The following text is copyright 1997 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

Knowing what map to use

A few years ago near Shiprock in north western New Mexico I decided to take a road that led west into Arizona. The route of this road was quite clear on the map and it started out majestically skirting the southern border of Shiprock Peak and piercing the knife edge ridge that extends south from the old volcano. But a few miles further on it suddenly deteriorated into what would be positively described as a goat path. At the time I blamed the map reader and the navigator but in retrospect I expect it was the map maker.

I expect that John Malone of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI) feels the same as I did when confronted with the inevitability of turning around and traveling by a more understood path. John announced in an interview in the Wall Street Journal, sort of a high profile place to do this, that TCI had blown it in trying to turn itself into the personification of the information superhighway and was retreating into its core cable TV business. Gone were the efforts in residential telephone and Internet access services. Back to Star Trek reruns and Martha Stewart. (Leave an inch of snow when you shovel because it looks better; your mileage may vary in Miami.)

John was quoted as saying "We were just chasing too many rabbits at the same time." But not all rabbit chasers are backing off. Continental Cablevision, already with about a thousand subscribers to its Internet via cable TV service, says it still plans to offer high-speed networks for voice, video and computer data to its 4.2 million subscribers. I have been a subscriber to a Continental Cablevision Internet service for the past couple of years and find that the service has been extremely reliable and, at 500 Kbps, rather nice to work over.

Looking from the outside it might be a bit unreliable to try and figure out what is the difference in approach that is producing the difference in result, but I'm going to do so anyway. While Continental Cablevision seems to be content to start out providing access to the Internet, TCI seemed to want the whole enchilada. TCI seemed to want to bring every technology known or imagined to the customer at one time while being the prime content provider. The idea that someone might want to just access the hundreds of thousands of Internet sites seemed to not have penetrated into the TCI planning.

It does seem that all too many of the "big players" are following the same map. On this map the yellow brick road leads to riches based on a few omnipresent content providers. It might be time for some of these players to take a look behind the curtain. They just might find that the path they are trying to follow exists only in the map maker's imagination and that the future actually lies in enabling a whole lot of little players.

disclaimer: Some conspiracy theorists seem to fear that Harvard is the power behind the curtain, but in this case it is just my mutterings.