Dan Bricklin's Web Site: www.bricklin.com
Fad vs. Intrinsic Property
The value put on Start pages and ring tones are examples of mistaking a current property of a technology for something inherent.
A frequent difficulty when looking at a technology is distinguishing between what is a permanent property of that technology and what is just a temporary aspect. Many people do not have a feel for the ever-evolving nature of technology and mistake what they see for what must be. This difficulty can have huge financial and regulatory implications that look silly in hindsight. I think that the flippant dismissal of the Segway HT is an example of that misunderstanding. Here are a couple of other examples from the recent news.

Let's look at the spectacular rise and fall of Excite@Home. One problem was in the early valuations of Excite. There was this belief, fueled by early success of Netscape's and Microsoft's home pages, that having the browser "start page" (or "home page") is worth a huge amount of money. ("Just look at all the captive eyeballs you can sell!") It was viewed as a long-term value, no less. Yet the concept of a "start page" is not inherent in displaying information retrieved from remote servers. It just happened to be in early browsers like Mosaic, like the spinning logo.

[The start page served as a great way to test that your connection was working as well as to notify users of the frequent updates, as evidenced by the documentation: 1. Make certain you installed winsock.dll, Win32s (if necessary), and Mosaic software. 2. Log into your Internet service provider and establish a SLIP or PPP connection. (See "SLIP and PPP" on page E-1.)  3. If everything is properly configured, Mosaic loads the Mosaic Home Page (the default) from NCSA's Web server." The logo was a cool way to show the status of the communications instead of the modem's blinking lights.]

People wanted to set their own start pages, and they did, though many people still never change it from the default. They don't need to look at a start page chosen by someone else to see "what's new" -- they had real reasons besides random curiosity to use their browsers, and just went right to doing those things. Even more, once they got persistent connections and a need to frequently access information through a browser, they could just leave the browser up with whatever was there before. Finally, the browser is fading more and more into the background. It is being built into other products, and now being replaced by programs talking to programs over HTTP and other protocols. The bottom line: The value of the start page is not growing with the growth of use of the Internet. Too bad for those who valued companies that controlled start pages as if there was a linear relationship.

Going along with paying billions of dollars for "start pages", there is the "huge" amount people will pay for ring tones on cell phones, or cute pictures delivered to their cell phone screen. As CNet reported, this is the "next frontier", with selling ring tones racking up $300 million last year in Japan. There is even fighting for this huge business from the music companies, which are eyeing what Nokia thinks could be a multibillion dollar industry by 2005.

In many countries, online PCs are relatively rare and people use cell phones as their personal digital device. To understand what's going on, perhaps we can look to analogies in the PC world. In that vein, this reminds me of the "huge" business there used to be for screen savers and wallpaper.  Remember Berkeley Systems and the flying toasters? Then Pointcast? Now screensavers are a very fragmented market, with people using very personal stuff (how many pictures of family members have you seen as screen savers or wallpaper?), or just leaving it as it came built in. Is the ring tone something you want to change all the time, like fashion, or is the fad the fact that you can repeatedly change it to something even more obnoxious? As we need our cell phones more and more, is it possible we'll move away from ringing and more to vibrating or whatever? (Aha! A new business: Vibration patterns...) As status updates become more and more frequent (and hopefully useful) from the wireless digital assistants we wear, sounds that are purposely highly distracting to us and others will become less and less desirable. Is the vision that we'll each memorize customized facts like that a Moby tune means voicemail and Madonna means a relative is calling?

Why are all these short-term fads viewed as permanent properties of a technology so companies spend real money chasing them thinking they'll last and grow forever? I think they are great examples of not understanding the evolution of people using technology, mixing fashion (which has very fleeting elements -- as you can find in a secondhand store) with inherent properties and confusing them. Even worse than spending money, though, is when legislators and regulators confuse what they see as part of technology with what is inherent, and lock laws and regulations into that quirk, hurting advancement of that technology. To avoid such mistakes it is imperative that technology-literate people help educate others and become part of the governing process themselves.

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