Flavin's Corner
10-1-99

Glimpsing Tomorrow

"For some time now I've been seeking to emulate the character 'Burt', from the
1977-1981 ABC television series Soap, who could snap his fingers and become
invisible.  I've finally succeeded in duplicating this arcane ritual.  The secret
didn't involve complex hand gestures, at least for me, but rather I merely had to
become an internet-columnist.  I'm now invisible..."
Me, after a nine inch Rusty Nail and viewing my hits for the previous week.

     Ever so gradually, personal computers and such associated perks as e-mail,
web-surfing, downloading audio and video files, etc., are changing the way many
of us work and/or relax.  No longer constrained by the arty anarchy of
technogeeks and cyberpunks, the PC has become a tool and plaything for the
middle-class.  And, as such, the PC is now suffering growing pains far worse
than anything experienced by an average hormonal adolescent.  Yet, despite the
occasional flare of erratic behavior and more than a few blemishes, we may
glimpse tomorrow today.  When the PC grows up it'll be strong, handsome, and
make everyone proud.  Now, as to be expected and extending the metaphor, the
products from Apple-Macintosh (and other units not beholden to running the
Windows OS) will more than likely get pregnant, generate offspring, and be
most unconventional.  Ah, ...the fecund and fickle future!

     While such Internet access companies like WebTV remain somewhat
impotent with their primitiveness, RCN's new cable modem service, with speeds
up to fifty times faster than the fanciest of 56K V.90 modems, appears to
advance the next step in PC technology.  At $39.95 a month, on top of
subscribing to their basic television cable service, the consumers I've spoken
with have praised the speed, but ...complained of the cost.  Gee, that 386 with a
14.4K modem seems like a memory from another lifetime! [Click  here for more
about RCN and here for background on DOCSIS.]

      Last Sunday's Boston Herald featured a full-page derision of the online sale
and downloading of David Bowie's new album, Hours, by an entertainment
writer, Dean Johnson.  Bowie, forcing the future, has opted to pre-release Hours
on the Internet some weeks before its general release.  The album is available in
two formats: Liquid Audio and Windows Media Player.  The Boston Herald
writer apparently used a slow modem through an AOL account (and probably IE
4 as his browser), admitted failure after several attempts, with over eight hours
invested, and accumulated a credit-card bill of nearly $50...  I really hope he did
it as research for his article, as he admits: "Oh sure, if I had a faster modem
and/or used a cable modem instead of phone lines, this would have been a snap.
But I don't.  And most folks using computers these days don't, either."  Well,
most fans of Bowie will watch tomorrow's season premiere of Saturday Night
Live featuring Dave, wait a couple of more weeks to buy the new CD in stores,
and are saving their pennies to afford a cable-modem account.

     Much less ambitious, and perhaps more significant (sorry, Dave, I haven't
heard your latest), is the upcoming release of Turn It On Again...The Hits, by
the art-rock band, Genesis, featuring a new version of their 1974 classic, "Carpet
Crawlers," from The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, with vocals by ex-Genesis
members Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel.  Genesis is offering "Carpet Crawlers
1999" as a free, downloadable file for Windows Media Player (as well as some
odd, beta-version player for Macs), at its Genesis-Web site. [Note: In keeping
with the theme that 'da future ain't happening yet, I downloaded the new Genesis
remake of "Carpet Crawlers" twice, and even listened to it "streaming" through
the Windows Media Player--the files were all corrupted and seemed to skip
through parts.  I had previously believed that corrupted files wouldn't/couldn't
play, but I heard sounds akin to scratched vinyl.  This has soured me on the
Windows Media Player...]

     On cue, earlier this week, Microsoft announced a joint venture with some
thirty-five tech and media companies to improve its software (read: the above
mentioned Windows Media Player--gag, spit...).  Referred to as a "coalition,"
and projecting the soon-to-be-developed "underpinning technology" which will
enable Microsoft to take advantage of the emerging cable-modem market
(though they did buy controlling interest in the lame WebTV over a year ago and
haven't significantly improved the quality of service).  This move by Microsoft
is, as is well known, a blatant challenge to the well deserved and overall control
of Real Networks (RealAudio and RealVideo) on the internet.  Bill Gates might
be a nice guy and all of that, but his company is dedicated to ruling the world.
Period.

     I've been somewhat amused by what software is used with every new media
event on the internet.  Godzilla 1998 (the updating with Matthew Brodrick),
featured a trailer downloadable in VivoActive format.  I recall sneak previews of
the animated Batman Beyond as common mpeg files.  The Victoria Secrets
show was through RealVideo, and the latest www-mistake was Woodstock '99
available only through the Windows Media Player.  The sound came through for
me, but the vid was awful.  Again, much like the Boston Herald writer, it was
probably the lack of a cable-modem connection, but ...it's also inferior software
released and advertised as something worth my time.  It wasn't, isn't, but
...maybe someday it will be.

     A popular analogy of changing Internet media-software is the popularity of
8-tracks in the 1960's and 1970's, the subtle usurpation by cassettes, then
compact disks, now DVD, and soon ...Super DVD's and other versions of digital
disks.  Who will win?  Will consumers get the best bang for their buck?  I'm
reminded of existing tech to make automobile tires that would never wear out;
the tech is decades old, but Goodyear and Firestone won't be rushing them into
production anytime soon.  A new product (or a new version) every season to get
our latest disposable income.  Sigh, ...but most of you knew that already.

snapping my fingers again,
Rick

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