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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




Are Computers Bound To Disappear?
March 22nd, 2000

We live in a world of computers, don't we? Well, if you doubt it, here is some evidence to prove an already obvious reality:

  • Print journalism, television and movie production depend on computers. They handle page layout, editing, and even creation.
  • Look at university life. If you had the privilege to spend a few years around a university campus, you know that most professors require printed papers with decent page layout. Then there's the way governments helped computerize schools and wire them to the Internet.
  • Take me while we're at it! I type all these columns and reviews on a Mac and I connect to the Internet daily for various reasons. In university, I sometimes spend an hour or two in a computer lab filled with loaded Blue and White G3s to put the final touch to a project or do research on the Net.
  • Ever go to someone's office in a small business or at a public place? Most of the time, there are computers around. Even my dentist has one.
  • If you live in a big city or plan on visiting one soon, your odds of crossing a businessman's path are excellent when downtown. Along with their cellular phones, they usually carry laptop PC's or PowerBooks with them, or at least hand held devices like Palm.
  • Y2K anyone? If computers had suffered this bug as it was predicted a few years ago, even electricity would have been toast.
  • Libraries, book stores and documentation centers usually have computers to search for books or access CD-ROMs.

If I was evil, I could extend this list. But I see you yawning because after all, you are reading this column at 3:00 in the morning while your wife is wondering why you're still down there on the damn computer and the point is about the computer's dominance in our lives... The personal computer has a place of prominence in the household and the office. In fact, the difference between computer and personal computer isn't too big since the same equipment makes it to the office and the house.

While this type of appliance has become increasingly important, some people have been making arbitrary predictions about its possible demise. Whaaat? Is this powerful little machine ever going to fade away to nothingness? I beg to differ. In an age of the ever-present armchair prognostication, it's easy to stumble. Unless you are lucky, most of what you'll hear is rarely based on anything serious even though these people know how to deliver a message forcefully. They're not the visionaries they wish they were. Nothing certifies their "knowledge."

About computers and other technologies

The computer is a winning concept, and its demise can't be pronounced just like that. When I say winning concept, I mean that it was made to stay, just like print, telephone, radio, television and radio. Each have enough advantages so that you can't eliminate them no matter how hard you try.

Print is amazing. As long as you have some light, you can sit down to read a book, document or a newspaper almost anywhere at any time of the day. Say that your carrier delivers the newspaper at 3:30 AM, which is the case for me. I can read a few articles at 6:30 AM while sipping coffee, bring it in my backpack to university, read the editorials before training at 2 PM and finish the sports section during dinner before class starts at 7 PM. Also, print is so flexible and you can keep it archived as long as you want. Nothing is better for your ego than when somebody enters the room where you keep all your books... what a cultured person you are!

Radio is very simple. It brings you news, music or shows and you can listen to it while doing something else. Television is the powerful combination of sound and images. Telephone, especially with mobile phones, is vital in today's society for people to talk from anywhere in the world to... anywhere in the world.

These winning concepts have been threatened by newer ones over the decades. It was predicted that radio would kill the newspaper and that television would kill them both. It's silly when you look at what happens today. Not only did they survive, but they are very very strong or even growing, depending on where you live.

Last week, in one of my Public Relations classes, we had someone give a conference about how to evaluate performance in our business. The guy told us about his book on the subject. He adopted all kinds of technologies and ways to transmit his knowledge over the years,. He told us that even in the year 2000 (the multimedia age), what brought him the biggest impact on the communications industry was print. Nothing less than an old fashioned book.

Which brings me back to my point about how impossible it is to eliminate a winning concept from the market. ("Good product" is not necessarily synonymous with "winning concept," for those who are wondering.) The computer and the Internet - which are now inseparable - combine to produce one of those concepts. It's already so powerful and yet we haven't seen it all yet. Its expansion is stealing content and power from other media. In fact, it's more than expansion. It's a revolution. One of the strongest indicators of a revolution is when a situation gets out of control in a good way. When a country's people decides that a regime is going down, even the best police and army corps can't do anything about it and if they do, time is on the revolution's side.

The same applies to computers and the Internet. Both broke previously unbreakable barriers such as geographical isolation. Do you remember the situation where some Serbs were communicating with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC)?

The revolution stemming from computers and the Internet is changing our world. The most daring commentators think that the Net's impact can equal or surpass Gutenberg's invention of print. That's no small feat, but when you consider the Net's accessibility around the world, the prediction isn't all that irrational.

Rationality tells us that we ought to replace inferior products with superior offerings. But concepts such as print, radio, television, telephone and computers don't fall under this rule. Their sustained existence is due to a combination of rationality and irrational thinking. It's because you won't replace what you have with something different or better unless it's worth the investment and the switch.

A little analogy

Are you familiar with the MiniDisc? Introduced by Sony several years ago, it was supposed to replace the traditional audio cassette because it is recordable, in digital format, smaller, it cannot be destroyed as easily as a cassette and it holds the same amount of data as a CD because of compression techniques. Those were rational arguments at the time, but if you go to any music store... well, you will notice that the second most popular way to distribute music is still the audio cassette. That's not going to change any time soon even if Sony tries hard to sell the MiniDisc.

Switching to the better unit would have been a lot of trouble because you would have to buy a new player or upgrade to a player that plays both CD and MiniDisc. Money, more than any reason, will block that kind of progress.

Computers vs. beefed up gaming consoles

I noticed that some have said the PlayStation 2 could replace computers. This gaming console costs around US$300. It's cheap, but think about the fact that Sony reportedly loses money on them and is instead making money from game royalties. If consoles like the new PlayStation were to replace computers, companies would have to raise the price to ensure that their sales couldn't threaten the whole concept's potential profit. Of course, the price doesn't include the cost of your display, which is your TV.

They handle Internet access? The Sega Saturn did... but it didn't break any real barriers.

If you want to type anything like a letter, you'll need more than the gaming controller. Keyboard? Then you'll need software to handle text and save it. Word processor? Don't start with speech recognition. The more you think about fulfilling more needs with the console, the closer you get to computers. That would raise the price significantly. So if you are to pay the same price for something that looks a lot like a computer... why bother when computers do games anyway?

Would merging the gaming console and the computer do anything? Nah. Integrating two good but separate products doesn't work as the WebTV experience and several others have proved. Again, it seems logical to go for the two-in-one unit, but having appliances separate makes them simpler and more convenient, if not more powerful. You'll tell me that the home theater system is a great example of convergence, but remember that the DVD, speakers, CD, tape and radio have a natural bond. The computer doesn't get along very well with other technologies, except for CD/DVD and speakers.

What I have raised might sound incisive, but you can't spell the end of the computer by snapping your fingers and talking about a gaming console.

Conclusion

Computers are here to stay. We depend on them and admittedly, we're not unhappy about it. Rational reasons pile up easily for it to stay and if anything superior creates a new wave, then the computer will find its niche to survive.

Besides... would YOU want it to disappear? Imagine if its demise meant the end of the hype to get a new computer. You know the feeling when you look at your old computer a few weeks before upgrading to that gorgeous looking G4 with a 19-inch monitor... it's excitement that any stereo, car or computer user likes.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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