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Ciciora's Corner - Feed the screens

Thu, 08/16/2012 - 1:54am
Walt S. Ciciora, expert on cable and consumer electronics issues

The march of technology continues to accelerate, and we must respond. The response has to be: Feed the screens.

Walt S. CicioraA couple of decades ago, while driving through New York City, I wondered if there were more bricks in the world than transistors. I have no idea why such a question entered my mind. My best guess is I was thinking about Moore’s Law and how far it had progressed and how far it might go.

You will recall that Moore’s Law is an observation of Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel, that the number of digital transistors you can buy on a chip for a given price doubles every 18 to 24 months. The number grows very rapidly. So maybe that’s why I wondered about the ratio of transistors to bricks. (It made a good geek conversation topic.)

Currently, there are billions of transistors on large integrated circuits. Some of the recent laptop computers no longer have hard drives. They have “solid-state drives” instead with, to quote Carl Sagan, “billions and billions” of transistors. Not only are there more transistors than bricks in the world, but likely I personally own more transistors than there are bricks in the world! And to think that my first transistor, the CK722, was a precious, expensive gift from a parent to a teenager not so very long ago. Google CK722 for your amusement.

A similar wonderment concerned the number of calculators with trigonometric functions compared to the number of people in the world. My first calculator’s most “scientific” function was the square root. Later, and for much more money, I got one with trigonometric functions. That was a precious thing. I have a Texas Instruments SR-10 in its original box sitting on a display shelf in my office next to my college-days Dietzgen slide rule and my Dad’s Keuffel & Esser slide rule. All three have dear memories attached. Google SR-10 for your amusement, too.

Subsequently, calculators with trigonometric functions became very inexpensive, and even so cheap that they were given away as tchotchkes at trade shows. I have concluded that more calculators with trigonometric functions have been produced (and even lost) than there are people who know what trigonometric functions are. Likely at this point, more of these calculators have been made than there are people in the world. I recently saw a Hello Kitty full-function scientific calculator. Those with young daughters and granddaughters know that Hello Kitty is a line of little girls’ toys. So the idea of a functional Hello Kitty scientific calculator bends the mind.

When I started working in the consumer electronics industry, more monochrome television receivers were sold than color televisions. If you wanted a color television set, you placed an order and waited for it. If you were impatient, you could pay a premium over the list price to get it sooner. And list price was a substantial fraction of the cost of a new car. I was fascinated with the technology of color television and learned about human color perception and the various color television approaches to satisfy the eye’s challenging critical demands. I studied how color picture tubes were made and about the tradeoffs required to make them affordable and the circuits and communication theory that made “compatible” color television possible. When I left the consumer electronics industry, full-function color television receivers were sold at supermarkets for $5 an inch of display size! Recently, advertisements for bedroom furniture included a “free” flat-panel TV as an inducement to “buy now.”

Back in the research and development labs were engineers working on flat-panel televisions that were always promised to be “just 10 years away.” Now they are everywhere. Nearly all cell phones have great color displays. And one can wonder when the threshold will be crossed of more cell phones produced with these displays than there are people in the world. Maybe it already has. I commonly see people on airplanes with two cell phones turned on as soon as the wheels hit the ground, and it’s permissible to have them on. The iPad revolution has put color displays with more resolution than HDTV in the hands of the masses. It’s amazing how many times I see an infant in a stroller with an iPad instead of a teddy bear.

So what does this all mean for us in the cable television industry? Simply this: The march of technology continues to accelerate, and we must respond. The response has to be: Feed the screens. The consumer doesn’t care where the video and images come from, they just want more and more of them and in more convenient forms. Likely, more video will soon be watched on portable devices than on fixed television displays. Some video programming will come from ever-more-pervasive Wi-Fi, other video will come from the cell phone signal, and maybe even some from the digital broadcast signal. Cable needs to be the major supplier of those signals or we will go the way of the individual transistor, the slide rule, the scientific calculator and the color video display and just be a vestige of a former great industry.

Email: wciciora@ieee.org

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