SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 17 NOVEMBER 2002
IT was a moment that is etched in my memory forever. The front door of the house was just about wide enough to accommodate the massive frame of a colour television set. It took four men, and a 13-year-old boy, to manoeuvre the set from the van and into the front room.
Once placed upright and switched on, everyone stood back and waited. And waited. And then some. But eventually the screen came to light and there in glorious technicolour was the BBC test card and it looked incredible.
I was fortunate in that my father was a technician with Philips Electronics and in the late 1960s he was sent to their headquarters in Eindhoven to learn how to repair televisions. On his return Philips arranged for a colour television to be sent to the house for my father to experiment on. There followed one of the warmest winters yet in our house, as the heat from the nine inch valves provided much needed warmth to aid our viewing pleasure.
Neighbours and relatives came from far and wide to ogle at a television that didn't need blue plastic covering it to create the 'colour'. And the reaction? Well, of course it was admired before a slight hesitation indicated that a 'But' was on the way.
To a man and woman, as if synchronised, the caveat was always the same - 'it'll never take off'. And looking back at it now from this distance, I can finally see what they were getting at.
Those sets were expensive and didn't look like they were ever going to come down in price. There was 'nothing on' (still isn't but that's for an entirely different reason). Programs started at 6pm and finished five hours later. But the biggest reason of all was that people were happy enough with what they had. Black and white was just fine thank you very much.
The same went for the telephone. A handy device to have in the home, but a luxury nonetheless. In any event, there wasn't much point in having one of them if Auntie Joan or Uncle Jem hadn't got one. If a neighbour had one, then that took care of emergencies. On top of that there was a waiting list of a year or more.
If memory serves correct, there was even a little bit of cute hoorism afoot where an eagle-eyed employee of the telephone company gleamed who was next to be connected from an internal list and passed this information on to their chosen political party. Hey presto, the lucky person who ordered a telephone was informed by a representative of the local political party (no names, no pack drill) that lo and behold the line would be fitted shortly and not to forget the oul' number one vote at the next election. The same caper, apparently, used to apply to the housing waiting list.
Now the point of this trip through the myths of time is to put some context on this notion of what people want - or not. Back then there was no demand for colour television. It was all hype, a scam by the electronics companies to make people buy a new and much more expensive television set. The license was also dearer and was dismissed as another way that the government could get its grubby hands on more money. Colour television was the colour of money.
No demand equals no future was how the mantra went, and like all good folklore the 'no demand' brigade are back to retell the tale. This time it's broadband. These devotees have a long and consistent past, which included the building of the Dublin to Kingstown railway ("no demand") and moved up to more recent times and the mobile telephone ("no demand"). From the motorised car to electricity there was never a shortage of inventions or technologies to meet the needs of the No Demanders.
Thinking of themselves as realists and pragmatists, the NDs have really shifted up a gear on broadband. For the last couple of years survey after survey has been trotted out to point to the fact that Ireland lags way behind in internet access and usage. There are other reports which show that demand for broadband access at the moment is the voice of the minority. Now, apparently, the time has come to test that theory.
Last weekend's full page ads in the national newspapers exclaimed: "500,000 broadband lines now available". The ads also stated that "1 million broadband lines will be available in 2003".
Who would have thought that the day would come? Here are a million telephone lines ready and waiting for people to order something which everyone agrees is long, long overdue. Build it and they will come. Or will they?
And the no demanders are just waiting in the wings if they don't. They've even started clearing their throats in readiness, pointing to a dearth of decent content such as videos or music and not forgetting the absence of the magical and mysterious killer application. There are all these presumptions being made about the internet and why and how people use it or would want to use it.
It's an out-of-date notion that belongs more to the era of colour television. Outmoded because it revolves around the broadcast or entertainment and showbiz model. That there has to be pent up demand before there can be success. That people just want products that, of course, some industry, somewhere will decide what the product is.
In the United States the No Demanders are beginning to be called reactionary pessimists, in deference to the previous decade's irrational exuberance. The pessimists only look at what the market makes available and are blind to unknown or unpredictable uses. Email and texting on mobiles was never predicted - by anyone, anywhere - to have caught hold in the way that they have.
Pessimism precludes the influence of innovation and creativity to conjure up new and unprecedented possibilities. It couldn't be better stated than that by noted expert Bob Frankston who said recently in the US that "there is something fundamentally flawed about the concept of the telecommunications industry as one that defines the services for us and holds connectivity hostage rather than giving us the ability to define our own services".
While the broadband situation in Ireland is in a dire state, there is a whole lot more to broadband than access to the world wide web through the internet. On their own myopic terms the No Demanders may well be proved right when the take up figures are revealed in a year's time.
Forget about video or TV on the net. That will come in time. Before then there is one killer application that would guarantee that every one of those 1 million available telephone lines would be snapped up. Voice. Using the internet for phone calls -voice over internet protocol (VoIP) - is a technology that threatens to take down the telephone companies that facilitated its availability in the first place. In the end the telcos may be damned by demand.
No demand is a safer call.