Everybody has heard about the information highway and its potential for changing the way we live, work and communicate. But there are many things we don't know about it yet -- like when it will arrive, where it will take us, and what we'll do when we get there.
It shouldn't come as any shock, then, that those questions loom large in the minds of the manufacturers, retailers and consultants gathered here for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). But the answers they've come up with are surprising.
The CES show is a twice-annual gathering of the electronics industry, at which the latest in consumer gadgetry -- everything from wide-screen TVs to car stereos to cellular phones to personal computer products -- are touted to retailers, distributors and consultants. All the major and most of the minor manufacturers are represented, each eager to sell their vision of the technological future.
For instance, when do the industry soothsayers see the information highway arriving? "It's here now," insists Steve Sigman, vice president for consumer affairs at Zenith. Speaking as part of a panel discussion on the market potential of the information highway, Sigman argued that examples of this brave new technology are already on-line.
Take StarSight, for example. It's an interactive TV programming system that allows viewers to access on-screen programming grids just like the ones found in TV guides. Viewers can get automatic "gazing information," so they'll know what they're looking at (and where they are if they've joined a show in progress), and even set their VCR to record shows with the push of a button. It may sound like the future, but StarSight is up and running now and covers 86 percent of the United States.
StarSight works, said Sigman, "because it is tied to the very heart of the TV -- entertainment." Consequently, he sees a big market ahead for StarSight-enabled cable converters and satellite decoders.
Automated TV programming may seem a somewhat trivial use of the information highway, but it's typical of what consumers want from this new technology.
"We did a survey in which we asked people, 'What do you want from an online service?' " said Jeff Leibowitz, director of marketing for the ImagiNation Network. "Eighty percent said 'entertainment' first. Sad to say, 'education' is only fourth or fifth on the list in this country."
Not that Leibman is lamenting that sense of priorities too much. After all, the ImagiNation Network (which had been known as the Sierra Network before reorganizing after a merger with AT&T;) is devoted entirely to entertainment. It's an online games network, in which computer users play anything from bridge to "Red Baron" against other players via modem.
ImagiNation has been such a success, Leibman said, some players have become addicted, staying online for as much as 300 hours a month.
But the network's real appeal apparently has less to do with thegames than with the communication that goes with playing them -- the banter between bridge players or the conversations that come with role-playing games.
"It's not just games," Leibman pointed out. "The point is people connecting to people."
There's more of that to come, too. Two of the biggest debuts at the CES show were DataPort 2001, a multimedia communicator from AT&T; that will allow computer users to talk over the same line that links their modems, and Edge 16, a collaboration between Sega and AT&T; that will allow people to play Sega Genesis games over the phone -- and talk to one another while playing.
Though Leibman insists that entertainment will be "the main use of the information highway," others are less sure of the direction this technology will eventually take us. As Sigman put it, "We're on a highway, but there's no road map."
Maybe that's why Michael Strange, executive vice president for Franklin Electronic Publishing, expects that some companies will get lost along the way.
In Strange's view, there will be a wide range of uses for the information highway, but the most successful will have one thing in common: "People will be willing to pay for it."
What they're willing to pay for, in his experience, is convenience. His company specializes in calculator-size electronic versions of everything from Roget's Thesaurus to the King James Bible. There's also the Franklin Electronic Book, a tiny sound-and-text display device designed to run off of interchangeable data cards, which can offer anything from simple data retrieval to "talking" translator functions.
Though Strange is proud that his company's machines have grown smaller, cheaper and more powerful with each passing year, he stressed that technology alone is not enough to guarantee a successful product.
"The product will carry its own weight if the application is appropriate," he said. So besides spell-checkers and translators, one of Franklin's hottest product lines is a series devoted to baseball statistics. There's even a subscription series for rotisserie baseball enthusiasts.
"There are a variety of paths out there on the information highway," Strange concluded. "They're all right -- if they're profitable."