Remember CB Radio?
Date: Sat, 9 Sep 95 12:57:34 -0700
From: Peter Langston <psl>
Subject: Remember CB Radio?
Attention Net Surfers: Remember CB Radio!
by Hal Glatzer
One day, the feeding frenzy over Netscape's stock offering
will be seen as the crest of the Internet wave. The company
hasn't made a dime yet, giving away software to consumers and
selling it to providers. I've been covering the information
industries of computers and telecommunications for nearly 20
years. To me, Netscape's business plan looks like: "$10,000
Right now, anything even vaguely Net-related appears to have
a golden future. But the Net, per se, won't last--at least not
in its present form. In the 1970s there was a similar
phenomenon: Citizens' Band (CB) radio. A backward glance
suggests that the arc of CB's fate is a pattern that's repeating
itself with the Internet and World Wide Web.
* Government Opens the Window. The "citizens' band" was an
unattractive portion of the radio frequency spectrum squeezed
between radio amateur frequencies and taxi dispatch channels.
Vulnerable to static from electric motors, it was considered to
have no commercial value. So the FCC, in effect, let anyone who
wanted to use it do so.
The Internet (originally ARPANET) was set up by the
Department of Defense for scientists to network their findings,
but it grew so large that it had excess capacity. Security
measures weren't well developed, because the DoD never expected
much dial-up access from off-campus. Rather than shut it down
and rebuild it securely, the DoD established smaller, more secure
networks, and let anyone who wanted to dial into ARPANET do so.
* The "Killer App" is Anonymity. Stuck on the highway, a
motorist could radio for help. Truckers could converse to beat
the loneliness of long drives (and warn against radar traps).
But nearly every CB user quickly adopted a "handle," a nickname.
It was mask behind which he or she could say practically
anything. The irresistible application for buying a CB radio was
that it enabled people to stay in touch and yet maintain their
distance from one another.
Stuck at the keyboard, a PC user could ask others for help.
Hackers could beat the loneliness of long nights (and alert
others to discoveries). The killer app for buying into the Net
is that it enables isolated people to make new friends without
exposing themselves. On the Net, as a famous cartoon is
captioned, nobody knows you're a dog.
* Entry is Cheap; Migration is Easy. Most CB radios were
built with low-priced components so novices could buy them for as
little as $100. Units at the high end of the market had some
advantages (e.g., sideband) that appealed to more techno-savvy
users. So the CB world had a range of products that facilitated
both easy entry and an upward migration path.
Modems of modest speed are now routinely included with new
computer systems. Anyone who subscribes to a computer magazine
receives free disks in the mail with software for getting on the
Net. "Power users" have faster modems, and "macros" that can
browse the Web like a personal research librarian. The Net,
therefore, has both a comfortable entry level and incentives to
* Hardware Makers Tend to Win--Modestly. Companies that had
built walkie-talkies in World War II, ham radios in the 1950s, or
two-way radios in the '60s, jumped into CB with both feet. Some
of them faded, but the majors captured enough market share to
show a profit. They may have been stuck with unsold inventory by
1980, but they had a good run for a while. So did the companies
that made add-ons, like antennas and amplifiers, and people who
installed radios in other people's cars.
Most companies that make modems have been in heaven for ten
years. Their per-unit margins have shrunk, but as long as they
keep making faster devices, and don't get ahead of the phone
companies' schedules for widening bandwidth, they'll keep on
doing all right. Some money will also be made from big color
monitors, from the high-end PCs known as "servers", and from
storage devices (disk and tape drives) that hold files off-line.
* Software Makers Tend to Lose--Big. CB users didn't buy
"software" in the computer sense, but for a little while they
needed information and services. Magazines were launched, then
fell unsupported; books were rushed into print, then quickly
remaindered. Entrepreneurs tried to link CBs to "land lines"
(the telephone network); others relayed messages for users who
were out of range. None of those startups lasted long because
not everybody needed them, and they weren't cost-effective for
those who did.
As for the Net, there are already too many how-to magazines,
books and CD-ROM tutorials. Last year, the hot Web browser was
Mosaic; this year it's Netscape. What's next? The bottom line
is: Nobody knows how to collect a toll for Net-based information;
and whenever anyone tries, would-be customers immediately find
(or create) the equivalent for free.
* The Limitations Become Obvious. At night, CB
transmissions tended to "skip" unpredictably over hundreds of
miles. This messed up local communication, which was CB's
biggest benefit. In cities, CB had an impracticably minuscule
range. And it was a broadcast medium: there was no point-to-
point connectivity or privacy.
On the Net there is little real privacy. A user's reach may
be worldwide, but the quality and reliability of information so
obtained is unpredictable, redundant, and sometimes downright
useless. The Net is also slow, and there is no way for users to
speed it up.
* Users Drift Away. Anyone tuned to a CB channel could
overhear everyone else on it. Some users were hogging the air;
others were growing abusive. Even the ostensible "emergency"
channels became clotted with chatter. New users were turned off,
and old users had fewer and fewer people to talk to. The coup de
grace came when a sunspot cycle returned, generating even more
static and skip.
The battle over who should control encryption will
eventually shred the Web into separate networks. Users who want
secure communication will only rarely encounter those who don't
care or don't want to pay for it. Until coaxial or fiber optic
cables replace ordinary telephone lines, many users will grow
bored waiting for pictures (and especially advertisements) to
fill their screens. The "newbies" who just wanted to see what
all the fuss was about will simply get bored, period.
* It Paves the Way for Something Better. In the 1970s, car
phones were still a luxury. With CB, ordinary people could talk
while they drove, but were frustrated by its limitations. But CB
primed the pump for cellular telephony, which could offer truly
personalized, one-to-one connectivity, in relative privacy, with
a seamless link to land-lines everywhere.
An obvious successor to the Net is not as apparent, but
there will not be just one inheritor anyway. The cost of
publishing research data and journal articles on CD-ROMs is now
practically negligible, and discs are cheap to mail. Disc-borne
data will become even more cost-competitive against online
retrieval next year, when a more capacious CD format arrives.
Wanderers will continue to poke around the Web, but most of them
are really looking to feed their individual interests. No
centralized commercial network can be all things to all users;
thus the big providers (AOL, Prodigy, etc.) will not keep adding
subscribers as fast as they have been. Specialists will tend to
move away, into direct dial-up networks that meet their specific
needs and charge by the minute or the month.
The Web, in other words, is destined to fragment. But every
user will be more adept for having participated in the adventure.
Hal Glatzer <email@example.com> is the editor of Optical Memory News,
a biweekly newsletter covering data storage technologies.
© 1995 Peter Langston