Multimedia

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As a technology, it is called multimedia. As a revolution, it is the sum of many revolutions wrapped into one: A revolution in communication that combines the audio visual power of television, the publishing power of the printing press, and the interactive power of the computer. Multimedia is the convergence of these different professions, once thought independent of one another, coming together to form a new technological approach to the way information and ideas are shared.

What will society look like under the evolving institutions of interactive multimedia technologies? Well, if the 1980's were a time for media tycoons, the 1990's will be for the self-styled visionaries. These gurus see a dawning digital age in which the humble television will mutate into a two-way medium for a vast amount of information and entertainment. We can expect to see: movies-on-demand, video games, databases, educational programming, home shopping, telephone services, telebanking, teleconferencing, even the complex simulations of virtual reality. This souped-up television will itself be a powerful computer. This, many believe, will be the world's biggest media group, letting consumers tune into anything, anywhere, anytime.

The most extraordinary thing about the multimedia boom, is that so many moguls are spending such vast sums to develop digital technologies, for the delivering of programs and services which are still largely hypothetical.

So what is behind such grand prophecies? Primarily, two technological advances known as digitization (including digital compression), and fibre optics.

Both are indispensable to the high-speed networks that will deliver dynamic new services to homes and offices. Digitization means translating information, either video, audio, or text, into ones and zeros, which make it easier to send, store, and manipulate. Compression squeezes this information so that more of it can be sent using a given amount of transmission capacity or bandwidth.

Fibre-optic cables are producing a vast increase in the amount of bandwidth available. Made of glass so pure that a sheet of it 70 miles thick would be as clear as a window-pane, and the solitary strand of optical fibre the width of a human hair can carry 1,000 times as much information as all radio frequencies put together. This expansion of bandwidth is what is making two-way communication, or interactivity, possible.

Neither digitization nor fibre optics is new. But it was only this year that America's two biggest cable-TV owners, TCI and Time Warner , said they would spend $2 billion and $5 billion respectively to deploy both technologies in their systems, which together serve a third of America's 60m cable homes. Soon, some TCI subscriptions will be wired to receive 500 channels rather than the customary 50; Time Warner will launch a trail full-service network in Florida with a range of interactive services.

These two announcements signaled the start of a mad multimedia scramble in America, home market to many of the world's biggest media, publishing, telecoms and computer companies, almost all of which have entered the fray. The reasons are simple: greed and fear: greed for new sources of revenue; fear that profits from current businesses may fall as a result of reregulation or cut-throat competition.

Multimedia has already had a profound affect on how these businesses interact with one another. Mergers such as Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting, and Paramount have set the stage. These companies continue the race to be the first to lay solid infrastructure, and set new industry standards. Following in the shadows will be mergers between: software, film, television, publishing, and telephone industries, each trying to gain market share in the emerging market.

So far, most firms have rejected the hostile takeovers that marked the media business in the 1980s. Instead, they have favored an array of alliances and joint ventures akin to Japan's loose-knit Keiretsu business groupings. TCI's boss, John Malone, evokes "octopuses with their hands in each other's pockets-where one starts and the other stops will be hard to decide." These alliances represent a model of corporate structure which many see as mere marriages of convenience, in which none wants to miss out on any futuristic markets.

One may wonder how this race for market share and the merging of these corporations will affect them personally. Well, at this point and time, it is hard to say. However, there is some thought in the direction we are headed.

The home market, which was stated earlier, has its origins based around early pioneers such as Atari, Nintindo, and Sega. These companies started with simple games,