I promised several columns ago that I would not become a shill for the promoters of the World Wide Web. I intend to live up to that promise. Nevertheless, the idea of a world and perhaps a universe connected by an electronic information system that has virtually no barrier to access is such a revolutionary concept that it is very hard for an academic to not fixate upon it. Let us start with the WESTLAW system. One of the great strokes of genius in our time was the decision of West Publishing Company to give all law students and faculty members unlimited free access to their information system. WESTLAW is not unlike the World Wide Web in the sense that users from all over the world can use a telephone to access and retrieve most any kind of information they can imagine. There are two apparent differences. First, WESTLAW databases relate in some way to the world of law, business and commerce. Secondly, access to that information requires developing a certain set of skills that invoke the rubrics and rules of Boolean logic. Both of those differences however are rapidly changing. First the WESTLAW databases are constantly growing, and as a result WESTLAW is becoming a general source of information rather than a series of specialized databases. Secondly, WESTLAW has constantly upgraded its user interface so that, like the World Wide Web, users can jump from one database to another with just the click of a mouse.
The World Wide Web on the other hand, has been characterized as the world's largest general library. The amount and variety of information available on the World Wide Web certainly surpasses that available in any single library or library system in the world. The ease with which that information can be obtained is stunning. Still, there is a problem. The World Wide Web is called by many who use it the "World Wide Wait." Even one of the most powerful search engines for using the Web is called the Web Crawler. The fact is that there are physical limits on the transfer of digital information from one point to another. One of the major constraints is imposed by the physical media, wires or fiber optic cable, used to accomplish the transfer. In the simplest of terms, a transfer medium can be viewed as a pipe and the information that is put through it as water. You don't have to be a farm boy to know that the bigger the pipe, the more water you can get through it. The same thing is true with information technology. You have paid much attention to the ongoing debates about the promises of interactive television, you are aware of the fact that one of the major limiting factors in the development of interactive television technology is the size the "pipe." The phone wires and the cable wires that come into your house are simply not big enough pipes to handle the massive amounts of electronic information necessary to make interactive video function. Much of the current effort is to find ways to compress that information to make it smaller. Digital information is more like steam than it is like water. But when steam is condensed, it is water and it is very hard to make it any more compact than it is. Compression technology will eventually reach some limits, while at the same time the total amount of digital information sought to be transmitted will continue to increase geometrically. Obviously, something has to give. There has to be a better way, and there is.
The better way is sitting on my roof. It is an 18-inch satellite dish that provides me with access to my beloved 49ers wherever they may be. I am no longer a slave to the decisions of the national networks about what football games I ought to watch. I have free choice of any game to be played in the NFL. Now my point is not to lecture you on the quality of the 49ers and why Merton Hanks is really the best safety in the league. The point is that by utilizing satellite technology, I am able to overcome various bottlenecks in the pipeline that brings video into my house. And in the same way, in the not far distant future, I will be able to use that satellite technology to bring every kind of information that I might conceivably want into my office or home without the constraints imposed by bottlenecks in the pipeline. More importantly, however, the pipe that will bring that information into my home has virtually unlimited capacity. A satellite dish is like a huge pipe built under a culvert that crosses a wash compared with the piece of tubing that brings the telephone into my house. Right now I just get football games and a whole of movies, but in just a few years satellite communication on grand scale will come into my house from the sky. It will also bring information to courtrooms and boardrooms and law offices in quantities almost unimaginable today. The technology exists and once again it is a project at the cutting edge of the technological universe that finds its roots in the Arizona desert.
Up the road in Chandler Motorola is undertaking one of the most complicated, sophisticated and exciting systems development efforts ever conceived. At completion in a little more than three years, no matter where you may be in the world you will be able to connect to your offices through a digital network in space. The network is the $ 3.4 billion Iridium system that will require some 15 million lines of code before becoming functional in 1998. Iridium is being developed by Motorola, Inc. for a consortium called Iridium , Inc. which though it is having some public financing problems, is real and will undoubtedly succeed. This is no "star wars" illusion. Indeed, there are half a dozen or more competitors building low-orbit satellite systems for voice and data communications. Iridium will connect in one network all parts of the world including ships at sea, airplanes in the air and remote areas where there is presently no communication system. Voice, data, fax and paging messages will pulse through a network of 66 low-earth orbit satellites which will send the information around the globe. The satellites can relay calls directly through space to other satellites or to ground-based gateways into existing local telephone networks. Motorola and its partners are in full-scale development and are presently writing computer code and actually building subassemblies for the first spacecraft to be launched in late 1996.
I don't have any doubt that Iridium will work and be fully functional before the turn of the century. I have the core of the system on my roof today and it works every bit as well as the advertisements say. In a few years I believe it will be the way I communicate with the world and you will too. This is big--very, very big! Hold on folks the future is upon us! May the sagebrush bloom and grow.