Readers' Comments on the End of Legacy Media

by Jakob Nielsen on August 23, 1998

Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen 's column on the end of legacy media .

I have received some interesting user comments on my August Alertbox on the integration of media formats.

Tablet Computers Needed

Jonathan Peterson writes:

I wasn't clear on exactly what you thought would be available in 5-10 years... Sure, my monitor and most applications will likely support anti-aliased (at worst) or 300dpi text (much better). And more people probably will use a computing device for news and magazine content (though I've been using the Web as my main source of news since we launched CNN Interactive, supplemented by NPR radio during my commute, a bit of TV and US News and World report.).

But until I have the resolution you are talking about available in a form factor that is no bigger and heavier than a trade paperback, and no slower to boot than a magazine, I'm not going to quit on books and magazines for occasional reading. Almost all my paper reading is in bed, on the couch (while playing with my 11 month old son, thus only in short snippets) and in my car at lunch. Or are you proposing that a 300dpi, wireless, ubiquitous computer-book-TV hybrid will be available in 5-10 years?

Some sort of broadband, on-demand device will replace broadcast TV, but I'm willing to be that some sort of live broadcast model will stay alive. Much of the success of TV's hit comes from people standing around the water-cooler talking about last night's Seinfeld episode. I wonder if there is some human need for shared experience which will continue to generate a demand for "broadcast"?

Jakob's reply: I wanted to focus on the structure of the media landscape, which is why I glossed over the hardware issues. I do believe we will use tablet computers in various sizes from palm-sized to newspaper-sized. A book-sized tablet may be slightly heavier than a paperback, but no heavier than a hardcover. The tablets will have high-resolution screens: current high-resolution monitors are already flat-panel displays, so they would lend themselves well to tablets once they become cheaper (and possibly also less electricity-hungry). I also think the tablets will have a fairly high bandwidth wireless network as long as they are used indoors. For outdoors use, they will fall back on some form of cellular telephony network which will likely have lower bandwidth and be more expensive per packet. Thus, within my 10-years horizon, tablets will probably only deliver the full multimedia experience indoors.

I agree that live transmissions will continue. There is something special about knowing that something is live , especially when watching sporting events (even though this is rather illogical, since a game ought to be equally exciting whether or not it is live, as long as you don't know the final score). But I don't think shows like Seinfeld will be shown "live" at a certain hour. Rather, a new episode will be made available in the database at a given time on a regular schedule. True fanatics may want to download it that exact second, but many other fans will view it some other time that evening. Others may wait and not download the show until the next day - and then only if it generated a positive buzz at the water-cooler.

A reader who prefers to remain anonymous writes:

Ah, but some of us like newspapers -- a pencil and a crossword folded over, the comics, something to read in bed or in the park.

Remember all those predictions about the death of the movie theater when videos first came out? Did you ever read that Ray Bradbury story (it's part of The Martian Chronicles ) about the guy who invented grass that never needed mowing?

Jakob's reply: When read on a high-resolution tablet, you should be able to get all these benefits, including annotation and ability to do crosswords (with online crosswords, you can even get hints). Despite what I said above regarding lower bandwidth outdoors, you might still be able to enjoy the online newspaper in the park:

  • Most of the content would not require video or other high-bandwidth media types, so you could still get the text and images. If you wanted to watch a certain video, it could either be delivered in poorer quality or it might be shipped to your home system for you to watch when you got back indoors.
  • The tablet could also store a few gigabytes of video data that it had downloaded overnight. In 10 years, a typical high-end user will have a 6 Mbps line into their house, and such a line can download about 17 gigabytes while you sleep. Not a whole lot of video, but still enough to serve as supplementary video clips for the daily newspaper. Of course, this will only work if the network transmission costs are very low and if the micropayment system for these video clips are based on whether you watch them and not whether you download them. Pay-per-view instead of pay-per-download requires some form of trusted device and probably some new (but reasonably simple) encoding like the IBM Cryptolobes.

Ronni Bennett from CBS New Media writes:

The coming integration seems obvious to me, but I agree that many corporate media types will likely lose the race before they realize they are in one.

But, I wonder if you mean to imply that print, (and television as entertainment) will disappear. High resolution monitors or not, sitting in front of a screen to read Gone With the Wind does not seem to me to be an appealing or likely prospect. People like to read in bed, at the beach, lying on the sofa, on the subway. One of the advantages of print media is its portability.

Another reason for a book or long magazine piece in print is the ease with which you can flip back a page or two, or even to a previous chapter or article to check something. With scrolling or clicking backwards, there are rarely the visual cues to help a reader find a previous passage that there are in print - a large first letter at the beginning of a chapter; page numbers; or in a magazine, remembering that the paragraph you want to check was in the lower part of a verso page.

I have been thinking lately that once online connections are fast and ubiquitous, and when large, flatscreen television screens are cheap enough to replace the boxy sets we use now, people will have both in their homes. They will use their computer monitors to do all the things we do now - check the headlines, watch a short video, download a backgrounder on terrorism, send email, look up something, etc.

And while they are doing that, they may have a television show playing in the lower corner of the screen as we can do here at CBS while working on something else.

But when it is time to watch a movie, people want a huge screen. Then they want to lie back and let the movie wash over them from their large, flatscreen TV as we do in movie theaters - losing ourselves in the experience.

I do think the computer and the large TV screen will be interchangeable in that you can, if you wish, watch the movie in the corner of the computer screen while you're answering email; and you will also be able to answer mom's email immediately while you're watching Casablanca on the flatscreen.

Different size screens serve different purposes. I don't mind the size of the screen on my PalmPilot when I'm checking my schedule or looking for a phone number, but I sure don't want to read a magazine piece on it.

So I'm not convinced that in ten years "all computer users will prefer using the Web over reading printed pages."

Jakob's reply: I think you are right that there will be different sizes of screen. Watching a movie is a rather passive experience where the user wants to recline and watch in the company of others. Thus, a big, remotely mounted screen seems better than a magazine-sized, hand-held screen. But the film may still come in over the Internet and be chosen from a Web-based service that is searched and navigated on the magazine-sized screen. The two screens would presumably have some way to communicate such that the film would start playing on the large canvas.

You are more than right in lamenting the difficulty in navigating information on a screen when compared with the ease of flipping pages in print. I would hope that user interface research would give us much better mechanisms over the next ten years. We have reached the end of the line with respect to making more and more copies of the 1984 Macintosh design. Just one idea that might address your comment about remembering the location of a paragraph on the page: if the computer had eye-tracking, it would remember which things you had actually read in an article. This could be used to facilitate reorientation: when you return to an article, it shows you where you left off. Or if you do a search for something you know you have seen, it could scope the search - not simply to articles you had already seen but to paragraphs within these articles that you had actually read.

Wearable Computers as Alternatives to Tablets

Another reader who prefers to remain anonymous writes:

Display quality and technology seems to play an important role in several of your columns. I would like to call your attention to a development that may alter your perceptions on this:

Wearable displays ... or virtual displays as some prefer. My own awareness of this comes from my interest in the emerging field of wearable computers. The biggest blips on the screen at the moment are:

  • Motorola who is launching an OEM product in collaboration with Kopin who are making the actual miniature LCD screens.
  • Reflection Technology who are using a diode based technology.
Both these technologies have the potential to produce high resolution displays at prices well below regular monitors. More important, they both seem to have a greater potential for refinement and increasing resolution than both regular LCD and CRT technology.

Jakob's reply: Wearable computers are definitely an important component of the trend toward computers that go beyond a box sitting on a desk. I tend to be more enamored of tablets since wearables often seem too intrusive and geeky. Fine for mechanics who need to look up specs or procedures while crawling around in the guts of a 747, but not something you want in a business meeting or at home. Just look at people trying to read a fax through one of these devices (if the models hadn't been in a photoshoot, they would have been squinting) [the FaxView product must have died since the site and the photo are now off the Web as of Feb. 2000]. Wouldn't you rather read the fax on a super-high-res version of a PalmPilot-style tablet where you could annotate it with the pen? But I admit that the manufacturing physics may make it cheaper to make squintable displays than tablet displays with the same resolution. Also, wearables have huge benefits in applications where it is important for the user to always have access to something. Even the smallest non-wearable computer sometimes gets left at home.

Multicast vs. Broadcast vs. Narrowcast

Kragen Sitaker writes:

On the death of TV: you've said a couple of times that there's absolutely no reason for Star Trek to come on at 9:00 of you're ready for it at 8:43, that this is just an artifact of old technology.

I think it's actually an artifact of limited bandwidth, which will be a problem into the foreseeable future. If I'm watching Star Trek starting at 9:00, and my neighbor is watching it starting at 8:59, the broadcaster has to send out every packet of the show twice, a minute apart. If there are ten million people watching Star Trek (and there are already), all starting at different times, that means each packet has to be sent out ten million times.

If bandwidth costs money, which it will for a while, it will be seven orders of magnitude less expensive to simply multi cast the show at a specified time. Many publishers of bandwidth-intensive things like video may find this a compelling difference, and choose multicast.

The reason for the difference in cost is that, with multi cast, the production of multiple copies of the video is done as close to the ultimate destination as possible, so only one copy ever goes over a particular link, regardless of how many people want to receive it. Usenet also works this way, or used to, and didn't suffer the time constraints that IP multicast does, as it was a store-and-forward system, that you fetched articles from asynchronously.

Perhaps Usenet-like technologies will provide a middle way that can achieve your vision.

Jakob's reply: I agree that bandwidth costs money. In fact, I believe that flat-rate charging will be replaced with usage charges, though hopefully at a very low level. A one-hour video episode will be several gigabytes in high-quality video which might cost 10 cents for the transmission alone (plus, of course, another 10 cents micropayment to the content producers). If we look far enough into the future, bandwidth costs will be small enough to make such a scenario feasible. In the short term, the solution might be to disallow full flexibility in when to start the show. For example, a fresh copy of each episode might be multicast every minute. Thus, a user might have to wait as much as 59 seconds (30 seconds on average) before packets of the desired episode arrived. Slow response times might be acceptable when they only occur once in starting a one-hour show. Alternatively, the first few minutes of the show could be transmitted individually while transforming the video to play either slightly faster (to catch up with the previous minute's multicast) or slightly slower (to wait for the next minute's multicast to catch up). Thus, I agree that multicasting is a potential solution to the bandwidth problem, especially if used in a user-accommodating manner.

Advertising Needs Linear Media

Dave Trautman from the University of Alberta writes:

I read with interest your points about the end of linear - separated - unconnected media and on the whole I think you are on to something. But I think you forgot about advertising when considering both why these sources continue to be separate and why they will not soon become interactive.

Newspaper articles are sometimes referred to as the stuff which fills the space between the ads. My local newspapers are constantly fined for exceeding (daily) their maximum allotment of space for advertising as a percentage of page space. Limits on TV are also in place controlling just how many minutes of commercial time may be included in each hour of program content.

Recent news seems to indicate the first try for banner advertising has resulted in an adjustment of behavior by the browsing public, heck I think even you pointed this out somewhere.

Our problem is the revenue stream. Media companies have a lock on the revenue stream. They offer advertising organizations (and their clients) predictable audience behaviors and reliable eyeballs data. Until our dynamic media offer the same classification of audience and response we have an impasse.

You do mention the death of "companies" and not of media and this is probably true to some extent but I have seen many a company morph into another enterprise with nary a hint of its former self in evidence. Perhaps we need to think about this further and to examine the role advertising has played in making these separate media outlets distinct.

Without getting too involved in a reply I just thought I'd point out where (in my view) streaming technology has failed to address the biggest challenge to gathering an audience which is to provide streaming cash in the other direction. Without meters and coin slots and retail outlets these other print and visual media cannot be distributed. Making them web savvy and hyperlinked doesn't provide for the cost of creation and distribution nor does it identify a significantly NEW stream of revenue to the 'publisher' of it. Until the other ponds dry up each will remain separate and until the shipping of bits becomes a metered environment (which I do not yet endorse) there's not much hope for a revenue source from that end of the pipe.

When the currency of everyday life transforms from bank notes and credit cards into a government underwritten exchange of information (gathered, processed, personal or manufactured) only then (I think) will we see the transformation you visualized. Unfortunately there are plenty of historical precedents for the slow and glacial forces of change in commerce and society.

Jakob's reply: You are probably right, but since I don't believe in advertising on the Web to begin with, I do not view this as a major limitation of non-linear media. I do share your concern that micropayments or other non-advertising payment systems will be slow in coming. One reason is that too many Internet strategists are in denial and cling to the hope that Web advertising can be made to work so that they can continue to think the way they are used to. I am sorry: Web advertising doesn't work because of the fundamental nature of the Web, so it's not a simple matter of fixing a few features of banners to make them better. The Web would be a better place if people would stop fighting its fundamental nature and instead embrace it for what it is good at. Then let's get the browser vendors to include a single micropayment system as a standard, and the Web can advance to the next level.

Legacy Media Do Live Forever

Kym Kittell from Los Alamos National Laboratory writes:

How do you explain the continued popularity of radio (including news radio) given that TV has been around for so many years? Do you believe that TV (as we know it) and/or radio will go away completely or will people continue to turn to these media in different circumstances (when you want to listen, but can't devote your entire attention to sitting at the computer)?

Jakob's reply: Several other readers made similar points about radio. As Peter Zollman once said, "with the possible exception of the town crier, a new medium has never put an old medium out of business."

Radio is different from the other media I have discussed because it is completely non-visual. Thus, it is ideally suited for eyes-busy tasks such as driving. I think it will survive and I actually predict the emergence of more auditory media, including some non-linear ones (but since it is much harder to navigate non-visual information spaces, they tend to be less advanced). The one way radio will die is that the same kind of content will be accessed through the Internet and not through the airwaves. A person driving a car might have the car computer connect to a Web server that would know his or her preferences in music, news, and talkshows and compose a personalized playlist. Thus radio may not exist in the form of stations, though the medium will survive in the form of streaming auditory content.

In general, I don't think the old media will be "out out of business" in the sense of vanishing. We will still have auditory content, text content in various degrees of depth and writing styles, moving-images content, photo content, cartoon content, and so on. I simply predict that these content styles will be integrated in new ways and accessed in a non-linear fashion over the Internet instead of being bought in their current (separate) packaging.

John Brandon from Best Buy Corporation writes:

As my wife is fond of pointing out to me, nothing is going to replace a good book (or for that matter linear technology). I think the point you failed to make was that linear video will be available from the interactive media and will be a part of it. Short clips should be integrated into the user experience, but there's no telling when people will want the linear story.

Jakob's reply: You are right. Linear media will remain for many applications, especially fiction (since storytelling is mostly linear). Thus, we will probably retain novels, films, and sports transmissions as basically linear, though they may include branching points for added information or side stories. I do believe in your point that the main use of non-linear media relative to these forms of expression will be in advance: when you are deciding what novel to read or what film to watch.

Share this article: Twitter | LinkedIn | Google+ | Email