The Death Of Analog

You knew in your heart that it was coming. The signs of the digital monster lurking among us have been in plain sight for years: CDs, DVDs, digital TV, and the internet. You can try to run away or fiddle with the knobs to control your fate, but hiding is ultimately futile and the digital monster cares not about your past successes. Cower meekly in the shadow of the digital monster's giant presence or waffle in your decision to act to save yourself and many will understand your actions. This is change and change is difficult.

The old guard is passing and the new-strong are seemingly few and far between in our systems world. Young "thumbers," the generation that grew up with thumb-oriented mobile phones, videogame controllers and portable music players, learned the monster's networked ways very early because the monster was with them all along. The others, through rotary-dialed glasses, just couldn't or wouldn't see it.

No matter how you feel or act, there is no ancient hero awaiting the secret analog signal to come to our aid, to lead us back to our comfortable rail voltages or show us the beautiful rhythm of sinusoidal salvation. We are now destined to live a new life under the control of the monstrous digital domain, digging, bit by bit, to scratch out our existence in the new order, led now, via text messages, by the MySpace generation.

A few normal forward-thinking types joined the monster early on, almost at its inception, bleeding, pleading and tweaking the arrangement in a belief-now obviously correct-that a new world order was coming. Others said there was plenty of time to bend the monster to our existing will and shape it in a vision of cooperation with the incumbent analog power structure. Naysayers even held fast that the monster was a mythical beast that really only exists in the videogame-addled minds of seekers and code-heads.

The time has finally come to fully awaken to the reality that analog, our comfort food of choice in so many areas is now a leftover, something to digest only when one becomes nostalgic, longing for the purity of a non-bit-stream existence, or the comforting scratchiness of vinyl records. The monster has co-opted the main course of communications and interpersonal collaboration to meet its needs and only the side dishes are left to the previous cooks; a cold meal of microphone preamps, plain old telephones, and power amplifiers.

There is no way to send the monster packing back to the laboratory as a failed attempt at domination. The monster is out of control and will use every tool and trick at its command to dominate. You're starting to see it in the use of video and authoring systems, like Adobe's forthcoming Apollo software or Microsoft's new Silverlight software, allowing for new paradigms in communications and learning, and in streaming solutions from companies like VBrick, Video Furnace, and Real. Highly dynamic and interactive applications and content delivery methods mesh static information with real-time data, video and advertising, such as streamed sports events, which are creating an online experience that replicates being at the event.

Where The Monster Lurks
These and many other permutations of the digital monster are going after the lifeblood of analog applications and systems. Case example number one is television distribution systems in schools. Traditionally, a coaxial cable plant has been installed in a school for distribution of cable, off-air, satellite, and local content to standard definition televisions, using a cable TV-style RF "channel lineup" approach. With projectors, flat-screens and other high-definition capable displays going into classrooms, standard televisions are being eliminated from the mix. This leaves the challenge of trying to figure out how to distribute high-definition content to the new display devices. If you want to stay with the native equipment and approach from the cable company or satellite service provider that can ride on a coaxial cable plant and provide high-definition content, you will need a set-top box or satellite receiver at each display. This is very costly (see sidebar for the digital alternative).

Here's another example, unfortunately a sad one: IP paging and intercom systems might possibly have allowed Virginia Tech to have been able to make a single, real-time emergency lockdown page or signal to any campus or allied location equipped with a data network drop and an IP-based speaker. The potential reach of a data network, especially when the Internet is involved, easily transcends analog boundaries, trumping the distance limitations of analog circuits. Systems are already going in based on this technology. Recent events will only make our need to breakdown the boundaries and limitations of analog more pressing.

Example number three of the digital monster's burgeoning dominion over analog is in instructional media. Interwrite Learning, a division of GTCO/CalComp, SMART Technologies, and other companies are leveraging their positions in collaboration and capture board and tablet systems to include dynamic lesson plans that utilize Adobe's Flash or similar programs as key authoring tools. Lessons are no longer just pages in a book or videos to watch, but network-centric dynamic "what-ifs", where parameters can be changed easily and the results immediately seen. This is akin to having movies that you can decide in real-time what happens to the characters, changing the outcome of the movie-a real offering in some DVDs and certainly available in videogames. This is not new technology per say, but a logical outgrowth of internet and webpage usages. And the newer Silverlight and Apollo authoring tools from Microsoft and Adobe will just add leg to existing efforts.

What has brought the digital monster, finally and seemingly completely into the light where we can view it in all of its YouTube wonder? Bandwidth. Local and wide-area, bandwidth and the human traction it has garnered in homes, businesses and IT departments has made the digital monster as powerful of force in humanity as has ever existed and it will only continue to evolve and grow. We've seen local area network speeds go from puny kilobit rates to gigabit rates in only a few years, and broadband DSL and cable modem customers in the U.S. alone range around 40 million. Terabits-data transfers at a trillion bits per second-are common in optical networks and storage capabilities and will become the norm.

Ultimate internet bandwidth is mind-boggling; if you layered a map of all of the Tier-1 Internet connectivity in the U.S., it would appear as a solid-black page. This is the result of the late 1990s internet boom which caused companies like Global Crossing to place thousands of miles of fiber, much of which has been laying dormant waiting for the monster to finally claim it. The last barriers of ubiquitous bandwidth; local connections to the internet, are finally starting to come down through the use of fiber to the home with telephone companies, cable operators and developers all leveraging the use of fiber in the "last mile" between ISPs and the users.

Human existence, especially how we communicate and share in our personal and professional lives, is a finicky and also amazingly flexible process-some communication possibilities, like YouTube, online video gaming or MySpace have taken off like wildfire on their own. Other seemingly obvious tools like videophones have been slogging it out since the 1960s and still aren't mainstream. The difference is empowerment or the sense of empowerment. Look at the technologies that get traction and you will find that they truly allow us to reach some sort of higher level of communication, learning or enjoyment. The monster may kill analog, but the human spirit and condition will ultimately dominate the successful outcomes of our endless possibilities. The killer applications that drive us forward will follow these basic human rules and allow us to regain our control.