The 75-Year-Old Killer App
(FORTUNE Magazine) – America Online (a unit of my sainted employer, AOL Time Warner) is looking for a new competitive knockout in the broadband world. So are all its major competitors, like Microsoft and Yahoo. E-mail was the Net's killer app up till now, but as broadband becomes widely available everyone senses that some mind-bending new application will become dominant, and an entire vast industry wonders what it will be.
With the start of another television season--launched with huge ratings for the Emmy Awards broadcast, a TV show about TV shows--it's time to consider the possibility that this is one time the infotech future won't be so revolutionary. For the evidence is overwhelming that around the world people just want more TV.
Here in America we surround ourselves with more of it every day in every way. More than 75% of households now have at least two TV sets. Some 40% of Americans say they very often or always watch television during dinner.
You can leave your TV-loaded home, but of course you aren't leaving TV. In your car, TVs in the backs of headrests or in the ceiling are old hat. The hottest new car accessory is a TV screen in the steering wheel. A locking device is supposed to prevent it from operating when the car is in motion, but apparently a lot of installers are disabling it at the request of customers.
Arrive at the office. I don't know what your office building is like, but in midtown Manhattan the brand-new Lehman Bros. headquarters is swathed in mammoth TV screens covering most of its first three stories. For weeks the screens just showed videos of cars driving across bridges and 30-foot-tall people shuttling back and forth in hallways. What did it mean? No one knew. But people watched. Now the screens show Lehman Bros. commercials. People still watch.
Walk inside many new buildings and you'll see TV in the elevators. Get off the elevator and chances are good you'll walk into an office that has a TV tuned to CNBC or CNNfn, usually with the sound muted, just running all day long.
Traveling? Sit down almost anywhere in a major airport and look up. It's the CNN Airport Network (another unit of my employer), preventing you from reading. Most people don't seem to mind.
Get on the plane. Walk down the aisle of an airliner these days and you'll see more people with their laptops open, not writing memos or working on spreadsheets or even playing solitaire, but each watching a DVD movie. And yes, that counts as TV. JetBlue, the most successful airline startup in years, offers free real-time broadcast and cable programming at every seat. Here, as everywhere else, as soon as technology makes it possible, people devour more TV.
All new major league sports stadiums, and plenty of old ones, have giant TV screens on which you can watch the action taking place on the field in front of you. It's a similar story at big conferences: Huge screens project the TV version of what's happening onstage before your eyes. Almost everyone watches the screens, even those with a perfect view of boring old 3-D humans.
This insatiable craving for more video isn't a bizarre feature of American culture. It's evident around the world. Bhutan, in the Himalayas, outlawed TV until 1999, when it was finally introduced with much fanfare and media attention. But a BBC report from this isolated, serene Buddhist nation included a little-noticed fact: "Despite the official ban on television, most of the population already owns a TV set either to watch videos or foreign satellite channels."
News reports from Britain tell of people spending their welfare money on satellite TV subscriptions, though it occasionally leaves them short of food.
Lester Thurow, the author and MIT economist, says he was hiking through Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter, the most desolate and godforsaken place this side of Antarctica, when he was surprised to hear the putt-putt-putt of an engine. It was a Honda gas-powered generator. A huddled group of Bedouins were using it to run a television set connected to a satellite dish.
The explosion in bandwidth available anywhere anytime, on any device, is a wonderful development. But while it will make revolutionary new interactive experiences possible, media titans could waste huge resources developing applications far more exciting than what people actually want. Maybe the key to success in the new media world isn't technology leadership or radically new business models or innovative services.
Maybe it's programming.
GEOFFREY COLVIN, editorial director of FORTUNE, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch him on Wall $treet Week With FORTUNE, Friday evenings on PBS.