Digital Age transforms living rooms and family behavior, as well as industries

February 19, 1992|By G. Pascal Zachary | G. Pascal Zachary,Wall Street Journal

The Digital Age may transform the consumer's living room, as well as several global industries.

So much information will be offered, in the form of movies, music, pictures and text, that a major entrepreneurial challenge of the next century will be to help the consumer manage it all.

"The world is totally going digital. Anything you're curious about will be in digital form, accessible electronically," says William Gates III, chairman of Microsoft Corp. "So, when you sit down to watch a movie at home, it won't just be the latest movies you'll be able to see but any movie ever made."

A test in Cerritos, Calif., offers a real-life glimpse of the future. GTE Corp., the local telephone company, is piping an array of services into the home of Jack and Pat Jakubik. Video-phone. Home shopping and bill-paying. Movies-on-demand. Cable TV. And, of course, telephone service.

"You're talking about Buck Rogers in the 21st century," boasts Mr. Jakubik, "and yeah, we've got it."

Since the experiment started a year and a half ago, the Jakubiks have cut way back on video rentals, from an average of 10 to one a week. Now, they select new movies from a "menu" on the TV screen.

The family also has grown accustomed to speaking on the video-phone. The extroverted Mr. Jakubik sometimes makes calls in his bathrobe, but son Bobby is still a tad self-conscious. "I have to think about what I do in front of the camera," he says.

The family is less enamored of electronic shopping and bill-paying.

"I thought it would be really nice, but that hasn't been true," Mrs. Jakubik says. That's partly because the command system isn't easy to use. The family manipulates on-screen menus with a remote-control device, but working through a complex transaction is tedious.

The task of devising a more user-friendly digital system has already begun. The stakes are enormous. Any company that creates a software ritual -- a simple routine, shared widely among gadgets -- stands to collect a tax on virtually everything from pocket phones to fax machines to TV remote controllers.

Both Microsoft and Apple Computer Inc., which back rival

approaches to controlling a personal computer, are trying to adapt their operating systems to consumer electronics goods. In this area, Apple is allied with Sony Corp., and Microsoft is believed to be courting Matsushita Electric Works Ltd., Sony's archrival in consumer electronics. A slew of lesser-known companies, as well as Sony, Matsushita and other electronics manufacturers, are working on ways to link together big-screen monitors, loudspeakers, cable TV and compact-disk players.

While consumers can expect the problem of control to be solved eventually, they may find, in the end, the cost of plugging into the Digital World too steep. GTE, for instance, relies on fiber-optic cable to deliver its services to the Jakubik family. Futurists extol the virtues of fiber optics, which consists of hair-thin strands of super-clear glass that send messages by flashing a light on and off -- ones and zeros -- more than a billion times a second. A single strand can transmit 16,000 conversations at once, compared with 24 conversations on copper wire, which today connects the homes of virtually all consumers to the telephone network.

The trouble with fiber? The price tag on building a nationwide network is put at anywhere from $100 billion to $1 trillion.

Reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal, 1992, Dow Jones and Co. All rights reserved.

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