The Semi-Agnostic Pedestrian Theatre of the Aggressively Confused Somnambulist presents:

WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON HERE?

subtitled
Bob Newhart Telephones The Future

by Leo L. Schwab
1994.12.27


Don't look now, but the future's being built for you! Right now! And a glorious future it is, too! Intellectual property will become the currency for at least the next century. Those who have Intellectual Property will be raking in the dough. Those who don't (like you, for example) will be casting your dollars before their rake.

Say what? You don't understand? Good. You're not supposed to. Just keep watching Hard Copy and Melrose Place, and we'll worry about all the details. It'll be wonderful. It'll be glorious. It'll be reasonably priced.

Trust Us.


AT&T Ad, circa 1999:

Have you ever paid $1300 for a phone bill...?

YOU WILL.


Cold-Call Sales Pitch from The Future

I would like you to cast your eyes to the future. In the future, possibly in as little as ten years, you will have a high-speed digital network connected to your home. The phone and cable companies all want to hook you up, and are spending billions of dollars to build the infrastructure and business models that will serve you.

Below are two possible scenarios that may develop as a result of this feverish effort. One of them is the one that's being worked on right now. The other... well, isn't. Which one is Reality is left as an exercise for the reader (though any cursory glance through industry press releases should give you the answer).

We now switch on our TARDIS and explore both forks of the future...


Future #1

"Good evening, Mr. Smith? I'm Fred Farkleberry from Snowcast Cablevision, how are you this evening? Wonderful. Mr. Smith, I'll come straight to the point. We've finally finished upgrading our cable network and... Yes, that's why we were tearing up the streets all last year. Anyway, we're now ready to offer you the Information Superhighway right to your television set. That's right, we're offering our subscribers new Interactive Services never before available. We have home shopping and Video On Demand(tm) avaliable right now, with more services on the way.

"I'm sorry...? What's interactive about it? Well, you see, with Video On Demand(tm), you can call us up during normal business hours and order any movie any time you want... Excuse me? You say you can do that already with your local video store? Well, yes, but with Video On Demand(tm), you don't even have to leave the comfort of your own home... What? Well, yes, Video On Demand(tm) will be a bit more expensive than a video store, but we get recently released movies before they do... What? No, you can't rewind it, but you... Beg pardon? No, you can't watch it twice, but it's... No, you can't single-frame it, however... No, we're only going to have the most popular films on our server, but they'll all be really recent blockbuster hits...! What? Why, yes, we are using MPEG. How did you know...? It looks almost as good as VHS... No, you can't hook your PC up to our network; we're using a proprietary protocol... No, we don't sell an interface card... No, the protocol is proprietary; we don't give it out...

"I'm afraid you can't be a node on our network. Everything is centrally located at our facility. We do rent space on our server, though... Non-video material can be stored for $100 per megabyte per month... You think so? All our advertisers have remarked on how inexpensive it was...

"Oh, no, sir, there will be no offensive material on our network. You need have no fear of that... Well, we thought about allowing adult material, but a couple of parent groups expressed concern, so we decided not to carry it... I'm sure you're an excellent father, sir, but we can't take that risk. I mean, suppose your child accessed your set-top box without your permission...? No, our focus groups showed that passwords were too complicated...

"The other one? Oh yes, home shopping. You'll be able to browse our on-line catalog and purchase items quickly and efficiently at the touch of a button... We program your preferred credit card number into the set-top box when you pick it up. When you buy something, it gets transmitted to the retailer... We do it that way so people can't enter just any credit card number. It cuts down on fraud... Oh, I can assure you our network is completely secure... I'm afraid our security measures are confidential...

"Well, you may feel that way now, but the new services we'll be deploying within the coming year will be even more exciting... Oh, like on-line games and information retrieval... Yeah, just like the games you can rent at your local video game store, but these will be exclusive special versions you can't get anywhere else... We haven't set a price yet, but we're looking at between $1.95 to $4.95 per game... No, sir, that's each time you want to play it...

"The other one? Oh, yes, information retrieval. You'll be able to access gigabytes of data on every subject known to man right through your TV... Keyboard? No... I suppose navigating that much data with our remote control could be difficult. Our engineers are still working on it; I'm sure they'll come up with something... SQL? I've no idea... No, sir, I'm very sorry, but you won't be able to hook up your computer to our network... No, you can only access machines connected directly to our network...

"So, can I sign you up for our enhanced digital services? It's only $39.95 per month... Yes, HBO will still be extra..."


Future #2

"Good evening, Mr. Smith? How do you sir, I'm Fred Farkleberry from Infonet Communications. I'm very sorry to disturb you this evening, Mr. Smith, but we were wondering if you were familiar with the new enhanced digital services we're now offering to our subscribers...? No? Do you have few minutes so I could describe them to you?

"Well, for a start, our new high-speed digital network allows us to offer you features never before available, such as Video On Demand and home shopping. Video On Demand lets you order up any movie present on the network and have it delivered directly to your TV... No, we don't provide the movies ourselves. Some major movie studios have their own servers connected to our network, so it's whatever they want to offer... Actually, there is one small company offering adult material... Nope, we don't place any restrictions on the content of data. We just deliver bits... Yes, it's MPEG... That's right, it's not quite as good as VHS, but the pause feature is absolutely perfect... Yes, you can fast-forward and rewind as well... Yup, you can suspend viewing and resume at any time, even days later...

"Pardon? Oh, yes, home shopping. Some major retailers have made their merchandise available for ordering over the network, with text and video clips of the items for sale. Just select what you want, punch in the credit card or checking account number you want billed, and they'll ship it to you the same day... Oh, absolutely, sir, the transactions are completely secure... The packets are digitally signed using MD5 signatures and encrypted with the RSA public key system, and it all happens inside the set-top box. No unencrypted transactions ever hit our wires... Any key length you want... Really? As a matter of fact, we can use your existing PGP key if you wish... Well, we can go through one of the key servers, but we can authenticate your key faster if you come in personally...

"That depends on the vendor. Some do compile demographic data on their customers, others don't. We certainly don't look at the packets... No, we don't disclose your traffic patterns to anyone else. That's kept confidential...

"Yes, we have a set-top box, but if you have a personal computer, you can use that, too... You can buy the interface card from us, or from one of several third parties. We've published the electrical interface and network protocol specifications and made them free... Nope, we don't require a PC; you can plug in a Mac, a UNIX system, anything you like. As long as it has the right interface... We don't have an interface for the Amiga, but there's nothing preventing someone from building one...

"Yes, we have a gateway to the Internet. However, the servers connected directly to our network can respond and deliver data much faster... No, it's not an anti-competitive thing. Our network was designed to reliably deliver a constant three megabits per second. The Internet is more of a mixed bag, so performance from servers there is highly variable... Yes, clients on the Internet side can access into our network...

"Beg pardon...? Yes, that's correct, we don't impose any control on content. We're a common carrier... There's nothing we can do directly if someone's harassing you. However, we will assist in law enforcement investigations... They have to serve us a search warrant or you have to provide us written authorization before we'll open the logs... I'm afraid we can't directly prevent your children from receiving inappropriate material over the network... Well, we can't detect or prevent your children from using your equipment. We presume that parents concerned about such things will guard against access to their equipment. However, all of our providers of adult material offer password protection on accounts, so we recommend you keep such passwords secret...

"Absolutely, you can be a node on our network... Yes, you maintain complete control over who or what can connect to your machine from outside. Security can be as lax or as tight as you wish... Well, again, if someone was cracking your system, you'd have to get law enforcement to investigate, or submit a written request for our copy of the logs. However, all connections are authenticated, so your own logs should be sufficient to track down a cracker...

"Oh, heavens no. You can get much better bandwidth than that... Well, let me explain. The base bandwidth is three megabits per second. This is just enough to receive realtime MPEG streams, with about 19.2 Kbits per second left over for the backchannel, which is enough for control packets: channel changes, pause and rewind commands, and so on. However, that three megabits can be sliced up in a few other ways. You can devote the bulk of the bandwidth for outbound data, with just 19 kilobits for inbound requests. This is how most of our subscribers who run Web sites set up their systems. And finally there's the "balanced" channel, which is about one and a half megabits per second each way. This is the configuration most of the interactive game servers use, because there's so much information flying in both directions... It depends on whose interface card you get, but you can switch the bandwidth configuration on the fly... We haven't had a demand for it, but there's no obstacle to varying the bandwidth balance in other ways...

"I'm afraid so. If you want to serve video to multiple people at once, you'll need more than one connection. We do have a special high-density connection, but that's only available to businesses... Well, if you're really interested in videocasting, you can rent space on a video server... We have a server available, but that's a separate division; you'll have to call them yourself. There are also third parties with server space you can rent... The rates vary, but they've been coming down as more servers have become available. You may care to shop around...

"Subscriber rates? Well, because of the way a computer network operates, you're connected to the network pretty much all the time, so we don't charge by amount of time on the line, like the telephone. We charge by amount of data transferred... It's $39.95 per month per connection, plus ten cents for every gigabyte transferred... No, we add up the number of bytes transmitted and received by you, and bill based on the total amount. At three megabits per second continuous use, it works out to a little over ten cents an hour. Business rates are, of course, higher... No, sir, not really. If you were to watch videocasts or movies eight hours a day every day, you'd only spend about $25 a month extra... Actually, no, accessing hosts on the Internet costs more. They're not on our network so we can't bill them... Well, we like to think of it as 'long distance...'

"So, can I sign you up?"


Postscript 1996.01.14

Time heals many wounds, and the last year or so has seen the explosion of the World Wide Web into the beginnings of a mass market. All those incredibly lame "enhanced" cable service trials have either been cancelled, mothballed, or rolled out to a limited number of subscribers, whose response has been near-universal apathy. The Web has shown people that they can have a voice in a broadcast-like medium, and now they won't settle for anything less.

Score one for the good guys...


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Copyright © 1996 Leo L. Schwab. All Rights Reserved.

Leo L. Schwab / Digital Spellweaver / ewhac@best.com