Multimedia Standards & The Next Mass Medium

Douglas Crockford
Electric Communities
October 19, 1994

We are going to look at standards, and the relation of standards to multimedia and the big thing that comes after multimedia.

We begin by considering two roles for Standards:

Standards allow things to work together. Standards can also be used to measure things, so that we can determine if they are good enough. The computer industry usually considers only the first kind of standards.

The field of Multimedia in particular has had a difficult time with standards, having trouble even with basic things like

The aspect of Multimedia which seems to have strongest support is agreement on CD-ROM as a delivery medium. Unfortunately, CD-ROM is not very good. Its specifications are hopelessly inadequate for the simultaneous delivery of multiple media. It is too slow, too fragile, too small, and too narrow.

There certainly is nothing magical about it. It is like a big, read-only floppy disc. But ten years ago, to a bunch of nearsighted visionaries, it was to be the basis of a massive new industry which would have an equal standing with publishing and television.

From that misplaced optimism, several platform standards for CD-ROM were introduced, most of which have failed or are failing. This inspired the theory that the problem with Multimedia is that there are too many standards. In fact, the problem is that none of the standards are good enough.

The many technical limitations of the CD-ROM-based Multimedia platforms are pretty well understood by this point. I would like to suggest one more limitation which is usually overlooked.

Staleness. The making of a CD-ROM title usually requires a long development process. The distribution channels are sluggish because there isn't much demand for the latest stuff. It can sit on the shelf for a long time, and the stuff gets stale. It loses its newness. It becomes dated. It goes out of style. Its data grow cold and brittle.

CD-ROM will not live up to its promise of being The Next Mass Medium, in part because of the Staleness problem. The next standard should overcome that problem.

The best contender for the title of the Next Mass Medium is the Digital Interactive Network.

The Network can take many forms, can be called by many names, and can be invoked by many colorful metaphors. The worst and most famous is the Information Superhighway. Equally distracting are Video Dialtone and the National Information Infrastructure.

There are three distinct phases in the evolution of thinking about the network.

The first is technology. "Build it and they will come." This is a line from the movie Field of Dreams. Unfortunately, this isn't a movie. This is real.

That leads to the second phase, content. This recognizes that most people don't care at all about technology. Therefore, what they really must want is content. That leads to strategies of controlling content, of getting access to content, of protecting content. This is the phase we are in right now.

Of course, most people don't know what "content" means, either. There is certainly no pent up demand for more content. Recognizing that, we can move to the third and final phase, value. People want and will happily pay for stuff that they know has value to them.

This is first semester stuff, but a lot of money is being spent on brittle systems that don't deliver value.

So, how do we create value in the network? As we look at what sorts of standards will be needed, keep these things in mind:

First, while it may be true that The Next Mass Medium will be a Digital Interactive Network, it is not true that any Digital Interactive Network will be The Next Mass Medium. There are millions of ways that you can build a Digital Interactive Network and have it fail to be The Next Mass Medium. The proof is that we've had Digital Interactive Networks for years, and none of them have become The Next Mass Medium yet.

Second, Think Big. The Next Mass Medium will be the most massive mass medium we have ever seen. It will reach every person on Earth. Anything lacking the potential to reach everyone on Earth will not become The Next Mass Medium.

It will be completely International. The Internet, the world's leading Digital Interactive Network, does not respect national borders, but extends all over the place. The Next Mass Medium will also have this property, enabling anyone to create expressions which can potentially be seen by everyone on Earth.

Like the telephone network, The Next Mass Medium will be a personal medium, connecting people to people. Many-to-many connectivity will be one of the attributes that makes The Next Mass Medium unlike any other mass medium. Connecting people to people creates more value than connecting people to computers.

And finally, The Next Mass Medium will be a commercial medium in which financial instruments move through the network just like other goods and services. This is an essential capability because The Next Mass Medium must make money in order to grow and sustain us.

There is a certain inevitability to The Next Mass Medium. It is wonderful and terrifying, it will unite the world in ways previously unimagined, and there is only one force on Earth that can stop it. It is inevitable in the sense that it will have the properties we've been examing here, or it won't happen at all. It must make sense, otherwise it won't make sense.

The one force that can stop it is Premature Standardization. If the specifications for the Global Digital Interactive Network are fixed at a level of capability which is inadequate, then The Next Mass Medium will fail to appear, in exactly the same way that it failed to appear for Multimedia. There will be a Network, it will serve some niches, but it will not be The Next Mass Medium. It will fail to live up to its potential.

The standards must do more than allow the parts to work together. The standards must also assure that it is good enough.

Already the forces of Premature Standardization are at work, attempting to impose a variety of ill-considered half-measures in place of the genuine article. These efforts include standards for Cable TV Set Top Boxes, Interactive TV Systems, Video On Demand servers.

These efforts in the US at this point are mostly concerned with manipulation of the Federal Government's regulatory policies on communications monopolies, and with blustering companies which are trying to convince potential partners that they know what they're doing, even if they don't.

What it ultimately comes down to is this: Will the companies that will build and operate the Global Information Infrastructure recognize what is in their own best interest and allow the network to grow into The Next Mass Medium?

Will the network they build be flexible enough? You need to give people what they want, but what they want keeps changing. If the network is built to support only a limited set of applications (for example, all of the killer apps we can imagine today), then it will be unable to retain a mass audience and will be no more than a very expensive novelty.

Will the network be expandable enough? Or will the whole thing have to be scrapped when another thing comes along? Something the computer industry doesn't yet understand is that if the customer base includes every one in the world, you can't require everyone to upgrade their hardware and software.

Before this decade is out, we will have determined the answers to these questions. In the mean time, if you need to know how to build a network, talk to us.