Myths Litter the Information Highway

Like conquistadors of the past, today's corporations and inventors may be chasing illusory goals, only to discover later a more realistic and sustainable new world of telecommunications.

WHEN Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in the New World, he found what is now the Bahamas and Florida. But he was disappointed; he was searching for the Fountain of Youth.

In the 1540s, Francisco Coronado established Spain's claim to a stretch of land from California to Kansas. But it was almost an afterthought. He wanted El Dorado: the Seven Cities of Gold.

That's the problem with conquistador-explorers. They often chase the wrong things. When today's corporate chieftains describe cyberspace, history seems to be repeating itself.

In the last week alone, Bell Atlantic and Nynex have announced their desire to combine cellular telephone operations, creating a $13 billion behemoth. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) and home-shopping channel QVC Network are said to be close to a merger. The strategy? To be big enough and diversified enough to take over the so-called information highway. But the notion that bigness ensures survival is nearly as far-fetched as the Fountain of Youth.

The history of technology is rife with examples of how small entrepreneurs have wrested away new markets from larger competitors. In the computer industry, for example, Microsoft successfully challenged IBM in software; hundreds of companies sprang up to build personal computers while mainframe manufacturers stood idly by.

The same may hold true in the new world of communications known as cyberspace.

``Some traditional forms of enterprise will survive,'' says Daniel Spulber, professor of management strategy at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. But the big winners may be entrepreneurs no one's heard of yet, he adds.

Telephone, television, and computer companies are excited about cyberspace because it borders each of their domains.

If two people 1,000 miles apart hold a telephone-carried, video-enabled conference, they're meeting in a space that is not physical. That's cyberspace.

These kinds of communications will become even easier and more pervasive as telephones, televisions, and computers begin to speak the same digital language.

There's huge business potential in sending text, voice, and video as easily as making a phone call. But because this cyberspace is unfinished, no one knows what it will look like. Only the myths are coming into focus.

Myth No. 1: The information highway.

``It perpetuates the myth that it is one thing,'' says Jeff Johnson, chairman of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, a national organization concerned with the social implications of computer technologies. ``There is not just one highway in the US. There is a highway `system.' And highways are only one of many types of road, and roads are just one of many transportation routes, in our national transportation system.''

Alan Blatecky, vice president of information technologies at MCNC, a research consortium in Research Triangle Park, N.C., says: ``You may get on [the information highway but] you are not going to follow a path. You may go up.''

Myth No. 2: Cyberspace means 500 channels of television, mostly movies.

Cyberspace will not be television - not television as we know it. Yes, viewers will probably be able to sit in front of a set and select any movie they want. But that's not where the action will be, technology gurus predict. ``Movies-on-demand will come but almost instantly become a commodity,'' says Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, Calif. ``The cable companies will find it's more difficult'' than they thought, he adds. Video will become interactive. That means viewers will not only receive signals but send back messages, thanks to a small, computerized box that sits on top of the set. Even then, it's not clear how dynamic this market will be.

``The set-top box is probably the least important'' innovation, adds Avram Miller, vice president of corporate business development at Intel Corporation in Santa Clara, Calif. ``We are going from television where we watch when they want ... to television where we watch when we want. But you're not going to pay your bills that way.''

Myth No. 3: The all-in-one appliance.

While cyberspace will quite possibly create new information machines, these appliances will do separate things.

You wouldn't pay your bills through a television screen 15 feet away.

In cyberspace, one size does not fit all. ``Game machines,'' Mr. Miller says, ``won't take over the world.''

Myth No. 4: Cyberspace means the Internet.

This international web of communicating computers is an intriguing experiment, but probably too utopian to survive in its current form. ``To some extent, the Internet is a myth,'' Miller says. ``It's probably unsustainable in its current form.... People have to be allowed to make money or they won't invest.''

Myth No. 5: Cyber-Utopia.

According to this vision, everyone will be able to log on, download, and upload anything they want. The services will be free or nearly free. We'll all be members of a single electronic village.

``I think there's a great danger in these arguments,'' Mr. Johnson says. ``It's a mistake to require universal access to the information superhighway.'' If it's not valuable, then government and industry will waste enormous sums of money.

Myth No. 6: Electronic commerce will drive the future.

The promises glitter: on-line shopping, electronic malls. Cyberspace has already begun to create such things. But it's doubtful these will dominate the traffic. ``The overwhelming bulk [of traffic] will be people talking to each other,'' Johnson says.

How they will communicate is unclear. Miller thinks electronic mail will be the application that lures business people into cyberspace. Mr. Saffo of the Institute for the Future believes that ``live'' communication will become more important.

Myth No. 7: The future is far off/The future is here.

Some people are already using on-line services to shop, carrying portable phones that enable anytime/anywhere communication, and the sending of electronic mail all over the world. But it's doubtful the current set of services are cheap enough and compelling enough to appeal to the mainstream. No one knows what it will take to make cyberspace as popular as, say, the car or the telephone.

Nearly 100 years before Coronado searched for El Dorado, Johannes Gutenberg used movable type to produce his famous Bible. It wasn't until 50 years later that Aldus Manutius in Italy created inexpensive, pocket-sized editions that assured the printing industry's future, Saffo says. It may take entrepreneurs quite a while to figure out the real opportunities in cyberspace, he adds.

``The ... secret of the information revolution is that it takes almost as long today as in the 1400s.''

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