Monday, May 16, 2005

How the inflection point last week will change your life

The daring advances of three companies change the electronics paradigm.
May 16

It's entirely possible that the world of technology changed dramatically last week, and most people didn't notice. One who did was Robert I. Cringely, the technology columnist for, who wrote on May 12 that we had just reached an inflection point. The term originated with Andy Grove of Intel who defined it (non-mathematically) as the transition to a new paradigm, like a tipping point to a sociologist.

["Robert I. Cringely" is a pseudonym for a man who has been writing anonymously about technology for more than a decade out of Silicon Valley. I don't know how many people actually know who he is. If I tell you his real name, of course, I'd have to kill you. What you need to know is that he knows his stuff.]

Cringely says this inflection point comes from three companies with a little help from a fourth. They are Microsoft, Google and Apple (with a push from Yahoo). There is some outside evidence I can offer that supports some of it, at least.

First: last week Bill Gates let slip a company secret. He gave some details about the new xBox game system. As everyone knows, Bill Gates doesn't let anything slip. It was deliberate, although we can only guess why he did it. What he said was that the new system would do a lot of things your home computer does now, including play music and movies, surf the web and probably even do Internet telephony--as well as play your basic computer game. What it will be is a limited-use PC, a Microsoft PC. It will be one of the few times Microsoft has gone into competition with its best customers. You can't do your home business on it, but all the peripheral functions we use PCs for will be possible on the xBox by Christmas. Gateway and Dell must be beside themselves.

Second is that remarkable company Google, founded in a dorm by two Stanford graduate students. For sheer technological bravado, they are unequaled and they are about to really do it this time. The new technology is Google Web Accelerator. You may download your very own beta here. Essentially, it lets you browse the web at twice the speed you can now without doing a thing to your computer or your IP connection. Indeed, as Cringely points out, Google is about to become your gateway to the Internet. The technology is something like what engineers to to speed up web browsing using satellite communications: the system anticipates your next page and sends it down compressed before you even ask for it. "This is an absolutely brilliant strategy," Cringely writes, "brilliant both because of the staggering technology effort it represents and brilliant because it promises--as does any inflection point--to change things forever." Only Google he says--and I agree--has the balls to try it.

Even if you are browsing the web on AOL, you will be going through Google to get there. Eventually, you will notice you don't need AOL, or Earthlink, or MSN any more. Perhaps the next step is for Google to sell the machine to get you onto the web. You won't need Microsoft, or Intel, or Dell or HP then either. Maybe they sell you ads. Maybe you get other services that Google will be happy to supply you for a price. They don't even have to charge for the accelerator service. They can afford to give it away.

Third: the world of music and video. Cringely and others points out that Yahoo's new subscription music service (you pay a subscription price to download a certain number of songs whenever you wish) is likely to kill off Napster and Rhapsody and may start undercutting Apple's non-subscription iTunes, which now controls 70% of the market. Yahoo says it will charge $6.99 a month (probably its cost); the other two subscription services are charging $14.99. They are probably toast.

Apple, however, can flip a switch and add a subscription service by Friday. Apple rumor sites are reporting that they are already hiring the engineers to do it, and if the pressure from Yahoo gets too great, they just alter their business plan.

Meanwhile, however, Apple has its own paradigm shift working. They are about to do for movies what they do for music. Buried in the code in Tiger, the new operating system, are supposed to be icons and subroutines that make no sense in the OS-X operating system at the moment but are clearly designed for the day soon when Apple sells you downloaded movies to play on your computer or television set. [Mac OS-X is a shell over Unix. If you can grope your way through Unix you can, I'm told, find them easily]. See an example for yourself in the new iTunes [4.8] that was posted last week. It adds a video button on the bottom left ["show video full screen"] and the iTunes store is already offering music videos. Next comes full-blown movies. Cringely says they even know the specifications for HD display.

The key is the AirPort Express wireless base stations--those cute little white rectangular doohickies with the green light that you use to network your home computers to each other and your stereo. I'm uploading this story on one now. They apparently will come with built-in video capabilities. That's the reason there is no video outlet on the new Mac minis. The AirPort Express WiFi repeater will do all the work. The computer just stores the data.

"So Apple takes over video and movies while Yahoo threatens with a low-priced music subscription service and Google threatens to take control of, well, everything," he writes. "And Microsoft? Microsoft kicks the dog." [I have no idea what that means.]

Go read Cringely to see all the details. And about that Dell stock....

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