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'Net Insider:

Vague remembrances of home

By Scott Bradner
Network World, 10/02/00            

I seem to remember that this Internet thing was supposed to cut down on travel by supporting videoconferencing. Thirty-five thousand feet over Kansas and a few days into a 15-day series of trips that has me sleeping in my own bed only two nights of the 15, I am deep into the realization that the reverse seems to be true.

Not that long ago, pundits of every stripe, a myriad of start-ups and Wall Street analysts evaluating airline stocks said videoconferencing was going to reduce the need for business travel. What happened to those predictions? Does the reliability of those predictions teach us anything about what technologies will and will not change our lives in the future?

Videoconferencing did not fail to reduce flights because the technology could not be made to work. I was at two companies in the last two days that make use of high-quality videoconferencing systems. Large screens, good resolution (you could see that the person on the other end was smiling when he made a snide remark), and near-TV rate screen updates make these systems effective. They are not cheap and require reasonable bandwidth (384K bit/sec) to operate, but they convey most of the information humans use for communication. Such a system was in use in one of the meetings I was in, but in spite of this, all but one of the visitors had flown hundreds or thousands of miles to take part in this four-hour meeting.

What happened to the predictions is they did not adequately take into account human behavior. If this seems like a rather obvious thing to take into account, it should be. But it is constantly being discounted. In the case of videoconferencing, it seems like most humans still interact better when they are face to face ("Better" might not be the right word for some people - let's say "more efficiently"). Thus, airlines are seeing more business travel than ever before.

Other predictions that might be suspect include the assumption that Internet phone users will always demand, and be willing to pay for, high-quality calls. Or that major, studio-produced content will be more valuable than person-to-person interaction. Or that complex, slow Internet services will make the Wireless Application Protocol successful, and make the tens of billions of dollars being spent on wireless frequencies a worthwhile investment.Or the assumption that users will want wireless service providers to know where they are so they can be told where the nearest McDonald's is. Or that consumers would never pay for rationally priced music on the 'Net.

An awful lot of money is riding on the above and other assumptions about people and their use of the Internet. I cannot predict for sure which assumptions are right, but I will predict that most of the above are wrong because the people making the assumptions forget to look into the mirror.

Disclaimer: Harvard has lots of mirrors and they are used some of the time, but the above is my prediction - not Harvard's.

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