The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Days of future past

The December 6th issue of the Wall Street Journal had a story announcing the demise of Tele-TV, a joint venture of Bell Atlantic, Nynex and PacTel, who have spent a few hundred million dollars on it. The Bell-ettes created Tele-TV in 1994 when Time, Newsweek and even most of the technical press were lusting after the National (and Global) Information Infrastructure--a grand new network infrastructure that was going to be couch-potato heaven. It would support the ability to instantly call up movies you never knew you wanted to see--Rocky 34 one night and Terminator 17 the next.

Tele-TV was to create the technology and programming for interactive-television. It was formed when the Information Superhighway was going to be fun. In fact, it was only going to be fun. The idea that people and businesses might want to use it for communication or commerce seemed far from the best and brightest minds of the traditional telecommunications industry.

But something happened to the dream and that something was the Internet.

The traditional networking and telecommunications people dismissed the Internet as some slightly suspect government toy that could never be used for anything real. Come to think of it, the thinking has not evolved all that much; they still claim the Internet is not good enough for business and that business will have to build its own intranet. Those of us who use the 'Net for productive work day after day must be suffering some sort of mass hypnosis. I will say, if it is all a delusion, it is a grand delusion.

There were other reasons which lead to the folding of Tele-TV. The Journal mentions the difficulty the cable TV industry found in trying to develop the technology to directly compete with the telephone companies on voice service, thus removing a reason for the telephone companies to try and confront the cable companies on their own turf. In addition the new telecommunications bill will allow the Bells to enter the market for long distance phone calls, something they think they know how to do and that seems far more likely to generate a profit than video on demand with a much smaller up-front investment.

But the underlying reason is the traditional telecommunications view of the future and its relationship to what the Internet represents. The traditional view is that the future is represented by the concept of centralized content. Broadcast and cable TV are exactly what the traditionalists see as the future. In this future large and very large companies will be providing resources to which all users flock like pigeons in the park to someone spreading bread crumbs. The view is of few providers serving many customers.

But this is not what the Internet is. The Internet is many providers serving many customers. The customers will still pay for much of what they get (unlike now where many sites are still altruistically provided), but the revenue will not be for just a few megacorps. For example, the Internet is the kind of thing that enables a small company, employing just a few people to become one of largest, in terms of titles available, book stores in the world. On the Internet, no one knows you are puny.

This fundamentally different understanding of the future will continue to create more Tele-TVs, but the Internet will continue to grow in spite of them.

disclaimer: Although Harvard uses the many to many for many (many students, many teachers, many $) it has no opinion on NII paradigms.