QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Ask a Kid!

When you think you have a pretty good handle on all the technology rushing around you, it's a good time to discuss it with a kid.During a recent visit to my home state of South Carolina, my 14-year-old nephew gave me a reality check on the convergence of television and computers in about a New York minute.A born and bred member of the instant response Nintendo/MTV/arcade game generation, my nephew announced to me that he was ready to surf the Internet. He'd heard and seen enough, he said, to know that the Net was a really cool place to be. And, he not so subtly suggested, that I should buy him a computer so he go online.The next day the two of us happened upon a display of WebTV in a department store. The store clerk, clueless to its operation, happily left us alone to play with it after I demonstrated just enough knowledge to turn on the power switch and get a picture on the television screen.Literally seconds after pulling up the first Web page and watching it form across the screen, my nephew asked the $64,000 question: "Why is it taking so long?""Because the telephone lines are so slow," I answered. "That's why they call it the World Wide Wait."I forget whether it was three or four Web pages later when I saw that look in my nephew's eyes. I know it well. It's that "hey, this is boring" expression. It's the disconnect he registers when he looses interest in something.After that WebTV demonstration I heard not a peep about Web surfing for the rest of my visit. There was simply no way this kid was going to wait for a bunch of static pages -- no matter how interesting the content might be -- to slowly unfold on a TV screen. After the Nintendo experience, the web was so booorring...One wonders if all these consumer electronics manufacturers now spending millions of dollars trying to blend web surfing with TV receivers have ever tested their devices with a kid. Maybe, just maybe, they would learn something.There have some other reality checks in recent weeks. Perhaps the most stunning came from John "500 channels" Malone in a now legendary mea culpa interview with the Wall Street Journal.In a stunning admission, Malone said his big plans to converge telephony, television and the Internet at TCI, the nation's largest cable company, isn't working. He said his plans, which generated international headlines two years ago, were too ambitious, over hyped and impossible to carry out on schedule."If you read our annual report last year, you'd think we're one-third data, one-third telephone and one-third video entertainment, instead of 100 percent video entertainment and two experiments," Malone said.Perhaps even more ominous to those betting that two-way cable technology will save the troubled industry, Malone said he's not sure now if it's even "the right technology" given current trends in the business."Let's get real," Malone said, in announcing a basic-to-basics attempt to have TCI compete with direct broadcast satellites, a popular all-digital technology that he dismissed a couple of years ago.Also "getting real" in recent weeks were the telephone companies, who are backing away from the entertainment television business and returning to their roots. The wireless cable technology they so ballyhooed less than a year ago was not quite what it was cracked up to be, tests recently revealed.Ironically, these technology reality checks come just as the FCC approved an American transmission standard for digital television (DTV), a technology whose reason for being has changed almost annually over the past decade depending on the political and business climate of the moment.Now, a new wave of high tech hype is sweeping across the land. The aggressive PR machine for the consumer and professional electronics manufacturers is confidently trumpeting the DTV standard as historic good news, a win for them and a win for the American people.I understand why they think they won. All NTSC television equipment will become obsolete and these manufacturers get to sell new gear to everybody from the networks to the most thrifty consumers. A windfall is what I think it's called.What I'm not so clear about is this: How do the American people win on this deal?Maybe I should ask a kid.

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