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The failure of magic

Thu, 09/30/2004 - 8:00pm
Walter S. Ciciora, Ph.D., Recognized Industry Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Walter Ciciora
Walter S. Ciciora,
Ph.D., Recognized
Industry Expert on
Cable and Consumer
Electronics Issues
One of my favorite quotations is from Arthur C. Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." We have seen a huge amount of advanced technology in our lifetimes. Even relatively young cable technologists have seen tree-and-branch cable evolve into hybrid fiber/coax, and NTSC analog television transformed into digital television and high definition television. Older technologists, like myself, actually remember sitting in the dark by the glow of the vacuum tube radio on Saturday evening listening to "... the shadow knows." (As Ted Hartson likes to say: "I'm so old, I can remember when television came over the air, and telephone calls were made with wires.")

To us technologists, when we stop to think about it, it seems this advanced technology is as close to magic as anything in our experience. But what about our customers and subscribers? Is it magical to them? In too many cases, it's failed magic. Arthur Clarke would say that the technology is not yet advanced enough, because to the consumer, it's anything but magic. It's a complex mess that is hard to understand, difficult to work, and makes the consumer feel inadequate and even stupid. Making a consumer feel stupid is not conducive to sales of other high-tech services.

Our responsibility as cable technologists is to get the magic back into our technology. That can best be accomplished by making it easy to use, failure-proof and understandable. Sounds simple–but it's not. It is almost overwhelming. And everywhere you look, we are going in the wrong direction!

One of the ways in which we fail the magic is to rush technology into consumers' hands before it is sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Early technology still has bugs, still fails, locks up, interferes with other applications, and confuses and frustrates the consumer. Perhaps the biggest sin consists of multiple, incompatible standards that do the same thing but are beyond anyone's ability to sort out. Our work is not yet done. We need to advance the technology so it is easy to use and trouble-free.

There are numerous examples of the failure of magic. One particularly frustrating example is recordable DVD technology. This is advanced technology. Not only can we obtain two-hour movies and even three-hour lectures on DVDs, but now we can record our own video and data on these discs. We have the promise (as yet unproven!) of a medium that has a longer shelf life than recorded videotape, which itself is almost magical. Recently, double layer recordable DVDs have become available with nearly double the capacity. As advanced as this technology is, it is not sufficiently advanced. That's because no consumer and even few technologists would consider this technology indistinguishable from magic. It's a confused mess with incompatibilities and frustrations to aggravate and anger the user. Consider the varieties: DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD+RW and DVD-RAM. Now go to your friendly neighborhood computer store or Radio Shack and ask for an explanation and recommendation of which you should buy. Then go to a second and third store and ask for an explanation. Likely you will find sales personnel confused and unable to answer. Most likely, if you do get answers, they will be inconsistent from store to store, even the same brand store. Some answers will be so obviously ridiculous that you feel they were made up on the spot.

Now look at the packaging. Both the DVD+R and DVD-R packages say each is "ideal for video, music, data recording and archiving." Both packages claim that the discs are "compatible with most home video DVD players." Most?! The DVD-R packages (but not the DVD+R packages) say that "discs must be finalized for playback." Finalized?! The packaging will also warn you of incompatibilities, but not help you resolve them except by the facetious suggestion to read the manual of the product you hope to use for playback: "For optimum disc performance, please check with your drive manufacturer or user manual to confirm media compatibility." And how about this in the fine print on one package: "IMPORTANT: Use of 4X DVD-R discs with certain DVD-R/RW drives and DVD-R/RW video recorders may cause the drive/recorder to become unresponsive. If the drive/recorder is allowed to remain in such an unresponsive condition for an extended period of time, permanent damage may result to the drive/recorder and to the disc." The packages for both the DVD+RW and the DVD-RAM say they are for rewritable video recording. How do you decide which to use? Doesn't sound like magic to me!

This is technological abuse of the consumer! How could they do this? This is much worse than the "Beta vs. VHS" mess of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when two incompatible formats for home videotape came on the market. The market was paralyzed by the confusion. Very slowly, the VHS standard, generally accepted to have technically inferior video but greater availability of pre-recorded movies, gained market share over the Beta system. Once the Beta system was clearly overtaken, VCR sales skyrocketed.

As hard as it is to believe, we are embarking on the potential for more change and technological advancement in cable than ever before. Voice-over-IP, even higher speed modems, Wi-Fi everywhere, all-digital video, IP video, DOCSIS X, Next Generation Network Architecture, the list goes on and on. We must resist the temptation to roll out these technologies while they are still inadequately advanced. We need to be patient and advance them sufficiently for our customers to find them indistinguishable from magic.

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