Ranting and raving and carrying on

Just a few random thoughts about random stuff. Warning - may contain profanity

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Location: Toronto-ish, Ontario, Canada

Just a guy... Bit of a geek, but who isn't these days?

Monday, November 22, 2004

Where have I been? The future!

Ok, sorry I haven't updated this thing in a while. I've been in Italy for my job, and that means ten-hour days and when I get back to the hotel I don't have Internet access and I don't want to look at a computer any more for a while anyway.

I do like being in Europe, though, for one reason: absinthe. You can't get it in the US, and the stuff you can get in Canada is crap compared to the stuff available here. In Ontario, all you can get is either "Versinthe" or "Absente" (neither of which are really absinthe), or this stuff from the Czech republic sold under the "Hill's" name as absinthe. But real absinthe is a dark, lush green, not a mouthwash-blue colour. It also forms a "louche" when you add water, and tastes better than industrial glass cleaner. There's a black absinthe available here - haven't tried it yet, but I'll let you know.

Anyway, enough of my alcoholic tendencies for now.

I do want to talk about technology, and its effect on other businesses. In the last 20 years, as the personal computer revolution swept the world, some other markets were severely impacted. Obvious ones include the post office (since everyone sends e-mail, letter traffic has dropped considerably; outside of postcards I can't remember the last time I actually mailed anyone), the camera industry (with digital cameras, who needs film to be developed?), and the printing industry (most print houses are glorified copy shops these days, the customer usually does their own layouts - badly, I might add). Another one that sprang to mind today was the traveller's cheque industry. Twenty years ago, if I was going to travel abroad I would have gotten hundreds of dollars in traveller's cheques, and cashed them in the country I was in as I needed money. These days, I hit the bank machine at the airport of my destination country, and with a small bank charge I have all the money I need. Areas that I'd consider endangered, but not quite dead yet, are the music and film industries - specifically, music and video stores. If their media can be delivered directly to the consumer via digital downloads, then the middleman doesn't serve a purpose.

In exchange, we have computer technology companies and Internet companies. In fact, I'd say that Internet access is on the verge of becoming a utility, like electricity or water.

For the future, one of the technologies I have my eye on is "fabbers" - basically a three-dimensional printer that can reproduce solid objects, generally in metal or plastic. It can't reproduce something with moving parts, but you could "print" all the parts and assemble it yourself. ("Some assembly required" takes on a whole new meaning!) It also can't print electronic circuits, but they're working on that. Some day, when Christmas comes, rather than going shopping you might just download some blueprints from the Internet and print all your gifts at home. Think of the impact that would have on the retail sector - Wal-Mart, the unstoppable blue giant of North American retail, would probably take one right between the eyes if that technology became widely available.

My point (and I think I've come to one) is that any new technology will change the market, and some of the emerging technologies have the capability to completely transform the way the average consumer interacts with business. As consumers, we'll have to make sure that this transformation works to our benefit, rather than exclusively to the benefit of big business. For example, if fabbers catch on, there'll have to be a standard file format for object blueprints. It would be to the advantage of business to ensure that each file downloaded can only be used to "print" one object, then the file is deleted and you'd need to buy another one. Also, the business side would definitely prefer those object file formats be kept secret somehow. But, for the consumer, the advantage would be in an open, easily-tradable file format. Could you imagine a filesharing service where people trade object files, rather than just music? How cool would that be?!?

Business could still make money on this technology - the raw materials have to get to your house somehow. As long as they don't get greedy... what am I saying, it's big business - of course they'll get greedy.

Basically, the future is ours, but if we don't take control of it somebody else will.