The potential mutations of future communications technology are unlimited and may be greatly aided by the spread of Asynchronous Transfer Mode networks, but their ultimate success will depend greatly on suppliers’ ability to, as General Magic Inc chief executive Marc Porat said, translate the soft, analogue part of us into something the hard-edged zeroes and ones can understand. This was more or less the conclusion of an eclectic, yet somehow coherent, discussion of networking horizons by the panel New Products, New Processes held at Communications Week International’s Networked Economy conference in Paris last month. Porat added that a friendly user interface was of paramount importance, which, he said is the purpose of General Magic’s Telescript. At the end of it all, [the target user] is not the technofile like us, but the technophobe, the people who are just trying to get on with their lives. As Freud said, we are pleasure seekers and we will avoid things that hurt us or cause damage to our self esteem and, right now, these technologies are marvelous at crashing people’s self esteem. We’re working for people who are fragile, and that fragility is often expressed in a rejection of technology. Video games may have a role at the fringes of the information systems industry in breaking down some of the techno-fear among consumers, said Nick Alexander, chief executive at UK-based Sega Europe Ltd and co-author of the Post-Literate Society. But, frankly, I don’t see much happening to help people get into the products. We need something easy, menu-driven.
It worries me that we’re running far too far ahead of where the consumer market will be, he said. Alexander, whose company has shot from a $12m concern in 1988 to $600m last year, contends there is just no clear perception of the potential uses of technology. I think multimedia is still on the horizon, not just in front of us, because people do not know what it can do for them. CD-I is a wonderful product, for example, that has been on the market for some time but hasn’t done anything yet because people just don’t get it. To its credit, the panel discussion often seemed to be an exercise in reality test. More than once, high-flying descriptions of fantastic technological utopias were brought back to earth by another panel member. A tantalising pitch by Hermann Hauser, chairman, Eo Europe Ltd for its Active Badge product, which purports to enable users to get computing environment transferred to any remote computer just by walking into a room and pushing the button on the badge, was one such example. Said Jozef Cornu, executive vice-president, Alcatel Alsthom SA, France, That’s all very nice, but when it comes to such products, I don’t think we’re talking about human beings as their users.
By Marsha Johnston
I think these things will become more niche applications and parts of them will be integrated into other products. Also, you have to look at how much people will pay for a Christmas present to determine what people will buy. Based on his experience in mass distribution, Steve DeWindt, co-president of Munich-based Computer 2000 AG, agreed with Cornu. The Christmas present rule is a good one; people have bought video recorders because they are low in price and they are simple to use for their basic function. There has to be a driving reason for the device to be purchased, and it must be distributed everywhere, like TVs. The panel members did not view Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology as an unrealistic techno-utopia, but rather as an ideal means for delivering the bitstreams necessary to begin realising some of their futuristic visions. Said Hauser of Eo – which has developed Advanced Telecom Modules to distribute ATM throughout the home – It’s such a chameleon that it can deal with voice as well as data. It unifies telephone, video demands, cable TV and hi-fi all on one wire. ATM is a godsend for these applications. Cornu, from Alcatel, which began working on Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology in 1984, went even further in descri
bing the potential of the technology, saying that the important question is whether Asynchronous Transfer Mode will be an application for the few or a new foundation for providing myriad of services to wider markets. There are three markets for ATM. The first is the four billion people in the world without a phone, the second is the home via the ordinary phone handset and TV set, where there are probably 1 billion consumers, and the third market is the business community, which probably comprises tens of millions of people who want access to very sophisticated services, he explained, adding that business products already exist. For the home market, the big challenge is what kind of cable architecture to put in place. There’s a conflict between trying to be very fast with optical fibre or to be competitive with existing wiring – phone wire – or television co-axial cable. The telephone wire has bandwidth limitations, while to put [ATM] on co-ax you have to modulate it on radio. When will we have the wiring into homes that will permit the ATM bitstream to come in? Cornu seems to believe Asynchronous Transfer Mode installed on speech networks could be an ideal foundation for expanding telephone service in the world, once software and cost issues are solved. He contends that Alcatel has a privileged position in that its switches are among the few that can accomodate automatic routing information found in an Asynchronous Transfer Mode cell.
Voice of Caution
In fact, he expects Alcatel to be installing Asynchronous Transfer Mode on voice networks in a couple of years. We have a couple of customers interested already, but I can’t say who, he said. Pressed a little, he said those customers could be from industrialised markets, but not necessarily. As for the cost, he said, In March 1994 it’s too high to put ATM on voice networks, but by 1996 it probably won’t be. Hauser said Eo hopes to have a $10 ATM chip in the next few years, and Cornu responded that Alcatel already has one chip that sells for below $10, although he would not specify what it does. The sole voice of caution in expecting too much from Asynchronous Transfer Mode was Olof Lundberg, director general of Inmarsat. Ten years ago I was among those who thought ATM was an automatic teller machine. Now it’s the future of everything? No. Asynchronous Transfer Mode is a software, a protocol and there will be other protocols, he said. Later on in the discussion, however, Lundberg allowed that he believes the videophone of the future will be $99 software bought at the corner store that runs on a Windows system via ATM. Indeed, said Porat, the system in the near future will be the network, whether it is a computer or a telephone network. In Bill Gates’s world, the battle for that square foot on the desktop (read personal computer) is supreme, but with the network as the system, it just becomes an interesting phone.