It's Just the Future

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Larry Ellison stands on a stage in Los Angeles, showing off the interactive future via a mock-up of his living room. A wide-screen TV is hooked up to broadband, letting him download movies on demand, check out a video clip showing Vice President Al Gore, shop online at Macy's and order a pizza. He has a wireless gizmo that delivers urgent messages. He extols the ability of the network to connect doctors and patients, and to let consumers select news programming with the "random access of print" over the power of television.

Before the end of the decade, Oracle Corp.'s president tells a standing-room-only crowd, "our guess is that the majority of American households will have access to these services."

Mr. Ellison made this prediction on Feb. 15, 1994. He didn't mention the Internet.

Larry Ellison had the right idea, just the wrong millennium.

It was easy to question his hubris. "I think it's really dangerous for Larry to raise expectations so high," pundit Stewart Alsop told me at the event.

And it's good sport to whack Mr. Ellison for focusing so intently on interactive TV that he missed the Net. Jim Clark was also thinking about interactive TV back in February 1994, but he concluded the market -- and the profits -- were years off. A month later, he started Netscape.

Oracle's Hollywood coming-out party, delayed for a month by L.A.'s 1994 earthquake, was one of the oddest events I've witnessed in a decade covering technology. It was a clash of cultures, as Silicon Valley met Hollywood. A courtly but somewhat confused Walter Cronkite, hired as emcee, got more applause than Mr. Ellison. "A lot of important people are here from Hollywood," an Oracle official told me. "We just don't know who they are."

Yet the interactive future was unfolding in that room.

That future is the convergence of the computer and TV, of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, of connected wireless gizmos not yet invented. Failed technologies of the past decade -- interactive TV, Apple's Newton, the idea of "pushing" customized content to a user's screen, the clunky first WebTV -- are being recast.

Mr. Ellison, by omission, was correct on one other score: The Internet is not the interactive future. Or, more to the point, the future of interactive marketing is simply the future of marketing.

Let's stop being awestruck by "Internet" (think: "electricity"). It's a tool. It will be ubiquitous. By 2005, marketing types will be talking about marketing, not about technology.

Most important, let's stop being overly impressed with "interactive marketing." It's a tool. It will be ubiquitous. By 2005, marketing types will be talking about marketing, not about things interactive.

Advertising Age began its weekly Interactive Media & Marketing section in 1993, in the era of floppy disk promotions and early interactive TV hype. I now edit that section. By 2005, I'm hoping -- and betting -- that section will be dead, with interactive simply an expected topic in most of our coverage.

Focusing on the Internet diverts attention from other emerging interactive technologies. We need to stop framing the world in terms of Internet and the hulking family PC, and instead consider how interactivity through multiple technologies and devices will change how consumers interact with marketers.

Wireless, for example, is wide open. Standards are still emerging, and we're at the unsettled stage where fashionable geeks have a pager, cell phone and Palm VII hanging from their belt loops, taking the place of the calculators they wore back in high school. But by 2005, all these gizmos will have morphed into one.

While there are some wireless industry watchers who believe wireless devices will never emerge as major vehicles for marketing and advertising messages, I say they're wrong. Marketing will absolutely be central to wireless, delivering information to users when and where they want it. And companies such as Yahoo! that are at the center of the Internet today are in the best position to be at the center of wireless marketing tomorrow.

Maybe wireless won't carry ads as we know them, but wireless surely will carry marketing content that informs users and perhaps defrays the cost of access. We need to be flexible in our definitions; TV was not radio with pictures, and wireless won't be the Internet unplugged.

It's an odd feeling to be focusing on convergence, a term that seems so early-'90s now that we're in the new millennium. A decade ago, when I was reporting on the booming computer market for Ad Age, the magazine folded consumer electronics into my beat coverage on the theory that PCs and TVs were converging. The trendy topic back then: Will it be the PC or TV? Which device will be the center of convergence?

Confession: I was a PC bigot, so I figured Intel and Microsoft would be the brains behind convergence. Savvier sorts recognized the answer to PC vs. TV was: Both.

The devices haven't exactly converged. WebTV, bought by Microsoft, has been a disappointment. Mr. Ellison's Oracle Interactive Television -- and other schemes from that era, such as Time Warner's overhyped Orlando, Fla., interactive TV test project -- went no-where. Talk of a rapid rollout of digital TV and HDTV faded. Instead, all attention turned to the emerging World Wide Web.

So it's with trepidation that I dredge up interactive TV. But heck, I'm looking at the future, five years out. And since I've already predicted the demise of Ad Age's interactive section, I'll have to find another job anyway.

So here's my prediction: Interactive TV will be a big deal in 2005. Larry Ellison and Time Warner weren't such idiots after all. Digital set-top boxes and whatever digital TVs are in place at that time will make the dumb terminal in the living room a smart one.

Let's recast the PC vs. TV question. Will it be the Internet, or will it be interactive TV? Answer: Both. Better answer: Who cares?

Marketers looking to interactive in 2005 should be platform-agnostic. It's not that important to handicap what sort of cable and Internet services America Online will deliver in 2005 over the cable systems it will own. It's more important for marketers to integrate interactive programs across their marketing and advertising. The future is not about interactive marketing. It's about marketing.

Here's the challenge: Make interactive possibilities part of every discussion when preparing a marketing plan. That's so obvious, why do I bother saying it? Because I'm convinced the future, circa 2005, is easier to read than was the future when Larry Ellison spoke in 1994. Interactive marketing is maturing fast. By 2005, interactive will be mainstream marketing.

Few people appreciated the significance of the Internet in early 1994. Back then, the overwhelming idea of linking their TV sets, cable boxes, telephones and other gadgets was enough to drive average viewers back to their armchairs and basic remotes. But we're at a different stage.

I find it perfectly rational to envision a 2005 that is a fair extrapolation of today. Bandwidth needed for interactive TV and PCs is fast moving into homes. Wireless is taking off. Internet appliances seem realistic.

The strongest interactive media properties of 2005 will emerge from the existing media properties of 2000. I can see a 2005 approach with relatively few surprises.

Of course, there are unknowns. How quickly consumers move from analog to digital TV is yet to be determined. It's hardly going out on a limb to suggest the current time frame for switching broadcast signals to digital -- 2006 -- is fiction. So much for carefully planned obsolescence. I figure I'll be keeping my trusty old Toshiba set for many more years.

Wireless also has some unknowns as debates over standards continue.

But debates about technology -- Internet, DTV, wireless -- are background noise. The bigger point is that interactive will be part of the landscape. Details can be plugged in later. The mindset must be established now.

I'm little concerned with one unknown -- privacy -- because I believe the problem can be fixed. Just as Internet security is not worth talking about -- the techies always figure out a solution just in time -- I expect privacy matters will be resolved, allowing interactive marketing and targeted advertising to flourish in 2005.

The industry will have to come clean and shoot straight with consumers. But once that happens, consumer targeting will proceed. Consumers, in receiving marketing messages or doing e-business, will expect to be treated as individuals, with their preferences catered to.

Why would consumers or advertisers put up with the "spam" of a network TV commercial or magazine ad when they can interact one-on-one?

The opportunity for old-line marketers is that dot-coms don't own the future; the winners in 2005 will be a mix of old and new companies that interact one-on-one with customers and deliver value and satisfaction. It sounds simple because it is.

Many companies -- in denial, looking at their historic market share, dazzled by technology -- will screw it up. Those companies willing to believe that interactive is the future will have a chance to succeed.

To some degree, growth of the Internet has been held back because many people are intimidated and confused by the technology. In the interactive future, consumers will be able to navigate simply, so matters of intimidation, fear and lack of training will be largely irrelevant. Interacting with technology will be as simple as driving a car is today.

And there's reason to be optimistic that we'll see much of the promise by 2005.

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