Shifting Expectations

First published here on 18/12/08.

There’s a risk that we all think super-fast broadband is a “good thing” (copyright Sellar and Yeatman), and so Kate Bevan is right to ask in The Guardian today whether we actually need connections at 50 Mbps or more.

Arguably, based on current consumption patterns the answer for most people is “no”.

But if we took that view then we would never see any innovation, and society would risk standing still.

Harry Warner, one of the studio founding Warner brothers, opined in 1927; “who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” Later that year Al Johnson’s The Jazz Singer – Hollywood’s first talkie – was released and movies changed forever.

But Warner’s comments weren’t as ridiculous in 1927 as they might seem now. Talking movies were an unproven technology and many people thought they would be little more than a passing fad. In contrast, silent movies were a proven winner with large scale audiences. Now there’s only one year-round silent movie cinema that I know of (in LA, and it’s fabulous,) whereas every one horse town has a talking movie cinema.

When we talk about the possibilities for super-fast broadband, we’re not in too dissimilar a position to Warner et al in the late 20s. We’ve already speculated about some of the possible uses of super-fast broadband from HD movie downloads to multi-player gaming, but arguably the real innovation will come about as the technology is embedded and becomes established. Consumers will probably start to do things with the technology we haven’t considered or thought to be niche. This is exactly what’s happened with SMS or many Web 2 applications and will, I’m sure, be equally applicable to a super-fast broadband age.

As they say (repeatedly) in the Field of Dreams, build it and they will come. Who they are, and what they will do with it, of course is another matter altogether…

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