El.pub Analytic Issue Number 14
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Analytic 14 Looking back - seven years of El.pub (Part 1)
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The place of hardware
The development of new media has been conditional on a number of hardware devices and technologies becoming available. In general it would be fair to say that software is generally ahead of hardware, at least in the sense that software is developed for hardware before the hardware is available commercially. The late delivery to the market place of hardware has caused problems for developers. Here, late means in the minds of the software developers and is not always the fault of the vendors. Hype abounds in the hardware market and there is a continuous underestimate of the problems of getting product to market.
Recent examples include advanced mobile systems with GPRS, 3G, UTMS etc. all failing to be delivered in the time frame and capability range forecast by marketing groups. In some cases a careful read of the underlying technical and regulatorydocuments make the marketing claims look very optimistic. Unfortunately few people bother to look that deep into the technology. Early claims for broadband exaggerated the bandwidth that would be available to individual subscribers, although again the underlying mapping from technology to market hype were evident if the time was taken to analyse the underlying technical specifications (as we first pointed out in 1997).
A more serious problem is the failure to properly understand the technical requirements for a solution and then to develop products that are unlikely (or even clearly unable) to meet those requirements. The e-book is a good example of the problem. The aim is to produce an electronic replacement for the paperback book that has the ease-of-use of a paperback but can be reloaded at will. Two of the technical problems are battery power and the resolution of the screen, and a third problem is weight. The three difficulties are inter-related. To achieve the portability of a paperback the e-book has to be light and have a long battery life. Power-to-weight ratios for batteries are poor and are not changing at anything like the rate required to make the e-book a replacement for the paperback in the near future. The print resolution of paperbacks is much higher than for any cheap type of screen that could be used in an e-book as can be seen easily by comparing the print size and quality of an actual paperback with a system like Microsoft Reader on a PDA or even on a high quality desktop monitor. There are also usability issues that the current e-book designs fail to address. For example the ability to flick through a book looking for a particular section is not mimicked accurately by having hypertext links to chapter headings. E-book vendors therefore tend to make exaggerated claims for the value of other factors such as bookmarking and volume of text held. These do not make an e-book a substitute for a paperback.
It could be argued that the available hardware is usually under-utilised while developers strain to find applications for products of the future. Text messaging is good example of an application that did not need new technology, only a new standard and the ability to see a possible market. The web too required little in the way of new technology and was implemented on top of existing platforms.
Probably the main development in hardware has been the continual improvement in processor speed, cheap storage capability, bandwidth and screen resolution. These improvements have led to full screen video over the net, which has the potential to generate a number of new markets for desktop video and live event coverage as well as a major shift to online electronic games. The other major change has been the growth of wireless access through mobile phones and more recently WIFI. The telecommunications infrastructure has certainly expanded both in power and geographic coverage, but for most of the period people saw only an increase in speed from 14kbs to 56kbs. The main value increase has been in connectivity through the growth in users and information providers.
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