Video Killed the Radio Star

This page written circa 22 December, 2004.

Around the turn of the second-last century, Alberto Santos-Dumont commented to his friend Louis Cartier that as an aviator he found it difficult to consult his pocket watch, and would it not be handy if it could reside on his wrist. Cartier did the design as a piece of jewelry as much as a piece of technology. It was one of the all-time brilliant commercial successes. The digital watch was merely an evolutionary step.

Modern terminology calls a step forward like this a ``killer ap'', a term borrowed from computer jargon. The PC moved mainstream only when it ran a spreadsheet, the first `killer ap'. Together the PC and the spreadsheet kick-started one of the major revolutions of the 20th century.

In 1979, I was wont to reflect that my new microwave oven was one of the very few truly new inventions of the age: It was a quantum leap for the common Western consumer. The magnetron had been around for decades, it was tweaking it to a water absorption line and putting it in a kitchen that was the brilliance. Separate in your mind the ideas of a `killer ap' and a new technology. The magnetron is the new technology, the microwave oven is the killer ap. The microprocessor is the new technology, the spreadsheet, computer game, or word processor are killer aps. New technologies are usually costly, hard-fought advances, killer aps are small ideas. It is a conjunction that leads to big bucks.

In this century we understand not only the killer ap but penetration statistics. For instance, it took 50 years from its first commercial release for electricity to penetrate 25% of US homes, but 35 for the telephone, 22 for radio, 26 for TV, 15 for the PC and then the cellphone, but 7 for the internet and the DVDR is expected to take only 5. Not quite a clean comparison: The DVDR is merely replacing the VCR and it looks like a CD; relative costs vary, etc. The message is that people expect and adopt new things these days.

The digital camera has been smoothly overtaking the film camera for some time, as the electronic watch displaced the clockwork version. It is said that the digital camera is now losing its popularity, ousted by `appliances' such as phones and PDAs that contain the camera as something of an afterthought. This is not unthinkable, as the mode imaging capability (3 megapixels and 3x zoom) shrinks to be smaller than the battery that powers it; nevertheless I see the digital equivalent of the SLR camera having a much longer reign than the digital, free-standing equivalent of the disposable camera.

About a year ago I received a small package in the mail. It contained a Gillette Mach3 razor and one blade and no words. I figured it was some silly marketing ploy, but at least I'd get a few shaves for nothing. It was a marketing ploy, but this 3-blade razor proved to be a genuine advance, vastly better than any other razor I have used. Recently a column in Spectrum mentioned how brilliant the Mach3 was, though in comparison the latest battery-powered version was a waste of time.

The time of the music video passes. Is the radio star doomed? No. Music remains, carried about in iPods, converted from CDs, bought from iTunes, gathered off the peers of the net by BitTorrent, or half-bought from sites such as AllOfMP3. The technology changes, but the basic material remains almost unaltered.

When quizzed as to the previous century's greatest advances, many wise men cited semiconductor electronics and the internet as the big waves. The former has already had much of its impact, the latter still evolves fast. The area I most like to watch is that of music and video content: Things like Amazon Theatre truly exploit a new channel in a new way, while the RIAA goes under. I love BitTorrent because it causes a stir, but more because it is hammering a system that has not adapted sensibly to the change.

Have times changed in the last 30 years? Are we really flooded with innovations, or could I simply not see them when I was young? I believe technology is moving faster, but the brilliant ideas, the killer aps, come at about the same rate per capita.

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