The other day, a colleague of mind was bemoaning the lack of killer internet applications to drive the demand for bandwidth. He noted that the only killer internet application was e-mail, and that it was a low bandwidth application.
Well, I have a different perspective. I think e-mail will be the ultimate killer broadband application.
Why don’t more people grasp what is obvious to me? I believe it’s because we get used to working within the limitations of an application, media, or technology, and we begin to see those constraints as defining the normal or intended use for that application, media or technology.
When I was a child, I was perfectly happy with three television channels (channels 3, 6, and 10 in Philadelphia if I recall correctly) — that is until I went to a friend’s house one day and was able to watch sports events that were only available on televisions that could receive UHF channels. (Wow! Another three channels — 17, 36, and 46! I was in heaven.) And then came cable.
So initially, television was perceived as a “low bandwidth” application. Televisions that were capable of receiving channels 2 through 13 were perfectly adequate because there were, in reality, only three channels that worked.
Another example is record albums — what we ironically called L.P.’s, which stood for “long play”. If you asked the Beatles in 1962 whether they needed a technology that would enable them to fit 74 minutes (now 80 minutes) of music onto an album, they would have laughed at you, because in 1962, the average length of a song was about two minutes, and you would easily fit 12 songs — the norm for an album (14 in the U.K.) — within the limitations of the media (about 30 minutes). Oh sure, you could squeeze a bit more than 30 minutes onto an L.P., but as soon as you did the dynamic range of the music suffered considerably.
So initially, albums were limited in length by the technology of a low bandwidth media. When CD’s made more bandwidth available, recording artists began taking advantage of the media and putting out longer albums. Today, most “albums” are more than 50 minutes in length. And you would likely laugh at the notion of shelling out $15 for a CD that was only 25 minutes long.
What’s the point in all of this?
My point in all of this is that e-mail is currently perceived as a low bandwidth application because it is only available to most people as a low bandwidth application. And because people have become so used to working within today’s low bandwidth constraints, they have put their blinders on and can’t imagine how e-mail would really be used in a world of abundant bandwidth.
The real power of e-mail is in the ability to send attachments. The world of low bandwidth severely limits the size of attachments one can send or receive.
Today, for example, I maintain separate distribution lists for low bandwidth and high bandwidth correspondents. There are some attachments I know that I can’t send to my low bandwidth correspondents because it would simply take too long for them to receive such a large attachment.
Alternatively, I often develop high bandwidth and low bandwidth versions of the same attachment — which frankly is a pain in the butt.. The other day, I was taking senior prom pictures of my daughter and her boyfriend. I had to be careful to take a mix of high resolution and low resolution pictures. Why? Because I can only e-mail high resolution pictures to relatives who have broadband connections. You might ask: “What’s the big deal?” The big deal is this. A relative who has a high bandwidth connection and a photo-quality printer could immediately print a high quality 8 by 10 photograph from the attachment I sent. A relative who has a low bandwidth connection will have to wait until I print a high quality picture on my printer and send it to them via snail mail — at a cost of several dollars, I might add.
Even what passes for a broadband connection today imposes severe limits on the use of e-mail. If I want to share a high quality WAV file of a song (about 40 MB) there’s no way that I can e-mail it to a friend — even if we both have broadband connections — because it would take me about six minutes to send it, and six minutes for him to receive it. So my only alternative is to burn a CD and send it via snail mail.
Or try to send a five minute video to someone via e-mail. I dare you.
Of course, if we all attempted to use e-mail in this manner today, we would bring the internet and its storage capacity to its knees in a few hours — in spite of those who would argue that there is a bandwidth glut. Which is why e-mail, more than any other application, will drive the demand for more bandwidth and storewidth.
What about the benefits to businesses?
Businesses are also constrained by the low bandwidth limitations of e-mail. Years ago (was it really that long?), MIchael Dell waxed eloquently of how his company was using the internet to substitute information for inventory. All well and good Michael, but what about the benefits associated with the ability to instantaneously transfer massive amounts of information to reduce cycle times? For example, a client of mine receives purchase orders from their customers via e-mail, but sometimes the drawings that accompany these purchase orders must be sent via snail mail because there is not enough bandwidth to send them as an attachment to the e-mail purchase order. Snail mail adds several days of cycle time to the order fulfillment cycle.
And is it really much of a stretch to imagine, in a world of abundant bandwidth, one doctor sending an e-mail diagnosis to another that includes the words “per the attached CAT scan”?
So e-mail is truly only a low bandwidth application today because we only have low bandwidth available to us. We constantly use e-mail to push the limits of available bandwidth, and will continue to do so until we have infinite bandwidth available to us. And we’re running out of ways to make do with existing bandwidth. The other day, I had to scan a handwritten document at low resolution to send to a colleague who had a low bandwidth internet connection. Problem was, the resolution was so poor he could receive — but couldn’t read — the letter!
Of course, there will be other killer applications, but e-mail may just turn out to be the biggest broadband killer application of all, because what we really want to do more than anything on the internet is move massive amounts of information, in a variety of formats, instantaneously from one individual to another.. To my way of thinking e-mail is really just a way of accomplishing this objective with two simple words: “see attached”
My friend — the one who says e-mail is a low bandwidth application — says, “That’s not fair. You’ve changed the definition of e-mail.” But that’s exactly my point. An application is defined by the way we use it, and the way we use it changes as technology changes. Three years ago, the “definition” of a personal computer would not have included a CD writer. Today, it is a standard feature and use of this technology. The definition of a PC has changed. Just as the definition of “broadband connection” is changing every year. In three years time, the primary purpose of e-mail will be to send massive attachments, rather than text based messages.
Think this is all a pipe dream? Consider this. Today, people with so-called broadband connections regularly exchange e-mail attachments of up to 5 MB. Five years ago this would have been impossible. Is it really much of a stretch to believe that someday we’ll have the ability to exchange 100 MB attachments? 1 GB attachments? I don’t think so. In fact, its the evolution of storewidth that makes this all conceivable. Last night, I happened to notice that I have about 3 GB of WAV files stored on my local hard disk. And I don’t give it a second thought, because I have a 40 GB hard disk. And I’m sure my next computer will have an 80 GB hard disk, and will cost even less than the one I have now.. Seven years ago 3 GB of WAV files would have exceeded the size of my hard disk. Heck, seven years ago the technology didn’t exist for me to extract the WAV files. The ability to capture and store massive amounts of data begets the need to transfer massive amounts of data across the internet.
So the next time you send an e-mail to somebody, consider the possibility that you are using what will probably emerge as the ultimate broadband killer application, and think about ways you would likely use e-mail in a world of infinite bandwidth. Your imagination will astound you.