At WH Smith in Watford last week anyone buying more than #20 worth of goods was offered a small bonus - a Robson and Jerome tape for just #1.
'Bonus' may be the wrong word but it could hardly be called an inducement: there was nothing to alert you to the offer until you got to the till with the purchases you were going to make anyway. According to the sales assistant, there had not been many takers. Hertfordshire's Robson and Jerome fans were no doubt glad to pay the full whack for the tape around Christmas. They may have felt a little miffed to see it so drastically reduced in price less than three months later, but these things happen when items have such a limited life span.
They happen too in sectors of the PC industry, if not quite to the same extent. The tendency of hardware and software to be left behind by progress is a routine feature of the business. It can cause prospective buyers to defer their purchases because if they wait a month or two, they can either buy more recent technology, or pick up the previous technology at a discount.
This tendency is referred to obliquely in a book called Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte. It too was on sale in WH Smith, tucked away in the business section at ankle level.
Normally I prefer not to give house-room to books by gurus. If you keep the written testament of an accredited visionary where prying eyes can find it, the next thing you know the more impressionable members of the household will be off to join some barmy sect, chanting 'God wants me for a sunbeam'. As the most impressionable member of my own household, I thought the risk in this case was manageable.
On the vexed subject of technological leap-frog, Mr Negroponte says: 'When you buy a new TV set, you throw away one and adopt a totally new one. By contrast, if you have a computer, you are accustomed to adding features, hardware and software, instead of exchanging everything for the tiniest upgrade.'
Reluctant as I am to contradict a man whom the New York Times Book Review described as a wizard, I'm not sure he is right. My television set is 13 years old. Were I using a computer of similar vintage, we'd be talking about something with an 8088, CP/M and a couple of 5.25in floppies. It would take considerable engineering talent to turn that into something capable of running Windows 95. During the lifetime of my television, I've bought brand new computers three times and I've never thought of myself as a power user. I suppose the longevity of my TV, and my attachment to it, is the truly unusual aspect of this comparison. We must remember that Mr Negroponte is from America, where they adopt a different attitude to the technology and content of television. Still, I'm surprised to learn they prefer to adopt a set. You'd think they'd simply get a new one rather than go through all the red tape of adoption.
Other thoughts occur as you read Being Digital in the paperback edition. One is: 'Couldn't they have afforded better quality paper?' Another, more relevant to the subject under discussion, is that the further development of what has become known as IT will be built around the imaginings of people like Mr Negroponte. As he looks into the future, the line between what he sees and what he would like to see is indistinct. Much of what he says comes across as a personal wish-list. This suggests an answer to another conundrum associated with technological advance.
Why does computer technology press ahead so relentlessly? The obvious answer - competitive pressure among suppliers - has always seemed too vague. A plausible alternative is now to hand. This is, after all, the industry where the potential is supposedly limited only by our imagination. What drives it, then, is the imagination of people like Mr Negroponte. He describes how it will be, and lo and behold, somebody makes it happen.
Whether this is a good thing or not I wouldn't venture to say. We may be safer in Mr Negroponte's hands than in those of several other leading figures who come to mind.
It's unlikely that this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy will work for everyone, but I'm still willing to give it a try. So: I predict a new era in storage options. Users with slight requirements for diskette space will no longer have to pay for the 1.38Mb they never use. Instead, they will be able to buy 20K diskettes priced pro rata at about 2p each. And to save on distribution costs, such diskettes will be given away free with all Robson and Jerome tapes.
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