Message: 26
Date: 8.1.95
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Bit by Bit, PCs Are Becoming TVs. Or Is It the Other Way Around?

Only a year ago, people argued over which one would serve as the port of entry for the I-way, and which would be the information and entertainment appliance for the home. Well, the argument is over. The answer is the PC. George Gilder is right. There is life after television, and it's all about the PC.

But don't confuse television with television sets. I'm not suggesting that relaxation is a thing of the past. To understand the rise of the PC and the demise of the TV set is to consider the role of the TV in the everyday life of Americans - as well as the degree to which that role can be played out more fully by other means in the digital age. Is It Location, Location, Location?

Although Vincent Astor talked about real estate in a larger sense, consider the microlandscape of your own home. Whether in a living room, a library, or a bedroom, a television set normally includes a large screen. The viewer sits beyond arm's reach, often with others, on a sofa. A PC, on the other hand, frequently has a smaller screen and is rarely located in the living room. The user sits upright in a chair, at a desk or table, with his or her nose roughly 18 inches from the screen. These particular customs stem not only from today's versions of these appliances but also from the fact that human interaction feels more meaningful when we are next to each other, not tethered by electrons. PCs, however, will inevitably become more bedworthy. And television sets will grow to resemble keyboardless computers, installed more like Sheetrock than furniture.

The difference is not really social. Some still consider the experience of humans watching TV side by side to be more social than the interaction of the 10 million Americans online today. Yet we know that Americans engage more in "community" than "information retrieval" while online. (On America Online, according to its CEO Steve Case, the percentage ratio is 60:40.)

Where the Bits Are
The basic difference between today's TVs and PCs has nothing to do with location, social habits, or our need to relax. It has to do with how the bits arrive. The TV takes in bits radiated by cable, satellite, or terrestrial transmission. These bits are essentially thrown at the TV to catch-as-catch-can. By contrast, the PC receives its bits because it (or you) asks for them explicitly (or implicitly). That's the difference.

In both cases, the TV and the PC are bit processors, accumulating bits as they come, or reaching for them from afar. Sometimes, you'll want to pull on bits; other times, you'll want them pushed at you - whether you're in the bedroom or the living room, sitting or lying, with someone or alone.

For a while, computer designers were adding more and more video to their computers; meanwhile, TV manufacturers were adding more and more computing to their TVs. Modern TVs have chips running megaMIPs, and Intel processes VCR-quality TV (real-time, full-screen TV) on its current Pentium. Yet companies that made both TVs and PCs found that the respective divisions didn't even talk to each other: one group was addressing the "consumer" market, the other the "computer-user" market. Any knucklehead who believes such a distinction exists today doesn't deserve gainful employment. They are the same market.

Media Arts and Sciences
During the past two springs, I co-taught the Media Lab's introductory undergraduate subject, MAS100. This year, we asked students to do an assignment revealing information about PCs and TVs. The following are facts uncovered by four of those students.

Student One: Aneel N. Nazareth (achmed@mit.edu). Fact: http://voyager.paramount.com/ is where you'll find the first Voyager Web page, which predates the TV show.

Student Two. Derek Lindner (buddha@mit.edu). Facts: The number of TV schedules on the Net: 27. The number of TV shows with a Web home page: 540. The number of TV networks in Peru: 8. The number of Internet subnets in Peru: 37. The number of TV networks in Lebanon: 44. The number of Internet networks in Lebanon: 1.

Student Three: Annie Valva (valvaan@hugse1.harvard.edu). Facts: In 1994, US consumers spent about the same amount on PCs as on TVs (US$8.07 billion on PCs; $8.4 billion on TVs). Following the usage habits of 1,200 new PC users, researchers (from AST) found 13 hours a week were spent on the PC to 9 hours watching TV.

Student Four: Brian Tivol (tivol@mit.edu). Facts: According to the 1994 Microsoft Annual Report, "This year, the installed base of Windows doubled to more than 60 million." The final episode of M*A*S*H (the show with the largest Nielsen share), aired in only 50,150,000 homes - but still beat out the Super Bowls!

But Money Talks
Change will be fast, but not overnight - we are almost clueless about economic models, other than those currently in use. So far, this process of pushing bits at people has been in real time only.

When people talk about 500-channel TV, they mean 500 parallel streams. They don't mean one program after another, broadcast in one five-hundredth of real time. You don't download TV, you join an ongoing program. That's why commercial TV stations and cable operators are delivering as many eyeballs as possible to advertisers - so they can afford to bring the programs to the people in the first place. When you buy a can of Coke, you are paying a few cents for the drink and the can, and nanodollars for television advertising. No doubt, the means of financing the bits will look strange to our great-great grandchildren. But for today, it's what makes television work.

Eventually, we'll find new economic models, probably based on advertising and transactions. Television will become more and more digital, no matter what. These are givens. So it makes no sense to think of the TV and the PC as anything but one and the same. It's time TV manufacturers invested in the future, not the past - by making PCs, not TVs.

Next Issue: PC Outboxes TV

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[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.08 August 1995.]