We might as well call it Thing.
Nobody really knows what to call the piece of electronic equipment that will sit atop, behind, inside or outside the television in the American home of the not-distant future.
It might get stuck with a techno-babble acronym such as HIP, for home information processor, or IDU, for information distribution unit. It might be called the "smart box," although even its shape is by no means settled.
The name isn't important. What matters is that Ray Smith and John Malone have a vision of what this Thing will do in your home. That vision, widely shared throughout the telecommunications industries, is the force driving the two men to join Bell Atlantic Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc. in a multibillion-dollar merger announced last week.
Thing will be the point of convergence for all electronic information entering or leaving the home. It will blend the technologies we call television, telephone, computing and wireless communications into something new and different.
Its role will be as pervasive and clever as its fictional namesake, the "digital" disembodied hand of "Addams Family" fame. It will be able to control appliances and warn if visitors are coming. It will pop up on command in various rooms of the house. It will reach into an electronic mailbox and deliver messages to you.
And if you say, "Thank you, Thing," it will likely say, "You're welcome."
Mr. Smith, chief executive of Bell Atlantic, and Mr. Malone, his counterpart at TCI, probably won't head the company that makes Thing. But these high-tech executives have something even bigger in mind. Mr. Smith has dubbed it the "full-service network," which he has defined as "the ability to deliver any service [voice, data or video] on any technology platform [wired or wireless] to any customer, anywhere."
A network is hard to visualize. What will be visible are the pieces of the network installed in your home and car and those carried with you.
Here's what it will be like:
Let's put you in a family on the upper side of middle class. You're in your 40s, have one child and live in a suburban town house. In short, you're the type of customer Mr. Smith and Mr. Malone will need if their full-service network is not to be a costly failure.
It's 2003. In most respects, the home hasn't changed much since 1993. But the family room is quite different.
Thing is unobtrusive -- wherever it's located. What is noticeable is the television. No longer a box, it's a large flat-panel screen mounted on the wall opposite the couch. Almost hidden near the ceiling is a tiny camera on a swivel mount, aimed at the couch most of the time.
Next to the couch is a hand-held channel-changer, much like today's but with the ability to double as a wireless telephone. That's how it's used most of the time, because it's easier to tell the TV which channel to turn on. Once the artificial intelligence software gets to know your voice and viewing habits, all you'll have to say is, "The usual."
So you're sitting there watching Oprah and Thing tells you that you have a phone call. It's Mom, who wants to show you the new curtains in the Winnebago, so you tell Thing to put the call on two-way video and up pops Mom on the TV screen.
Quickly, Thing puts Oprah on hold and turns over her space on the wire to video. There's that annoying half-second delay, but that should disappear by 2005, when Bell Atlantic installs fiber-optic cable into your neighborhood. At the same time, Thing activates the wall-mounted camera, which hones in on your voice.
After a few minutes, when you've seen the curtains, the video of Mom fades out because video is still rather expensive and Thing knows you're trying to hold down your telecommunications bill. When Mom's through talking, Oprah pops back on.
Meanwhile, in the home office, your spouse is sitting at the computer, paying that electronically delivered telecommunications bill, which Thing has routed to your electronic bill box. The toll's pretty high, but because she's telecommuting to work, the family's spending a lot less money on gasoline, parking and clothing. When that's done, a voice command switches the monitor to the Bell Atlantic Video Mall for a little shopping.
Just then, a call comes in for your son, 13, who's at a friend's house playing the ultra-gory Mortal Kombat V with two boys in Chicago via (Channel 429) the Game Network. Thing routes the call to his pocket phone unit. When it turns out to be that nerd from history class, he wishes he had set the phone for Caller ID so he could have shunted the call to voice mail.
Achievable in a decade
Nothing in this vision is pie-in-the-sky. It is made up of technologies that telecommunications authorities consider achievable within a decade. Some of the technologies -- such as the video camera that tracks your voice and the Caller ID on the remote phone -- already are under trial or in development today at Bellcore labs in New Jersey. And the vanguard of these new services, Bell Atlantic's video-on-demand program called Stargazer, is set to go on line next year in Alexandria, Va.
Still, the dilemma for companies seeking to cash in on these new services is that the consumer can hit the brakes whenever the pace of change becomes too fast.
"The question is what goods and services consumers are willing to pay for," said Michael Wirth, chairman of the department of mass communications and journalism at the University of Denver.
Jeff Hallett, president of the PresentFutures Group in Falls Church, Va., said the key to consumer acceptance is making the technology "very simple, very intuitive [and] fun to use."
"The ease of use is the big problem," he said. "There are all kinds of capabilities on the phone system that people don't use. People still can't program their VCRs."
Carol Wilson, editor of the trade journal Telephony, sees exciting possibilities in the full-service network that Mr. Smith envisions. But she also believes there will be significant negative effects, including a loss of personal contact and a decline of traditional retailers.
"You might raise a whole generation of kids that don't want to go outside and play," she said. "Imagine what happens to teen-agers when there are no malls."
Whatever the eventual mix of services, there is little doubt within the industry that the Bell Atlantic-TCI deal will bring the vision of a full-service network closer to reality.
Ms. Wilson isn't worried that Bell Atlantic's head start will result in monopoly control of the new media. But by the time the others get cranked up, they may find that they have to play by a technological rule book that's been largely written by Mr. Smith and Mr. Malone.
"They have the power to set the de facto standard," she said.