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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Data Superhighway Must Attract Masses

BRUSSELS -- The myriad companies constructing the "information superhighway" are being urged to keep it simple if they want to attract the masses from the country lanes of traditional media. "I am frightened by the phrase 'superhighway,'" said John Sale, chairman of the European Virtual Private Network Users Association, referring to the popular term used to describe the world's rapidly expanding data-communications pathways. "These heady early days of building multimedia products are filled with jargon and gadgets that could simply scare away potential customers," he said. Sale said the average consumer or business manager was mainly concerned with services that speed up work, not industry debates now raging over standards such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode,or ATM and Integrated Services Digital Network, or ISDN. "We don't want to buy ATM. We don't want to buy ISDN. We want the business service that these deliver," Sale said of two advanced telecoms standards whose acronyms are frequently tossed about at such techno-gatherings. To gain profits, emerging media forms will need to steal attention from conventional newspapers, radio and television. To do this, they must supply new, easier ways of using technology that will simplify life, not complicate it, executives said. "The information highway is only possible if it is connected to thousands of secondary roads," Marinus Gelijns, chief executive officer of Philips Communications and Processing Services International, told his colleagues. Executives' schemes for the information highway conjure up images of giant flat-panel computer screens where individuals may shop for clothes in virtual-reality malls of their own design or conduct teleconferences from many sites around the world. These technologies are expected to combine interactivity, in which consumers may communicate back and forth using digital signals, with multimedia that combines audio, graphics, text and video capabilities all in one. A variety of ventures even anticipate making these systems transportable almost everywhere, using personal digital assistants, or PDAs, to connect people through phone lines and cellular or satellite connections. Some of the most ardent evangelists of this new media age predict that one day these systems could be the major channel of commerce through which hundreds of billions, or even trillions, of dollars worth of business is conducted every year. Jean-Louis Gergorin, a member of the board at France's Matra-Hachette media concern, said he envisions a world where a consumer never needs to leave home, either for work or play. "He will no more go to concerts because he will have access to 'virtual concerts.' ... He will have 'virtual sex' with his 'virtual girlfriend,'" he said. Some companies eager for a piece of the action, such as Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp, fear consumers may be turned off by all the hoopla, since any real ability to deliver futuristic services on a mass basis may still be years away. "The worst thing that can happen to that industry would be for key players to be disenchanted too early and too fast," said Bernard Vergnes, president of Microsoft Europe. "The technology will be there, but not yet." Simpler solutions are offered by companies established in building the high-tech data networks already in existence, such as the public Internet system which is growing at a rate of a subscriber every two minutes, with more than 25 million overall. Digital Equipment Corp., for example, considers itself the host of Internet's distribution system, having worked closely with researchers in its development and having pioneered an interface known as Mosaic, which makes it easier to use. In fact, DEC International vice-president Alberto Fresco said that Digital may be the only company making money from supplying services for using this first truly global, yet relatively rudimentary, information highway. "We shouldn't sell acronyms and technology only," said Fresco. "Convergence" of high-technology capabilities "will make things faster, cheaper and more livable."