Beware of Geeks Bearing GIFs
Embedded systems developers are the magicians who hide technology from their customers while simultaneously making it available to them. They lure Luddites into using technology by making it transparent. The trouble starts when
technology becomes visible. Examples of technology that just may be too visible are the ever popular VCR clocks that blink "12:00" and perhaps ISDN modems. If potentially valuable products are introduced that don't meet customers' minimum expectations, which often happens when the bare bones of technology are exposed to the light of day, then it's going to be tough to win those customers back once the technology is safely tucked under cover again.
One way technology becomes visible is through
complexity. Another is speed, or, rather, the lack of it. What engineers may consider to be an acceptable time span for an event to occur may not match what consumers will tolerate. Engineers are trained to be patient people, having cut their teeth on 300-baud modems and wrestled with Unix on a PDP-11/70 while someone else was doing a compile. Consumers, on the other hand, are a restive bunch who demand to experience the thrill of hurtling through cable channels with their remote control.
So what are these
consumers going to think of WebTV? It was hard to miss the media blitz in December that introduced this Internet access device for the masses. But is WebTV an idea whose time has come or one whose time is still pending? When consumers have shelled out their $330 or so for the WebTV set-top box, another $70 for the keyboard (just try "typing" with the standard remote control on a virtual screen-based keyboard and see how optional the keyboard is), maybe $10 a month for a phone line, and $20 a month
for Internet service, will WebTV meet their expectations? Are they going to be satisfied navigating with a severely circumscribed browser and downloading HTML files, GIFs, and JPEGs at 33.6Kbps? CD-I comes to mind, a highly touted item at your local gizmo store just a few Christmases ago and now less than a fond memory. I wonder how many consumers are fed up with technology because of that revolutionary product.
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in December, which quoted a Dataquest
source, WebTV sales are "tepid." That's to be expected. How many early adoptors are willing to take a flyer on such an unproven product? While consumers are curious about the Internet, I doubt they are willing to spend upwards of $400 and tie up their phone line to satisfy that curiosity. One salesman told me that all the systems he has sold are to people who don't own a computer. What users can do with WebTV is limited. Moreover, the interface is awkward. Worse still, access is no faster than you
Which is to say, WebTV is a prototype. It may be all right to sell prototypes to engineers who understand and are willing to accept the drawbacks, but why foist prototypes onto an innocent and unknowledgeable public? Down that path lies a few dead golden-egg-laying geese. A fully wrung-out interface and high-speed Internet access via a cable modem could make all the difference with a product such as WebTV. It's better to be patient until the pieces fall into place than to kill future sales
by introducing the product too soon.