February 7, 2008


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The interconnectivity that the digital age has made possible is one of the most significant events in modern history. The Internet has allowed for the transfer of unheard of volumes of data. This ability to trade information with great expedience has allowed for unprecedented economic growth. Truth be told, though, everything I’ve just been saying is soooo 1990s. It takes a lot more to impress people nowadays. Sure, thanks to the World Wide Web, it’s possible to scour Juicy Campus for gossip (and thank the heavens, because without it how would we ever know who the “fugliest guys and girls at Cornell” are — truly classy stuff, no?). But so what?
The best thing to come out of this age of information is pretty obvious: it’s all about the toys, the gadgets, the absolutely unnecessary consumer products that fill my heart with glee. What’s cooler than a laptop so skinny that it fits inside a manila envelope? Or a similarly lean product that downloads The New York Times each and every morning using everyday cell phone signals? The most awesome part of the digital age might not be the real-life, actual benefits it’s allowed for, but the extraneous contraptions that it has created a market for.

Wait, so what’s this about a war in the title?

Any new technology is going to see a number of products trying to utilize it — look at what’s happening right now in the format war between Sony’s Blu-Ray and Toshiba’s HD-DVD; both companies are trying to control the high-definition home entertainment market. In a similar way, other markets are now host to a number of competing products and differing ideas about how to utilize technologies.

Television: Ever hear of the AppleTv (yeah, the glorified cable-box-lite that no one actually bought)? The product lifts music, movies, etc. from your computer and transfers the information to your television set. It’s a neat little piece of equipment that has found a niche market in people with lots of multimedia files on their computer. Now, though, it’s got some big competition from a product that — while it may be less well known — is potentially even more useful: the Slingbox. Originally developed by Boston Red Sox fans who couldn’t see their favorite team play because they lived in Los Angeles, the Slingbox takes signals from any cable box, and shoots them over the Internet, where they can be accessed from anywhere in the world (albeit, only by one person at a time). Niche market? Yes. But what if you’re a Cornell student who happens to be a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan (oxymoron?)? The Slingbox allows you to catch all of your team’s games from Ithaca, even though you’d normally be stuck watching the Bills on Sunday (and that, my friends, is a fate worse than death).

Publishing: If you’ve ever begrudgingly carried all of your forty pounds worth of text books up the slope, you’ve probably prayed for the day when all of your course information could be stored in a less cumbersome manner. Blackboard sort of does the trick, but how about a product that allows you to hold hundreds of books in the palm of your hand? Amazon released one called the Kindle, which taps into regular cell phone signals so you can download books, newspapers or blogs in a matter of minutes, wherever you happen to be. Sony released their version, the Reader, without wireless internet access, but with the bonus of free access to blogs and other files (the Kindle applies a small charge).

Online Media Purchases: It seems like only yesterday that Apple began selling movies on its iTunes store, but just as soon as the ball was really beginning to get rolling, movie studios realized they weren’t making as much money a they could be and stopped selling their movies on iTunes. Now, consumers have to settle for renting films from iTunes that are viewable for 24-hours once they’ve been started.
These conflicts are all minor skirmishes, however, compared with what’s going on in the mobile phone industry. There are forces at work that aim to change the way Americans use their handsets forever.

Big changes a-brewin’ in the mobile phone industry.

There might not be anything quite so obnoxious as iPhone users who are so enthralled with their new toy that they just neeeeeed to show you how cool it is (“No seriously, check this out dude, you can watch streaming video ON THE PHONE. Yeah, this one’s called ‘Two Girls, One Cup.’ No, don’t worry, its nothing weird …” — may they burn in hell). Tons of great cell phone technologies are hitting the market every year, but the most significant goings-on in the world of mobile phones have to do with, believe it or not, Google.
Last month, the FCC opened up bidding on a 700-megahertz band of the wireless spectrum, which basically means its auctioning off a large portion of the electromagnetic field for use by telecommunications companies. In particular, they’re auctioning a very powerful segment of the field. Previously, this valuable piece of broadcasting real estate had been used to transmit analog television signals, but because digital cable technology is rapidly replacing analog, the FCC has decided to put it out on the market, and let the telecoms duke it out.
Things really started to get interesting when Google got involved and made a large bid for the most enticing portion of the 700 mhz. block. While there have been differing theories on what Google would use the block for, general consensus is that it would have something to do with cell phones. The G-Phone perhaps? Maybe, but more likely the search engine behemoth would use that prime chunk of the broadcasting spectrum to reinvent the way cell phones are used in the U.S.
The idea goes something like this: cell phone carriers have been crippling the American market for years by placing draconian restrictions on the way consumers can actually use their phones. Service is relatively cheap, but subscribers are locked in to rigid, long-term contracts. Moreover, many of the phones’ most interesting features are often unusable. European and Asian markets are way ahead of America in terms of cell phone technology for exactly this reason.
Google wants to create an “open access” system for U.S. cell phone service — basically they want to remove all the crippling restrictions on service currently enforced by the big telecoms, and use the 700-band to expand service to every corner of the country, potentially. Verizon Wireless filed suit against the FCC, trying to prevent this kind of open-access; they would like nothing more than to grab up the 700-band for themselves and charge for its use. They eventually, however, dropped their claim when it became clear that there would be no easy settlement.
So what happens if Google wins the bid? Well, no matter what happens, we’re likely to see much of the current rigid structure disintegrate thanks to new FCC regulations, but if Google does win, the result would likely be a wide-open playing field where service is faster, cheaper and more reliable.

A Brave New World (“easy on the cliché, tiger”)

I’d like to try to avoid hyperbole as I sum everything up in the next few lines. Yes, we do live in a brave new world — to a certain extent. Whenever there is a change as monumental as the one the Internet has allowed for, there are always people who will champion the new technologies, and there will always be those who resist the change, often because it doesn’t fit into their business plan. Then again, not all competition has to be acrimonious. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo are all now competing quietly to become Cornell’s new email provider. The University currently utilizes an open source email provider, and the switch over to a corporate one, should the change occur, can only bring benefits — increased storage, a calendar function, enhanced document sharing capabilities. In the end, everybody wins.