didn't think of a portable device that could receive data at several hundred Megabytes per second. Back then you were lucky to have a terrestrial circuit that went 1.53 Megabytes per second (a T1 circuit). Most people's modems were lucky if they communicated at 0.96 Megabytes per second (9600 KBps).


Yesterday in the park, while walking a dog, my 5G cell phone was receiving data at over 200 Megabytes per second.


Text messages on cell phones were just introduced commercially in 1995; two years before this was written. It would be 1998 before people started using text messaging, and it was clunky at best on 10 digit phones. The term "smart phone" was first used in it's current definition the year that this was written. It turns out that AT&T "Simon" phone (released in 1992) is credited as the first "smart phone", but it wasn't called that on it's introduction. The first Apple iPhone was released in 2007, ten years after I wrote this.

My friend wrote his response to me after I probably wrote some scathing commentary to him about television. See my replies in-between his comments.

> Dear Bill: > > I agree with the statements that you sent me today. > I have always found the lambasting of television > fascinating. Here are a few thoughts and questions > for you. > > First, assuming we had a communications system that > replaced television and where the viewer became the > editor, how do we pay for it? Keep in mind that > one-half hour of prime time television costs several > millions of dollars. God knows what the budget is > for news and sports programs. So, how do we create > a commercially viable system under your proposal? > In other words, as I have repeatedly asked students > at the Newhouse School (i.e., future programmers, > communicators, etc.) how does one pay


First, there will be no more ground based line of sight transmitters (except perhaps if they are used like the current cellular telephone network to relay digital signals for mobile communications). What is the maximum distance one of those things can transmit? A few hundred square miles? Look at the waste and duplication. All the paperwork and legislation required to manage the frequencies. Justification of broadcasting based on "public interest"? What a bunch of bullshit. Frequencies are being sold. Plain and simple. If you continue down that road, how long will it be before people realize the hypocrisy of a fat cat pretending to be managed by a bunch of females, blacks and Latinos for a few months so that he can renew his license every few years? The idea of terrestrial based network broadcast television existing for more than 50 years is preposterous. Broadcast TV as we know it today will be as dead as the phonograph record by the year 2020.


(Editors Note: OK, I missed totally on the fact that the phonograph record would make a come back, and actually outsell CD's in 2020)

Keep in mind I am speaking ONLY of the distribution method. The production methods will never change. This is a function of communication theory, not of technology. It doesn't matter if you are producing a television program or a web site. The method of production is practically identical save for the actual physical production of the product. The content of programming will not change but the delivery method will be radically different.


You think that is far out? Try this:

Let's get way far out for a second. Let's try space (as in outer). Let's say that the transmission of all known media programming is produced on Earth and then sent to a very large orbital storage system. Kind of like a huge hard drive or memory chip that has the capacity to hold an unlimited number of hours of programming (I have a provision if there is a limit). It orbits the planet in geo synchronous orbit. Don't ask me about the physics, but I am sure that it is possible as time goes on. There is no electricity bill in space (solar) and there is no heat problem to cool the Geo Synchronic Telecommunication Transmissions System (GSTTS).


GSTTS would be paid for by a consortium of investors including but not limited to telecommunications companies, television networks, computer data storage companies, NASA, the military and anyone else you can think of that currently uses a satellite or is thinking of using one.


The space shuttle will supply a crew that will work in six-month shifts as maintenance workers, kind of like oil drillers in the North Atlantic. They will be supplied with equipment and supplies from unmanned transport crafts flown by remote control from the Earth, or by lifting body type space vehicles that take off like planes and land like planes. This technology is being proven and tested currently by NASA (What do you REALLY think goes on at Area 51?) and by the Russians in a "Public Relations" method aboard MIR. From the MIR experiments we will acquire basic operational working condition models (kind of like OSHA in space).

How much would it cost to maintain GSTTS compared to the maintenance of all the different satellites currently in orbit or planned for the next 20 years? I don't know. I keep dreaming though. I bet that if you added up all the costs of launching satellites with disposable rockets, the satellites that blow up, the insurance money, the development of new satellites for the ones that die or run out of capacity I am sure that someday (in less than 50 years) all I envision now will come true.

Captain Chuck Yeager with the X-1 supersonic research aircraft in 1947, shortly after breaking the sound barrier.

Just look at it from a different perspective. Fifty years ago a cocky Mustang pilot climbed into a pod with a rocket attached. He used a broom handle to close the door because he dislocated his shoulder while horseback riding in the desert, and didn't want to let his superiors know he was wounded. He was dropped from a B-29 like a bomb and they lit the fuse. He broke the sound barrier, and it was a secret for several years. Prior to that moment, most of the scientific community believed that the sound barrier was an absolute -- a brick wall in the sky. Fifty years to the second, an old man named Gen. Chuck Yeager climbed into an F-15 and repeated the performance like it was like falling out of a rocking chair. If you had a time machine and met him coming off the high desert in September 1947 and told him what the future would bring, he would tell you that you were as crazy as I am to suggest what the future will bring in telecommunications.

1997: General Yeager honoring the 50th anniversary of his first supersonic flight at Edwards Air Force Base. Yeager broke the sound barrier in 1947 in a Bell X-1, similar to the aircraft behind him, nicknamed “Glamourous Glennis.”

So now that I have justified that I am as crazy as Isaac Azimoff for suggesting the future of the space program, let's continue on the development of the telecommunications industry of the year 2020 and beyond.


Notice that I have not suggested changing anything related to the content of programming. The commercial programming that is produced today will probably endure long past our lifetimes. How many times have the works of Shakespeare been "modernized". The delivery system is what makes the difference. Instead of a passive, linear transport mechanism, the transmitter now has the ability to be a random access device - like a hard drive - controlled by a user.

People will have an information appliance that is a hybrid of a computer and a television. It will be closer to the computer than the television, although it will be difficult to tell where one started and the other one ended. This device will get its signal via a satellite dish, which is simply a piece of plastic that seals itself against any exterior window. This technology is currently under development, and as you know, the frequency of satellite technology is getting higher and higher, making the dishes smaller and smaller. This device will be coupled with a cellular packet data transmitter (the advanced version of the CDMA and TDMA cell phones currently being sold) that will send programming requests from the user to GSTTS.


The Kyocera VP-210 Visual Phone was the first commercial mobile videophone. (1999)

This creates the foundation for a two-way communications system. The telephone network will be integrated with this device, so that with one appliance you will have a television, telephone, videophone, answering system (for both video e-mail and text document based e-mail) as well as a screen based information retrieval system.

There will be a docking mechanism for a portable device which will be a combination portable phone and video/data communications terminal. It will have a limited storage capacity, but it will be able to transmit video, audio and text data (a kind of portable telephone and camcorder minus tape with remote storage via a transmitter). A person will be able to access all the data they could at home in front of the huge high definition system that they can on the portable. Video and high bandwidth communications would have to be "held" until the user hooked to a satellite receiver. The portable would be a digital cellular device that would switch to a cellular/satellite hybrid when connected to a "terrestrial" terminal interface. All of the information requested when in portable cellular mode will be stored on the GSTTS network in a private area or downloaded to the "main" system in the home via a command on the portable. The main system in the home may have a temporary cache storage for recent or frequently accessed data. Portable and stationary systems would replicate when in close proximity.


Of course there need to be multiple redundant systems and backups. There will also be an option to store data locally, so that a user who does not want to trust telcos or other central information providers can keep their data private.

Automated video tape library

This might be where current owners of broadcast frequencies make money. They can serve as a relay for data that is not easily distributed by satellite because of reception problems. Video tape (especially digital video tape) is an extremely efficient method to store and backup data. Television stations would become data warehouses. The automated tape transport systems commonly used by the more advanced television stations (multiple cut D2 tape cartridges with SMPTE time code cueing) would be extremely efficient to restore archived data. Perhaps the GSTTS system will not have an unlimited amount of storage. Perhaps it will be necessary to "cycle in and out" programming and content not commonly requested by users. The current television stations would also be in a good position to refresh the data on GSTTS. The archived data would be added and removed by way of standard C and Ku Band technology, transmitting a digital signal.


In public places or in work places there will be terminals that a user can connect to. Workplaces would have an optional customized voice recognition system, as would the home. After all, who is going to type in 2020? The user's portable terminal will provide the core of computing power for all voice/video/data communications needs when away from the home.

Offices of the future will simply be comfortable spaces, designed for "livability" with a connection for the user's personal data terminal. Remember that the user's terminal also includes a telephone, so anywhere can become a workplace. A workplace will not need to provide a telephone, voicemail, computer network or any facility whatsoever (beyond comfortable furniture and lighting and an optional voice recognition terminal and enhanced display).


How does it make money?


People subscribe (like pay per view) to get commercial free programming.


People pay less if their programming contains commercials. The editing of programs is done automatically by the computer networks. No more "basic" transmission technicians (the bulk of labor at television stations) who cue tapes and run editing equipment to insert commercials into programming. These functions are repeated over and over in stations across the country. How many times are feature length movies re-cut by a lower functionary editor to make way for commercials? How many times is programming material removed for length reasons only? All of these problems are solved. A feature is edited and coded once. If a user requests that feature, then the system will either bill the user similarly to pay per view, or at a lower rate if the commercial option is selected. If the commercial method is selected, the system WILL NOT allow the ability to skip over the commercials. You either get them or you pay not to get them.


The difference is that if a user chooses the commercial method, he can select the programming of the commercials!!! He can select longer or shorter commercial breaks (more commercials lowers the rate he pays for the feature). The user can also select the category of commercials he wants to see. Maybe he is in the market for a new car - specifically a new sport utility vehicle. He could select to see all of the commercials for sport utility vehicles at the same time. This can never happen in the current world of broadcasting. You would see the production value of commercials change. If they are linear, they can contain a very different form of message based on the change in advertising. Time limits change. If a user selects a high commercial minute/hour rate for the feature he is watching, where is the rule that the longest commercial has to be :30 sec? Maybe the user wants a longer infomercial on the vehicle he is interested in?

Did you know that Les Paul (inventor of the Gibson Les Paul guitar and multitrack recording as well as the close mikeing technique used in the recording industry today) and his wife had a 15 minute television show in the 1950's? I would love to see those again!!! Last time I checked Les Paul Guitars are still sold by Gibson. In fact the old ones sell for three times the cost of the new ones!!! Gibson actually helps verify their authenticity and restores them for antique guitar vendors. Here is a perfect opportunity to resurrect old programming, put a slant on it and sell it to a whole new generation.

See what I mean! If I was a Jimmy Page fan (plays a Les Paul) I would love to see "The Song Remains the Same" with a few episodes of those Les Paul ads thrown in. While you're at it, why not a few old car commercials from the 1970's which is melded to an advertisement for a custom used car dealer that has a special on a 1971 Barracuda 454 Hemi with a Posi rear end! Now all I need to know where I can get an eight track player and a copy of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild".

I haven't even hit the possibility of two way advertising or two way programming (you thought that 900 numbers and video sex over the Internet was cutting edge).

Live directing a basketball game - Syracuse University in 2017. You can't direct your own yet.

As for sports, why not let the user pick the camera angles, select the replay options, control the scoreboard display (that thing in the upper corner is ANNOYING. I want to see it when I want to, not when some director wants to key it in!) Maybe sports is one of those mandatory commercial broadcasts when it is live, but in replay (delayed by an hour because you got stuck in traffic) you can pay extra to have the commercials removed (as if the logos plastered all over the field and on the blimp and everywhere else isn't enough.)

The same studio in 1982 - How far we have come and how far we have to go.

People need to pay for other services like video e-mail, data storage (warehousing), excessive remote usage, long distance transmissions, customized programming options and on, and on, and on…

TV used to give you what you wanted, even if you hated it.

You are missing the point. People sit down and flip on the remote when they want to be entertained. How many times have you flipped on the tube and found that there is nothing on. They want to be entertained at that moment. They want to pick the programming the way I program the music for my ride home.


Let's look at a "low tech version" of the same solution:


You saw that I have a thing that is like a wallet that holds my CD player and a bunch of CDs. I take it in the car, and then I throw it in my bag and carry it into the office when I get to work. In the office I have a battery eliminator and a set of speakers. I pick the CD's I want for work, and before I leave the office, I plug in the CD I want to listen to on the way home. When I get to the car, I connect it to the speakers and power supply in the car. If I am interested in the news or traffic, I have the AM radio, and I can listen as long as I want (it is commercial radio, and I have no problem with it).

I had a 1991 car in 1997 with a cassette tape player and this to connect a CD player.

So I have total control over my listening habits.


I want to choose when "Movies in Time" is on the History Channel. I do not schedule my life around the TV. I do not know anyone who does.

Eva likes to listen to Ray Charles. I know that "60 Minutes" did a segment on him about 5 years ago. Why can't I search for that segment in a video database somewhere and watch it? I would gladly pay for it. She didn't even know he was blind.


[Editors Note: This may be available with a subscription to Paramount's Streaming service, but you need to pay - as I predicted.]


Anna is playing touch football. She was told to watch a football game so she understands the rules. It would be much better if I could pull up the "Readers Digest Condensed Version" of a game. We could analyze the plays. Maybe she could be a star by learning a few plays.

Wouldn't this be great when you have to go into a business meeting with a person who is a big fan of a particular team? You could have his team preferences linked in your contact database. This would be connected to your schedule that would tell you have a meeting tomorrow. Your "electronic personal assistant" could link all this data together and you could replay the highlights of the last game so when you have that big lunch meeting tomorrow, you have something to talk about…


Monika and I have been watching "Pole to Pole" with Michael Palin on PBS (Monday's on WNET 13). We missed it this week. I would rather pay $5 for a scheduled viewing than have to buy the tape for $20+ dollars or schlep around at a library somewhere to find the tape. You saw our video store. What do you think?


> Third, for those who complain about television and > what is does to them personally, I have a novel > suggestion: turn the thing off. Read a book > instead. Listen to classical music. Read the > newspaper. Or better yet, spend time with family > and friends.


I think people complain because they don't have a choice. They surrender their freedom of choice to a entity that they have no control over. This is where the feeling of brain damage comes from. It would be much better if everyone could simply choose what he or she wanted to see when they wanted to see it. If they want the convenience, then they should pay for it. They pay for cell phones and pay per view and tape rentals and Internet access. Why not just extend the capability of what is already available.


> Incidentally, I do not believe that television is > only one factor in why we as a society are becoming > more isolated. Another factor is the internet. I > think the more telling reason is that our society > has lost the idea of community, in part because of > our mobility and in part because of increased > demands on our time (work, family, etc.)


Look, people want to be entertained. The rule up to now has been, "more is better". Maybe people are suddenly realizing that more is not better. Like everything when you first try it, there is a tendency to over do it. Sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, TV, food, Internet, telephone, gambling, dungeons and dragons, talk shows, and on and on. Anything that is done selfishly is seen as bad if done in excess. Unfortunately some people can't see where the natural divisions are that separate reality from fantasy. It has always been a problem and it always will be. Each new technology will present its problems.


My hope is that the advances in telecommunications will be woven into our society so that the investors get their money back and the people will be able to work and play where and when they want. Learning can be accomplished anywhere just the way that working and entertainment can. People who can manage all this information will be the leaders, while people who are managed by the information will be followers.


Death to the old farts that sit in leather chairs, smoke cigars, drive a Lexus or Continental or Cadillac or Mercedes or BMW, worry about their golf scores, Neilson ratings (or whatever they are now), and their ROI in old technology and can't see past their own retirement.


Anybody who you deal with that doesn't have an e-mail address by now is irrelevant. Any person who doesn't have a computer on their desk by now is dead.


Do you deal with anyone who does not have a fax machine yet? If you do, you now know how I think of non-computer people when we discuss issues like this. How can we expect people of this mindset to create the future of telecommunications.


Written By William Darron Late 1997

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