My Turn

Overcapacity or Underutilization?

James Brock Clark - 2002.07.03

My Turn is Low End Mac's column for reader-submitted articles. It's your turn to share your thoughts on all things Mac (or iPhone, iPod, etc.) and write for the Mac web. Email your submission to Dan Knight .

"97 per cent of the fiber optic capacity in Canada remains unused."

Did I hear that right?

It was the voice of Danny Finkleman, host of CBC's long running Saturday night radio show, Finkleman's 45s. Alongside his playlist of tunes from the "50s, 60s, and early 70s," Danny lays on a critical commentary on contemporary culture. I'll just say he's no fan of the personal computer or debit card but regularly extols the "Lazy-Boy" chair and the electric toothbrush. His fans look back with nostalgia on a simpler time when "Sherri Baby" was a song with a message and the presets on your car radio worked with levers.

Being the host of a national radio program, Danny usually has his facts straight. But even if the numbers are open to interpretation, what he said made sense. Look at the facts. The value of Nortel Networks shares, along with those of other communications giants, has plunged. A huge fiber optic network was built, and nobody came. You may well wonder how major corporations could have misjudged the situation so badly.

Conspiracy theories abound, but I'm not much of a believer. More likely it's a case of investors falling for their own hype: A kind of new age tulip mania or gold fever sweeping the markets. Delirium kicks in, and there is a mass hallucination of dollar signs.

What did Nortel and the other limping giants really think was going to fill up their networks? Was everyone going to stop shopping at the local hardware store and order their screws online?

Of course not.

Corporate planners no doubt believe that communications of all kinds will expand to fill their networks. As with most developing technologies, there is a lag while the rest of us figure out how best to use it. The Interstate Highway system in the U.S. wasn't bumper to bumper when it was built, either. Developments currently taking place in the cable entertainment industry make it clear that Nortel went in the right direction - they just got there too soon.

Change

Change is a problem for most of us. We don't like it. Our stomachs get upset when there is something new in the can. Often change means a lot of extra work.

Change also adds to uncertainty, and, among other things, that makes investment less predictable. The more rapid the change the more extreme our reactions. We tend to see the changing situation as either a fabulous opportunity or a door slamming shut on all we hold dear.

Those of us who are comfortable with personal computers are perhaps more receptive to change than the average. We like the idea of new computers that will do more things more quickly. Still, some of us are reluctant to abandon favorite software that has become, over months and years, as comfortable as a second skin. Even those ready to embrace the brave new world of OS X want the security of the Classic Mode.

Online Communication

I recently contacted the editor of a print magazine concerning an article I was planning, and which I though would be suitable for his publication. As is my custom, I used email for the contact, and within hours I received a positive reply. When the piece was complete, I sent it off by email. Since there is always someone using Windows 95 who will claim not to be able to open an attachment sent from a Mac, I copied the text into the body of the email as well as enclosing an attachment. Days went by. Nothing. I sent an email. No response.

My experience points to a real problem with our new medium. Business people, especially those in smaller traditional industries, frequently haven't taken e-communication to heart. Lord knows government has. But small business persons, needing to keep employee numbers to a minimum and typically doing as much as they can for themselves, fail to realize the potential of this most cost effective communication option. Inconsistency in using email is a sure sign of their lack of comprehension. Failing to follow up on a request for further information is saying: I don't need your business.

The mandatory website is there, of course. It might look like something done on the cheap, perhaps thrown together by the brother in-law. It won't really tell you much other than they know the Web exists.

Instead of presenting a catalog in Portable Document File, there will be a list of items on sale with little more than a thumbnail picture to whet your appetite.

Most recent update? Sometime last year.

To make matters worse, as in the case of my print publisher, the website has to be located initially through an ISP provided web page directory that isn't organized alphabetically and has no search capability.

Yesterday's Technology

The fall back option in my case is MacComCenter with Drag'n Fax. My article unspools itself directly onto the publisher's desk, although there is a price. Since I'm sending it from my computer, formatting will be minimal. There is also the cost of the long distance call - an irritation, since I'm already paying for an ISP.

Faxing, however, can be done during evening hours to take advantage discount rates. With that two-tone green dragon's head icon, it's only slightly more work than using email. The fact that the publisher is paying for the ink and paper is another reason he should get hip to the digital option.

My point is that we have a ways to go before we've made a revolution. The languishing fiber optic networks will gradually fill up. Those of us still dangling on the end of a long copper wire may even see the day we can access a low level satellite network (like that of the failed Iridium telephone network?).

Technology is ahead of us. "Think Different" is more than last year's advertising slogan. Its a shibboleth for survival.

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