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Ciciora’s Corner - I’m so old …

Sun, 07/31/2011 - 8:25pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

We need to fully understand the competition and all of its technologies in order to succeed and continue to be on the winning side.

A good friend of mine, Ted Hartson, likes to say, “I’m so old, I can remember when phone calls came on wires and television came over the air.” That’s an interesting observation. I’m a few months older than he is, and I have the same recollections. I can also remember when I was a child that a long-distance phone call almost always meant some relative had died.

Walt S. CicioraJust 17 years ago, when I started consulting, my long-distance phone bill was more than $200 a month. Then, $200 was a lot of money. And I tried to be careful with the time on the phone. Now we have VoIP from the cable company, and it’s less than $50 for “all-you-can-eat” phone service. Unlimited time and unlimited calling to anywhere in the U.S.! And with loads of special features, including a call waiting message on the television screen. “Unlimited” is not just special deals on weekends and late evenings; unlimited is “always.” Like the old promise of nuclear power: too cheap to bother metering.

How things have changed. Now it’s more like phone calls and television on everything, everywhere. Last year, while working on a patent case in London, I talked with my wife for an hour or so every night for three weeks using Skype – totally free. That would have been at least a couple thousand dollars if I used the hotel phone. I did a temporary upgrade on my cell phone for international calls so I could be reached in an emergency, but I never used it for that purpose. Skype did the job beautifully. I even have Skype on my smartphone so I can make some calls without using up my minutes. If I call someone else who uses the same phone vendor or someone on my list of 10 people, no minutes are deducted.

A couple of months ago, I was surprised to receive a new iPod Touch in the mail. It had a minute-and-a-half video advertisement for liability insurance. I looked up the cost of such a thing and found that the iPod was $200 on Amazon. It is a fully functional iPod, with the only burden being that it has this advertisement in its video section. That sure got my attention. It’s a highly targeted video advertisement not using television. Or maybe this is the new television.

The iPod has Wi-Fi and connects to the home wireless network. I can check my email, browse the Web, check the news and weather, Google stuff – I can do just about anything. (I do have to be careful not to use it at the dinner table. That generates frowns and disapproving looks from across the table.) My cable system has Wi-Fi for subscribers all over town and on the train to Manhattan.

The iPod has two cameras, one with a pretty good resolution on the back side and one on the front side for things like Skype. I can make Skype calls from this pocket-size device. These calls are part on wire and part over the air. The fellow at the Apple store confirmed my guess that the iPod is basically a miniature iPad. I guess I have to get me one of those!

My children and grandchildren “text” me quite often. That’s an interesting form of communication. It’s more immediate than email – my phone burps when a text comes in – but emails just accumulate until I check them. I could set the cell phone to buzz for each new email, but that would be maddening.

I am very surprised at the popularity of texting. I would have thought that kids would find talking easier. But that’s not the case. Responding to their texts has shown that texting has some unique advantages. Texting is so “in the moment.” The message is sent when the spirit moves the fingers.

Broadcast and cable used to be the only sources of video. But now there’s video in phone calls, video over the smartphone, video on my Wi-Fi-connected iPod, video on my computer – literally video everywhere. And the video is startling. As someone who has spent an entire career in various aspects of television, I am amazed at the video display devices. I’m delighted with the quality, resolution, size and ubiquity of these displays. They are literally everywhere. I wouldn’t have expected this back in my days in R&D at Zenith in Chicago. Then, a color video display was something special.

It’s important for cable technologists to consume as much of the services offered on cable and by cable’s competitors to better understand the complex digital world we live in. Even services not yet offered on cable should be experienced to determine if they should be part of cable’s future. More and more, the competition is serious. We need to fully understand the competition and all of its technologies in order to succeed and continue to be on the winning side.

E-Mail: wciciora@ieee.org

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