Internet and Interactive TV: Know Your History

It seems that everyday a new company pops up claiming that it will revolutionize television, and a common theme is interactivity. But is interactive t.v. really the future?  For starters, interactive t.v. isn’t new.  It was a concept thought up by people back in the early 90s, most notably Jim Clark (Silicon Graphics, Netscape, Healtheon(WebMD) founder…grand daddy of the internet).

 Here’s an excerpt from an Oct 1994 Wired article where Mr. Clark is interviewed. Remember, this is 1994 – before web browsing, e-commerce, or anything we now take for granted. Amazing reading this today!  (there was concern the internet would be used for commerce!)…

A quesition on why he likes Mosaic (resulting in Netscape; bringing the internet to life)…

Mainly because I ran into Marc Andreessen immediately upon leaving SGI, and Marc was the author of Mosaic. The original thought was to go into interactive television in some fashion. But what is Mosaic? A navigator for interactive stuff on a network. The network happens to be called the Internet, but the physical network is slowly improving in bandwidth and someday it will be capable of carrying video. The slope of growth of the television industry is zero. It’s even negative. Television doesn’t change. Cable is nothing but an overlay of a physical delivery scheme for broadcast television that has been around for 40 years. There’s no two-way interactivity, nothing. So I began to think about the difficulties of the transition of the cable industry into interactivity. It’s a completely daunting task. First of all, you have to cause the television industry to get accustomed to digital technology, which is a major change. Then it has to think of two-way interactivity, which is a major change. And it has to make the physical network carry switched-video capability. That’s just a whole group of major changes.

That’s not even talking about the consumer.

Right. People don’t have problems with interactivity on computers. More and more, computers are being built so you can see video on them. You look at those dynamics, and you look at the dynamics on the other side of the ledger, and you say, What are you doing over here? Get over there.

I’m sure you’ve followed all the concern about the coming commercialization for the Internet.

That to me is peculiar. When the phone system was invented it was primarily for voice. We commercialized it when we began to use it for business, and we commercialized it further when we began to do data transfers over the wire, money transfers over telephone lines. It’s exactly the same thing. Commercialization of the Internet is as inevitable as the sun coming up tomorrow.

To read the full article go here. It’s truly amazing to look back on what once was. I agree with the idea that interactive t.v. depends on the network accepting responses.  We’re still not there today, and I don’t think it’s in the near future. Can the cost of enabling upstream communication on a network really be covered by interactive t.v. shopping? Don’t think so.

There’s a lesson in this for existing interactive t.v. players and start-ups or companies looking at entering the space – if you don’t know where you’ve been, you have no idea where you’re going. Silicon Graphics burned through a billion dollars before realizing that interactive t.v. might be cool but was missing two keys to success: market demand and a viable business model. That was back in the early 90s but do these keys exist today?

A MUST READ for anyone that wants to look back at the beginnings of the internet and Jim Clark is The New New Thing by Micheal Lewis.  You can get it cheap through Amazon. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs might get all the press (well deserved), but Jim Clark was right there and a visionary behind much of what we enjoy today. Thanks Jim.