A Multimedia Standard to Bring About ‘Universal Compatibility’

Nat Goldhaber, Kaleida Labs

Like so many of the executives, creators and analysts who spoke during the three-day Digital World conference, Nat Goldhaber, then president and CEO of Kaleida Labs, chose the imagery of war to describe what he believes the next couple of years of the digital convergence will feel like*. Unlike his fellow speakers, he also took the opportunity to name his enemy. (We’ll give you a clue: it is a man from a land called Redmond.)

“It strikes me that over the next few years, there are going to be some remarkably bloody wars fought between rather large companies, and when it is all over there will be some rather large bodies in the street,” he said. “It strikes me that it’s worth it to go through this tortured period because out of it will come something that is really quite wonderful, quite precious, quite important to us as a nation and quite important to the world.”

Protection against obsolescence.>> Universal compatibility among diverse hardware platforms and delivery systems was — and is — Goldhaber’s Holy Grail. He believes that as an industry we must develop a multimedia standard, preferably in software, so that hardware manufacturers, tool and title developers, and consumers are protected from making obsolete technology investments. It is Kaleida’s charter, he said, to deliver that “multimedia insurance” through the development of its ScriptX cross-platform multimedia technology. “Remember VHS vs. Beta?” Goldhaber asked. “Consumers want to know that the multimedia market isn’t going to shaft them the same way.”

ScriptX, which was demonstrated several times during the conference (see p. 41), certainly has allure as a possible multimedia standard. According to Goldhaber and the Kaleida team, ScriptX would provide tools and title developers with an opportunity to distribute their work to everything from handheld devices to settop boxes as simply as “hitting a button on a screen and selecting ‘Save as ScriptX’.” In addition, consumers could use any ScriptX-enabled device or computer platform to play interactive titles that support ScriptX — regardless of the platform they were originally developed for.

Version 1.0 of ScriptX technology is still under development and is at least a year away from delivery.

Hardware standard is a false god.>> Goldhaber argued against a hardware standard since the multimedia standard that is selected must be extensible, so that future pieces of technology can be added. “I don’t think that a hardware standard will work, because to anoint a single hardware specification as the one and only would mean an end to hardware differentiation based on quality and features, and an end to ultimate multimedia portability,” Goldhaber said.

Under this particular scenario, he said, “a lot of hardware manufacturers would go out of business and a lot of new and exciting titles would never be written. Kaleida is in the business to try to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Know thine enemy.>> After having set himself up as the King Arthur of the digital domain, Goldhaber chose to identify his Mordred. “Bill Gates is an anomaly in American corporations today,” Goldhaber said. “He’s an extremely secure CEO, founder and virtual owner of his entire company, whose shareholders are docile and who’s sitting on top of the largest cash pile in American history.

“It’s credible and even likely that his strategy in establishing what we’ve heard is called Cablesoft is just the first step along the road to Time Warnersoft. A film studio perhaps? Microsoft NT today, Microsoft ET tomorrow?

“At a multimedia conference this spring, I clearly remember Bill saying there will be one network and one network protocol. And I think Craig Mundie [general manager of consumer devices at Microsoft] this morning confirmed that Bill Gates plans to own at least one of them.”

Goldhaber painted a future in which Microsoft dominates the cable industry of tomorrow in the same way it’s controlled the computer hardware industry with its software technology. “All they have to do is duplicate their strategy where they succeeded in extracting all of the added value and reducing hardware manufacturers to an [interchangeable] commodity.”

Goldhaber said that he believes Microsoft will first set up the cable companies, then the telephone companies, then the broadcast satellite companies, so they all provide exactly the same service. “Then those companies will have to compete at the margins, and so also be reduced to fungible service providers essentially unable to differentiate,” he said. “Consumers will get their digital pipe from whoever gives it to them the cheapest [as opposed to buying the best].”

According to Goldhaber, the biggest potential problem of allowing Microsoft to set the multimedia standard is that it will only be the beginning in the company’s quest “to conquer the world of communications, technology and content.”

Pictures to the people.>> While Kaleida does have aspirations to see its ScriptX technology become the multimedia software standard, Goldhaber said the company takes a much different world view than its competitor. “Our world view is to enable, not to take over,” Goldhaber said.

“I’d like everyone to have a voice in whatever medium they need to speak in. I’d like to make the power of computer technology accessible to everyone who has been disenfranchised by their reliance on text-based information. Pictures to the people. Let’s reach the eyes and ears of a new class of users and let them take their place in a technologically enabled world.”

In closing, he encouraged attenders to take an active role in how standards are to be handled and to help select a multimedia standard. “Let’s make that choice for freedom and inclusion,” he said.

Janice Maloney