MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet

Chapter 7: Why the MBONE Matters


If one certainty exists in the last gasp of the twentieth century, it is that technological change is rampant. You can barely open a newspaper or a newsmagazine without reading about some new advance in technology, whether or not it is couched in technological terms. Some people grow numb at the mention of computers, but they'll happily discuss the features on their fancy new coffee-maker, their VCR, or their programmable phone. For many people, the less technologically phrased an invention is, the more acceptable they find the technology itself. New technologies are scarcely daunting if you can easily incorporate them into your everyday life.

Many of the most important technologies, or at least those most readily accepted, are difficult to grasp in how they operate but not in what they do. Television is a perfect example of this concept -- how many people can actually tell you how it works? Word processing, photography, and the internal combustion engine are other good examples. The MBONE fits this paradigm as well. Try to explain the sophisticated convergence of transmission and multimedia technologies at work, and you'll usually be rewarded with some glazed-over eyeballs. Sit someone down at a computer to participate in a continent-wide videoconference, however, and suddenly the point becomes clear. The only problem is that the user isn't likely to care whether he or she is using the MBONE, the Turner Broadcasting System, or video walkie-talkies. The only thing that the user cares about is that it works.

Even if it works, works well, and works easily, a technology must still be justified. In particular, people want to know why it matters at all, especially if, as in the MBONE's case, the technology is in a relatively early stage of development. Technologies come and go so quickly that getting anyone to invest their time or resources in a new one is a difficult task (that concept applies to book buyers as well).

With a technology as broad-ranging as the MBONE, the justification is doubly difficult. Not only do people have trouble grasping immediately its significance, but for the most part, they can't even see the technology in operation. And even if they can, they're likely to be underwhelmed. At this point in the MBONE's life-cycle, the MBONE has hit the terrible twos: too old to be cute, and too young to be useful.

So why does the MBONE matter? Very simply, it offers a means of taking the Internet to the next level. The Net is already a medium for live communication and for the distribution of visual information, but it is limited in that its live stuff isn't visual and its visual stuff isn't live. When television first started, people referred to it as radio with pictures, but live television also became the equivalent of real-time books and real-time movies. The convergence of visual information and live communication is what made the 1969 moon landing such a spectacularly gripping event, and that convergence of live and visual information is exactly what the Internet currently lacks.

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