ISSUE 415: THE HIGH-TECH OFFICE--Alan
Consumers and retailers must have standards
for everything from modems to Macintoshes - Oct 7 1997
As consumers, we want and need to have
standards. With standards, for example, you know that the 60-watt
light-bulb you buy in any store will fit in the sockets in your house.
That same principle also benefits users of high-tech hardware. They
know they can plug their printer into any PC's printer port and all
they have to do is add software and click on print.
But manufacturers often don't like standards quite as
much. "Imagine if our customers could only buy from us," they think,
ignoring the argument that the result of agreed-upon standards is often
an expanded market, with greater sales resulting in more business for
With this in mind, it's been a bad couple of weeks for
users hoping for the sanity of agreed-upon standards.
* On the surface, DVD (originally Digital Video Disks,
but now an acronym that doesn't stand for anything) would seem to be an
irresistible technology, offering 4.7 gigabytes (billions of bytes) of
data or more on a disk the same size as today's humble 650-megabyte
CD-ROMs. Also, they promise the ability (in the next generation,
anyway) to record huge quantities of data, not just read
The first generation of DVD, however, has been slow to
catch on. $700 players are sitting on store shelves owing, at least in
part, to a scarcity of feature films to play on them. The computer
version has suffered from a lack of operating system support and a lack
of products to use with them. Analysts Freeman Associates have
lowered their forecasted DVD-ROM sales for 1997 from an estimated three
million to 500,000 units, while U.S. vendors of home-electronics units
are reportedly dropping prices by as much as half to try and move stock
out the door.
To make matters worse, manufacturers of the
next-generation, recordable DVD-RAM have proposed four competing
standards. Different, incompatible models have been announced, several
of which will not only be unusable on competitors' DVD-RAM models, but
will also be unreadable on the current generation of DVD players. The
resulting chaos has caused several major hardware manufacturers to
delay plans to make DVD available with their computers and will chill
consumer demand for the Christmas season.
* Purchasers of new modems have had to contend with
two competing standards for most of the past year. 56K modems featuring
either 3Com/US Robotics' x2 technology or the K56-Flex standard
used by almost everybody else can only connect at full speed to other
modems using the same format.
There had been hope that the International
Telecommunications Union would be able to set a standard that
would allow users to make the modems fully compatible. But now an
agreement on standards in the near future seems increasingly unlikely.
Instead, we're seeing threats of lawsuits and demands for stiff
licensing fees, with resulting animosity between companies.
Despite the squabbling, 56K modem sales are strong.
Users can purchase a new modem, and get full use of it -- as long as
they're sure that they purchase the same technology featured by their
Internet Service Provider.
* Perhaps the biggest kerfuffle over proprietary
standards has taken place between Apple and the companies that
it had licensed to build clones of its Macintosh computers. Apple had
hoped to expand the Mac market, imagining that clone builders would
target new customers. Instead, Apple now feels the big cloners (Power
Computing, Motorola and Taiwan's Umax) were simply
bidding for a piece of the traditional Mac market.
There's some justice in those complaints, but the
500,000 clone machines sold from 1995 to today account for only a
fraction of the business Apple managed to lose while watching its
market share drop from 12 per cent then to four per cent now.
Under interim-CEO Steve Jobs' direction, Apple
has been putting the squeeze on the clone manufacturers. In the short
term, users may be able to buy Power and Motorola StarMax models at
fire-sale prices, but the long term may find Macintosh an increasingly
isolated, minority taste.*