It's December, 1995, and that means it's time for a MEME prediction on what 1996 has in store for us. There are three big themes we should all be looking out for next year:
* In 1996 the Personal Computer will be marketed and sold like a consumer electronics item -- putting pressure on certain PC makers (Dell, Packard-Bell, Gateway) who don't know how to sell computers the way Sony sells Discmans. A premium will be placed on design, marketing and little add-ons that distinguish one box from the next. The trend already started, but next year we will see Compaq, IBM and Apple joined by Sony as clear leaders in the marketing and selling of PCs. They will innovate and try to separate from the pack by using strategies pioneered by the packaged-goods industry.
* The gap between workstation and PCs (Dell, Packard-Bell, Gateway) who don't know how to sell computers the way Sony sells Discmans. A premium will be placed on design, marketing and little add-ons that distinguish one box from the next. The trend already started, but next year we will see Compaq, IBM and Apple joined by Sony as clear leaders in the marketing and selling of PCs. They will innovate and try to separate from the pack by using strategies pioneered by the packaged-goods industry.
* The gap between workstation and PC parallel, you can take on the biggest workstations at a competitive price. The proof? The Department of Energy just signed a deal with Intel to build a terraflop (one trillion calculations per second) supercomputer out of several thousand Pentium Pro chips. See Intel take over more of the computing world in '96.
* In the great tradition of hacking (in the old sense of the word: to improve a system through constant exploration and alteration), which helped establish the digital environment we revel in, the World Wide Web will metamorphose into something much, much more exciting. The Web, now based on HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a standard created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 so physicists could share documents, is restricting truly unique uses for the web. Consequently, a series of new standards -- HotJava, Microsoft's Visual Basic, Shockwave by Macromedia, and more -- will compete to expand the creative tools available to Web designers and users. With that will come a form of content truly original to the Web, as opposed to the current state based on mutant rehashes of existing off-line media.
So what does this last prediction mean? This one is worthy of deeper probing....
SPACE, MOTION ... AND TIME
These new Web-based tools will shift the Web away from the two- dimensional metaphor of the "Web page." Right now Web-pages move either up or down (scrolling) or forward/backward (linking). The third dimension, missing from the Web, is that of time. Time is what you experience when you're able to interact with dynamic information -- the best example of that is the video game, for instance Doom or the MUD/MOO environments on the Internet. These new Web-based standards will permit the element of time to enter the Web. Once that happens the first phase of Web design will ebb away, liberating us from the utterly banal paradigm we're now suffering through, the "let's put a magazine on the Web" idea.
That idea fails because it contradicts the original purpose and architecture of the Web. HTML lets us build repositories of information. Consequently, along with the "page" metaphor, there is the "library" metaphor. The Web is a big disorganized library without a librarian. Like libraries, we "go" to the Web to get information when we have something specific in mind, or when we feel like browsing for seredipity's sake or just for fun. This makes perfect sense if we recognize the Web's provenance: it came from a community of research scientists who wanted to improve the process of collaborative research. From there to "entertainment" is a long, long leap -- a leap which has left most Web content providers tumbling down into the chasm. The problem is that in our passive media culture, the Web requires us to go "to" information. This works well for people with a specific goal in mind -- for instance researching a question. That's why this paradigm works well for a certain kind of advertising -- detailed product information for buyers committed to making a decision, but unsure of which product to purchase. It fails, however, when it comes to replicating mass media on-line.
THE MEDIA MATING GAME
Most of us consume mass-media passively, meaning it comes to us. For instance, magazines, newspapers, television -- all come to our homes, where with minimal effort (bending over to pick up the newspaper, pressing the remote control) we can then absorb the informind of advertising -- detailed product information for buyers committed to making a decision, but unsure of which product to purchase. It fails, however, when it comes to replicating mass media on-line.
THE MEDIA MATING GAME
Most of us consume mass-media passively, meaning it comes to us. For instance, magazines, newspapers, television -- all come to our homes, where with minimal effort (bending over to pick up the newspaper, pressing the remote control) we can then absorb the informe stars, these sites remain little more than novelties, struggling to draw repeat viewers, swimming against a force of human nature. We need to step back and ask ourselves a couple of questions. What is unique about this medium? What kind of content can only exist in this medium, and nowhere else?
What's unique about computers and cyberspace are two things -- the networking of people regardless of geographic location and immersive real- time games. These are the two singularly unique forms of digital content. ("Hypertext" is *not* a form of content -- it is a tool to build content, and should not be confused as such.) All other forms of digital content are mutant relatives of existing media, often a lot worse off for the wear in this medium. "If you can do it better in another medium, don't do it in cyberspace," should be the motto of every Web-content provider. Unfortunately, the tools required to open the Web to these two "killer applications" -- networked people and networked games -- are hobbled by Berners-Lee's original HTML architecture (no fault of his, he didn't mean it to be used for that). That's all about to change. The universe of IRC, MUD/MOO and real-time gaming is set to explode in 1996.
VIRTUAL WORLDS -- DEJA VU
Back in 1993 everyone talked about MUDs and MOOs as the obvious killer applications of the future -- these were primordial examples of cyberspace's unique form of content. Then the mainstream press discovered the Web, and, because of one reason -- the fact it is so "easy to use" -- everyone overhyped the Web as the Nirvana of digital media. Well, we can thank the Web for massively expanding interest in the Net and being the primary draw for a whole next generation of users. Now that they're on board, it is time to say "thank you" and move on. That's exactly what will happen with HotJava and the other new Web tools. For the first time, media monoliths will have a viable form of *unique* content which can only exist on the Web. At that point, we will finally see the creation of a "new" media which truly cannot be better replicated on NBC, CNN, Newsweek or Polygram in their traditional media.
Already the signs are here. Sega created Sega Soft as a new corporation to explore real-time interactive gaming over computer networks. Sony, Sega, along with NTT, Yamaha and Victor Corp. of Japan, teamed up this fall to create a shared network for video-game playing known as GrR HomeNet in Japan. As you read this pretty much every major gaming software developer has active exploratory deals with leading cable companies to create similar networks here (I cannot say which, due to non-disclosure restrictions. But you can figure it out for yourselves.) It will be very interesting to see the business model they choose to follow. Here is my guess.
The MUD/MOO model is one where users create the game, along a specific theme. Over time certain users become known as heavy contributors and hosts, this adds an element of historical context, realism and community which is unique. Most importantly, the authors are everyday people, not corporations, which creates an essential feeling of ownership. Sega & co. will quickly realize that this will work for them as well. They will create specific "themes," with proprietary elements. Users skilled at creating will build game objects/environments within this structure. For every builder, there will be more users who just want to use what has been built. The users pay to play -- the builders play for free, maybe even split revenue derived from users who get really into a particular object that's been built. In this case an ecology builds around the game company providing the original concept of the world -- much like software vendors building businesses around Microsoft.
AUTHORSHIP -- THE MASS MEDIA ANTIDOTE
The Web will morph into a platform for this kind of content. Some parts of the Web will remain similar to what we have now; odds are those parts will be digital libraries or archives. The "entertainment" portion of the Web will be subsumed by interactive real-time environments. If you want big-time entertainment on-line, that's what's unique, and that's what people will be willing to pay for. The ramifications of this are huge -- it is a major step towards creating virtual worlds, towards moving another part of our lives into cyberspace. What *that* means will have to wait for another time and MEME -- but here is a kernel of an idea: in this world particularly talented virtual impresarios will be able to take on the big players head to head. It is not clear to me that today's big video-game providers will wind up dominating this environment; rather, authorship, that thing which so few of us get to do these days, will open up to include a whole new group of people. Perhaps this is one much-needed antidote to our ever more intricate and all subsuming world of one-way media, a world which, with every new media merger, includes fewer and fewer voices.
Meme 1.08 and its contents copyright 1995 by David S. Bennahum. First spawned by Into The Matrix at http://www.reach.com/matrix/welcome.html. Pass me along all you want, just include this signature file at the end.
Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.