Questioning Technology: The Internet Brushfire

It's now estimated that Internet usage is doubling every 100 days.In the flood of recent news reports on the pending convergence of big cable (TCI) and big telephony (AT&T), the New York Times noted two significant milestones:"So important has the Internet become to so many people's lives, in fact, that the average amount of time Americans spent watching television declined for the first time last year since television's invention. And for the first time, more messages were sent via electronic mail than through the post office."These trends, of course, reflect the rapid growth of home computing. By January, 1998, the share of American households with personal computers had reached 42 percent, up from 31 percent in 1995, reports Odyssey L.P., a San Francisco-based research firm. Over the same three year period, the percentage of homes online increased to 23 percent from seven percent.So much for those who claimed the Internet would be a passing fad. So much for those who think television in the digital era will remain essentially the same, except for clearer pictures and better sound. So much for the status quo in any mass medium.It now appears, with enough bandwidth, the Net could become THE enabling technology for all electronic media of the future. That's why the financial sharks are circling in the turbulent digital waters. The dealmaking frenzy is just beginning. Internet stocks are zooming out of sight. The stakes will get higher, much higher.While AT&T and the cable industry gamble on a wired world, others think satellites are the future. One look at the 70 percent yearly unit sales growth of Thomson's direct-to-home (DSS) satellite receivers and one can see a real contest developing between wired and wireless delivery systems.On the eve of its fourth year of retail availability, Thomson just shipped its five millionth DSS system. By early next year, the company will introduce a $700 digital set-top receiver/decoder designed to receive high definition television, regular standard definition programming and other digital signals. Keep an eye on those "other digital signals" to see how the contest between direct-to-home satellites and cable will play out.Online Publishing for DummiesAs the Internet becomes more pervasive, the lure of online publishing is expanding. Whether it be simple web pages or more advanced streaming multimedia, the publishing game is not just for the big media players anymore. Now, for relative pocket change, anyone can establish an online radio or television station with global reach.According to Forrester Research, the web site creation market will reach $10.3 billion by the year 2000, up from $1.2 billion in 1996. Another study by Frost & Sullivan says the web page editor market grew 219 percent in 1997, reaching revenues of more than $194 million.The trend here is toward web site creation tools for non-artists. With the impending arrival of a new generation of more user friendly software, the authoring of web pages is expected to become as common as typing a simple letter. Tools that allow non-experts to easily create sophisticated graphics and special effects for web pages are expected to be very popular.One example is NetStudio, a new $149 web graphics creation application designed for novices. It is tightly integrated with Microsoft's FrontPage but also works seamlessly with other web page editors such as Netscape Composer, Adobe PageMill and NetObjects Fusion.Using the standard Microsoft Office user interface, amateurs can access a set of professionally-designed styles to mix colors, fonts and effects; create buttons, navigation boards, banners, photos, etc.; and create a wide range of sophisticated special effects."While tools to simplify the publishing of web documents are available today," said NetStudio CEO Manish Vij, "non-artists traditionally have had three choices when it comes to creating web graphics: Hire an expensive professional graphics designer; suffer through weeks of learning the basics of a complicated, high-end graphics tool like Photoshop; or create an amateurish site using clip art to convey important messages and branding."Digital Photography Gets Easier, TooAlso getting easier, cheaper and better is digital photography. A good example of this trend is reflected in Sony's second generation Digital Mavica floppy disk still cameras. These cameras -- well-suited for web page photography -- allow users to store their pictures on a standard (and very cheap) 3.5-inch floppy disk. Images can be easily viewed and manipulated on either a standard PC or Mac. The new Mavica, priced at $799, is lighter, slimmer and easier to handle than earlier digital cameras.Though cheap digital cameras don't yet meet the image quality of their film-based counterparts, they are well-suited for quick and easy instant publishing on the Internet. Combined with a new generation of user friendly image editing and web creation tools, the opportunities for independent expression to a global audience has never been easier.

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