Bandwidth Blues

I just had one of those convergence kind of weeks. And it got me thinking admittedly a dangerous thing.

No, I don’t mean that my television finally mated with my computer I think that’s still a long way off. I mean one of those weeks where a little bit of info from here and a little bit of info from there combine together with a “click!” that rattles your brain and dislodges a new thought. And this thought ain’t exactly pretty.

It all started when I attended a presentation by a well-known cable modem giant touting its rich-media advertising possibilities. After much hoopla and a locally-run demo (which we were assured was even slower than the real cable modem experience), we got down to brass tacks.

“How many subscribers do you have?” one individual asked.

“Potentially eight million!” replied the chipper exec.

“But how many do you have signed up now?” pressed the questioner.

“Ahh…about 125,000,” came the reply.

Hmm. Stop me if I’m crazy. But I’d say there’s a big difference between eight million and 125K. I filed the number away for later use.

The next day I’m talking to my partner and telling him about the presentation, gloating over the fact that yes, I’m one of the 125,000 happy cable modem subscribers. I asked him how his attempts at getting cable modem service to his house were progressing.

“[The Cable Company]’s told me that they, quote, have no plans to ever upgrade my zip code,” he said. It’s a pretty nice zip code, too a bit rural, but very nice. But due to a cable company’s calculations, this nice neighborhood has now become a bandwidth ghetto.

“Too bad,” I say, “Maybe you can move?”

But enough talking. We got back to work and started poring over a printout of a presentation that one of our clients’ HPCs (High Priced Consultant) gave the other day about The Future of The Internet. It was a wonderful tale, filled with stories about a high-bandwidth future of streaming video and ubiquitous computing. Considering the conversation we just finished, all we could do was smile weakly.

Later, it dawned on me convergence is a long way off, “rich media” is a waste of time, and most web technologies out there are way, way beyond what most folks can use. At the risk of sounding like a crusty curmudgeon, while those of us in the biz have been giddily prancing about through the new tech like high school girls drunk on cheap wine, the majority of the world is still out of the club.

Let’s look at the numbers:

* 84 percent of people use PCs to access the web, not a surprise (Jupiter Communications).

* Out of those people, 53 percent are using modems (Gartner Group).

* Of those modem users, only 55 percent have a 28.8 or faster modem (GVU7) and 50 percent of web users have a 15″ monitor or smaller! (GVU7).

* Only 1.1 million users use information appliances to access the web, and the number of those with digital set top boxes jacked in over high-bandwidth cable connections is generally miniscule.

The bottom line?

Most of our audiences can’t handle bleeding-edge technologies (like Microsoft’s upcoming Chromeffects). Most can’t even handle the tamest leading edge: The majority of surfers still don’t even have Shockwave installed.

I didn’t attend Jupiter’s recent conference in New York. But from what I’ve gathered from coverage of the event, the “new” trend is towards “reality” amongst e-marketers. “ROI is back!” “Let’s test our ad models!” Well (to coin a phrase)…no duh!

It’s time to start coming back to reality and start being honest with ourselves and our clients. Visions of the wonderful high-bandwidth future are wonderful. But they distract us from the task at hand of creating a NEW medium. Everyone seems to be finally understanding that content matters. But what I’d suspect out there is that everyone’s still secretly waiting for the web to become TV. It ain’t gonna happen for a long time, folks.

There seems to be a growing disconnect between those on the cutting edge and those just entering the fray. PC prices are dropping and more folks are coming online…more and more unsophisticated folks. The web has fairly low churn now, but it won’t take BillyBob too long to go back to playing Deer Hunter and forget about the ‘net after the first few times he has to reboot because some errant Javascript crashed his machine.

There’s always going to be a leading edge. If you’re reading this, you’re probably skating the lip of it. But as the ‘net expands faster than the infrastructure does, we’d better be prepared to address the technological needs of the audience, even if that makes us postpone the dream for a while.

As for me, I’m not going to start celebrating the revolution and welcoming the cybermillenium until my partner Chuck finally gets a cable modem at his house. Chuck, I’m there for you, man.

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