Home | Articles | Forum | Glossary | Books

A confluence of technologies


Many believe that computer technology is the prime mover in the merging of publishing, telecommunications, consumer electronics, and entertainment, with computer technology, but it turns out that the real locomotive is digital technology. In last month's column the business side of the computer industry was discussed. At the end of that column it was suggested that you visualize a diagram of those five important economic activities with computers in the middle-as shown in Fig. 1indicating some areas where they overlap. In effect it shows a confluence of five endeavors.

Confluence is defined as ''a flowing together of two or more streams, or the point of juncture of such streams." That definition is taken from the latest in information interchange, The American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin, 1987; Microsoft Bookshelf, 1992, a dictionary on a disk. The confluence of the business activities diagrammed in Fig. 1 is exerting a tremendous influence over the way we work, play, and learn. While the computer industry is central to this concept, some people believed that it was the only driver in the merger.

It has now become apparent, however, that digital technology is the true cause of these changes.

What is digital technology and how does it relate to these changes? Digital technology Digital technology is the creation, capture, storage, transmission, and presentation of information in a binary format (text, graphics, sound, animation, or video), irrespective of the system on which it was created, captured, stored, transmitted or presented.

Figure 2 shows how this definition fits together. Viewed this way, the activities in Fig. 1 industries cut across the information-delivery process shown in Fig. 2. For example, the entertainment industry is primarily concerned with the capture and creation of information; telecommunications is primarily concerned with the transmission and, to a lesser extent storage of information on film and tape. Publishing traditionally has been focused at the ends of the process--creation and presentation of hard copy.

But changes in commerce and society are forcing the publishing industry to pay more attention to the transmission and storage of information in formats other than the printed page. Consumer electronics has been primarily concerned with presentation, but recent partnerships have moved it into the area of creation as well.

Those who earn a living in the computer industry tend to have a "computer-centric" view of the world, as shown in Fig. 1. But in reality, the computer industry is doing little more than supplying the hardware for the digital technology-based changes sweeping society.

The computer industry is responding to a need, not creating new styles for business and living, as some think.

Desktop publishing

The traditional publishing industry (including newspapers, books, and magazines) has resisted change unless it is forced on it. It did not embrace computer typesetting with enthusiasm, and accepted it only after it found that it could reduce staff (typesetters, printers, copy editors) and perhaps break the hold of entrenched unions.

Electronic publishing, on the other hand, is growing rapidly in popularity, accessibility, and utility.

Look for big changes-as digital production, delivery, and presentation of information takes hold.

Early evidence of these changes is visible. One emerging area is called Desktop publishing; it involves extremely low-cost production and distribution of information with floppy disks and CD-ROM's as media.

For example, a recently formed company called Allegro New Media has developed Turbo Books-electronic books intended to be read onscreen under Microsoft Windows.

Initial titles include a business travel guide, science fiction books, computer reference works, books on Japan and college selection, and more. All are floppy-based; prices range from about $25 to $50. Who wants to read books on-screen? Perhaps children, perhaps the visually impaired, perhaps the person forced to kill time in waiting rooms. A business traveler can now pack a travel guide in a laptop computer. A translation dictionary will help to interpret a foreign language, and can encourage and simplify the task of learning useful words and phrases for those who have no intention of studying another language formally. Electronic games can help the traveler pass "dead time" in airports or on trains.

There is a huge potential market here, but the user interface-the presentation aspect-needs a lot of work. And that's where Apple Computer and the Japanese consumer electronics industry could succeed and the rest of the worldwide computer industry fail.

FIG. 1--LEADING ACTIVITIES ARE CONVERGING to meet increased demands for information.

FIG. 2--HIGH-TECH INDUSTRY is merging as a result of a growing appetite for information. Entrepreneurs will make and lose fortunes controlling the major steps of the process.

In 1993 several more CD-ROM formats will be introduced, along with portable display /interaction devices. Sony has already introduced one; look for others from Apple, Toshiba, Sharp, Casio, and Tandy. Expect high prices, limited title availability, and total incompatibility with existing systems. If you think the VHS vs. Betamax war was a disaster, get ready for the upcoming blood bath in consumer CD-ROM formats.

The many host-based services such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online are other forms of electronic publishing. If you haven't subscribed to one of these services recently (or ever), you're cheating yourself. CompuServe offers an incredible variety of services including shareware files, "forums" or meeting "grounds" for discussions on subjects of mutual interest: computers, politics, human sexuality, art, literature, sports, language, news, stock quotes, etc.

The other services don't offer CompuServe's depth, but they cost less and are more user-friendly. In general, as with Desktop publishing, there is a huge potential market for-on-line services.


The transmission of information in digital form will grow astronomically in the next decade; entrepreneurs will probably make and lose fortunes in these ventures, but they could spin-off a lot of interesting new technical jobs.

The integration of telecommunications with the other digital-information technologies is about to explode on the scene. But it's not here yet. However, different branches of the telecommunications are engaged in a wide variety of experiments in storing and transmitting information. For example, there are about a half dozen experiments in interactive TV across the United States. In France a nationwide interactive system is already operational.


Integrated Services Digital Network has not lived up to expectations because of the staggering technical, political, and cost impediments it must overcome.

However, it now appears poised to take off. It is expected that ISDN will provide a digital conduit (comprising two 64kilobit data channels and a 16kilobit signaling channel) to every phone jack in the world.



Turbo Books, Allegro New Media, 387 Passaic Avenue, Fairfield, NJ, 07004. (201) 808-1992.

Derive 2.5 ($295), Derive XM ($375), Soft Warehouse, 3660 Waialae Avenue, Suite 304, Honolulu, HI 96816-3236. (808) 734-5801.

Outside In 2.0 ($89), Systems Compatibility Corp., 401 N. Wabash, Suite 600, Chicago, IL 60611. (312) 329-0700

Microsoft Word for Windows & Bookshelf, Multimedia Edition ($595; academic and upgrade prices available), Microsoft Corporation, 16011 NE 36th Way, Box 97017, Redmond, WA 98073-9717. (206) 882-8080.

Katron PE-300B ($225), Micro-Ian Integration, Inc., 7400 Harwin Drive, Suite 120, Houston, TX 77036. (713) 266-3891.


That should pronounce the death knell on analog modems, presage more efficient data transfer, and pave the way for videophones, efficient access to host-based publishers, increased use of telecom-muting, and even lead to electronic town meetings.

Some believe that ISDN suffers from the too-little-too-late syndrome. It simply cannot supply enough bandwidth to move the tremendous amounts of audio and video data required in a multimedia information environment. This has led to proposals for replacing the nation's wired telephone and cable-TV infrastructure with optical fiber, thereby providing gigahertz of bandwidth (vs. the kilohertz of basic ISDN). But the cost of such massive projects scares many who wonder if consumers will pick up the tab.

The Clinton administration has announced that it favors a "national data highway." Parts of that highway would certainly support gigahertz bandwidth, but other parts would be expected to support lower data rates that could be received by consumers. We can expect to see some resolution of this concept in the next 12 to 18 months.

Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD), a related technology could provide universal wireless digital connectivity. But there's a lot of infighting in the CDPD community about how to do what needs to be done. But there's no question that it does need to be done! Similarly, several firms are now marketing simple programs that allow messages to be sent from a computer to a beeper. And MCI Mail has announced a service that will deliver text-based messages from its Email service to beepers.

Computer networking faces a related set of problems: How do you interconnect several geographically dispersed local-area networks efficiently so that it will serve different parts of one company-or even several companies? The recent newly coined concept of the Virtual Corporation could be the answer. (See the February 8, 1993 issue of Business Week or the book by the same name for more information.) Why can't worker A at company X simply send a message to worker B at company Y without a hassle? That kind of transparent connectivity is urgently needed, but it's still a long way off.

To sum up, the long-term objective of telecommunications is to provide an easy-to-use, high-bandwidth, on-demand connectivity between every node in a country-and perhaps eventually an integrated global network.

Next month the computer and entertainment industries will be examined and this discussion will be wrapped up.

Product watch

Probably the mot unusual software program ever reviewed here is a small masterpiece called Derive (see the July 1990 installment of this column for an in-depth review). It is a symbolic math program that can solve equations numerically and symbolically. Unlike most of the programs in this genre, Derive can run on low-end machines.

The new version 2.5 adds many enhancements to its mathematical functions and user interface. In addition, its publisher has introduced an extended version, Derive XM, that runs on a 386-based computer or higher. It can handle as much as 4 gigabytes of memory to solve large problems. No student should be without Derive! Contact the company for its current listing of more than a dozen books about Derive that will be helpful in learning algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.

Outside In is a Windows file viewer with a twist: it allows you to copy and paste data out of the file being viewed. That's handy when you've got a file created by someone else in a format you don't have. Supported files include dozens of word processors, spreadsheets, databases, and graphics.

These include Word, WordPerfect, Excel, Lotus, Quattro, dBASE, Paradox, BMP, GIF, PCX, EPS, TIFF, and WMF. Outside In even allows you to view the contents of ZIP files (however, the new version 2.0 of PKZIP is not yet supported). The company should make it available for more users on a BBS or CompuServe network.

Microsoft has released a "multimedia" version of Word for Windows on a CD- ROM. The CD-ROM contains the complete word processor which includes several versatile extras: a drawing module, an equation editor, and a charting module, among others. It also contains an incredible amount of documentation accessible through the Windows help engine, and half a dozen reference works.

These include: The American Heritage Dictionary, Roget's Thesaurus, the Hammond Atlas, the Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, the World Almanac 1992, and two books of quotations. The reference works include many sound, animation, and video clips integrated with the word processor.

A send button permits the sending of all or part of an article to the word processor, complete with a footnote citing the source. Conversely, one can highlight a word in the word processor, press a button, and see a definition in one or all reference works. A CD-ROM and a sound card are needed to access all its multimedia features. Following the extensively hyperlinked material can keep one fascinated for hours.


Word for Windows is a must-have item for any serious writer or researcher. The market for portable Ethernet adapters is exploding. In response, several companies have introduced low-cost, but capable units. For example, Katron's PE-300B (BNC) and PE-300T (10 Base-T) has a list price of $225, and is sold with a complete set of drivers: Novell, Lantastic, TCP /IP, PC-NFS, and NDIS (for Windows for Workgroups). You don't get a pass-through parallel port, but at that price, who cares? Good stuff! Newsbits MS-DOS 6.0 should be available when you read this, but sans some networking, Email, and disk-compression capabilities. Microsoft's application programming interfaces (API's) are multiplying like fruit flies.

Originally there was the standard Windows API, which was subsequently joined by Win32, the 32-bit basis of Windows NT. Then Microsoft introduced Win32s, a subset of Win32 that would run 32-bit code in the 16-bit Windows 3.x environment. Now we have Win32c, ostensibly for the " Chicago" version of Windows, due in 1994, that splits the difference in capabilities between 3.x and NT, including an object-oriented file system, and preemptive multitasking.

The U.S. Semiconductor industry has staged a comeback, with sales moving slightly ahead of those of Japan in 1992. Projections look even better for 1993. General Magic, an Apple Computer spinoff, has attracted the attention of several international heavy-hitters in computers and consumer-electronics; their focus will be on a scripting language for personal communicators. More later.

IBM has recently brought its multi-media-related development groups and partnerships (including Kaleida and the venture with NBC) together under an umbrella organization called Fireworks Partners.

Also see:

Top of Page

PREV.   NEXT   More E-N articles HOME