Originally published in the January 1999 issue of:

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The End of the 3 Ring Circus

by Barry McKinnon

of Mc2Systems Design Group

...those atoms take up a lot of physical space and they tend to become obsolete since those paper atoms are write-only storage media

I relish the idea of gaining an entire room back from being a paper/plastic storage facility

I predict the demise of the 3 ring circus. It has to happen, it is a concept that is largely anachronistic and obsolete. Now don't get me wrong, I've never been traumatized by a clown, and I don't have issues with circus animals, in fact I hope that Barnum & Bailey and Ringling Brothers, and the hundreds of other circuses around the planet enjoy a long and satisfying existence. I'm thinking about the 3 ring circus that goes on in my literature library. Several walls worth of bookshelves, filled to overflowing with 3 ring literature binders, in various states of obsolescence, and in various states of repair, all combined with an influx of new paper data sheets on products and materials that seems to grow by a half inch per day.

When I stand amongst those towering shelves, I can't help but think that Vancouver has the same earthquake risk as California, and that even if the shelves are seismically restrained, all those binders are not, and I would not want to be in that library when we get the "Big One". I also think about how crowded my desk gets as I'm writing a specification, piled high with binders from a dozen manufacturers for each section of the specification. I think about how long it takes me to find information in some binders, the obscure method of equipment classification used by some manufacturers (let's see, is this binder organized alphabetically, or to match their price page order, or is it organized by product category, and is that loudspeaker part of their pro product or part of their semi-pro-sumer category). I also think about those instances where I'm sure I've seen the newest product info and it isn't in the binder, or if it is, it has been put in a different section than the product it replaced. And there's a few binders that I know haven't been updated for 3 or 4 years. I know I'll have to phone the rep and ask for the latest data, but I have to have the specification done by Monday morning and it's Saturday afternoon, so I'll choose a product I do have data on, and if they like, they can request that their product be an approved equal.

So it is in the world of paper atoms carrying bits of information, those atoms take up a lot of physical space and they tend to become obsolete since those paper atoms are write-only storage media. Paper data sheets have the same inherent limitation as conventional daily newspapers, once you retrieve the information you need, the material carrying the information has no useful purpose, it becomes a disposal problem. This is the conundrum that Nicolas Negroponte first described in his book "Being Digital" and has continued to expound on in his last page column in Wired magazine.

Even 10 years ago, the pro-audio and video product markets had a much more leisurely pace of product development, and paper was a suitable media for delivery of product data, the product life span was often measurable in decades. In fact paper was still the only feasible method of delivering product data. Now, product life, especially in the video presentation side of the industry can be measured in days, and product data is obsolete by the time you get a chance to file it in a binder. Paper data sheets as a delivery system of up-to-the-minute product specs is becoming the modern equivalent of the oral history and story telling tradition. I don't want product history, I want to know what is happening today.

In the world of pro audio, the biggest problem is keeping up with the corporate names and conglomerate ownership, but it still means that every 6 months to a year, an entire catalog of product data needs to be moved from one binder to another as companies change hands. I have several binders with felt pen names written on the spine and two or three names already crossed off as I try to keep up with who owns which manufacturer this week, just so I know which rep to talk to about product data.

For this reason I not only predict the demise of the 3 ring circus, I look forward to it, I eagerly anticipate the day when every manufacturer in our industry has a complete and up-to-date website with every piece of product data on it, and organized in a form that makes it easy to find, and all the data is in a universally readable form. I relish the idea of gaining an entire room back from being a paper/plastic storage facility.

This transitional period between atoms and bits is awkward to say the least. A handful of manufacturers have really complete and up-to-date websites, and many more have a good start on a website, and an equivalent number seem to be unsure what to actually do with a website, or believe that it is enough to have a website that says that a website will be arriving in this spot one day soon. Or even worse a website that seems to be developed by a PR person, and it has no other function that to be a placeholder for the domain name, and it then offers the option of phoning or writing to someone for product information. We won't point out the errant websites by name, they will be revealed by their own deeds as I point out the websites that have it right.

There is also a growing trend to deliver product data on CD-ROM since the cost has finally dropped below that of printing binders and catalogs. In general, these CD-ROM's have improved tremendously in their content and layout, the early versions of even 1-2 years ago often were nothing more than scanned images of the data sheets, with no sensible navigation or search hierarchy, or if there was it involved installing navigation applications on your computer just to use each CD-ROM. Now at least we're seeing widespread application of Adobe Acrobat files and clickable Adobe navigation so that all one need do is open the file in Acrobat and browse the CD-ROM just like any other drive on your system. Personally, I still prefer web-based distribution, since the CD-ROM is a high tech, high density form of atoms delivering bits, it still has the single weakness of not being current as soon as there is new data available, and even if only one or two products change out of hundreds, the CD-ROM can't be considered a definitive source of information any longer. There is no such thing as a little bit of integrity, it is either up-to-date or it isn't. It may seem reasonable to have on-line updates of new info for the CD-ROM, but then you only know if you check both places, and once you've done that you might just as well do it on-line.

CD-ROM does have an edge for delivering executable programs along with data files, which is useful for many products that have control software as part of the package, or applications for calculating things such as lens selection for projectors. In those scenarios, a CD-ROM is much more effective than downloading large executable files over the net. Now if people would just start writing applications that could run off the CD-ROM, or bomb-proof Java applets that could run in a browser environment and not take up hard drive space when they aren't required. My hard drives are becoming as full as my office library.

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What I don't really want are massive graphics and huge graphic navigation systems and Java or Shockwave multi-media extravaganzas...

The website is the easiest place to post new or preliminary information...

Let's have a look at what consultants and contractors want from a website that will be different than the general public. This is critical because we have a different interest than the average websurfer. We're much more like the "qualified personnel" that is described on the "No user serviceable parts inside" warnings, and we want a different level of info than the average surfer. What I want to see are product descriptions, and then if the product looks like it might be suitable, I want a deeper level of specification available. If it looks like the product is suitable and the specifications confirm that it should do what I want, I'd like to have a application or users manual available so that I can see if there are any gotcha's with the way the product works. The other item that is most often needed is a dimensioned drawing, or even better a 2D or 3D DXF CAD file so that they can be downloaded and one can do layout without additional work. This is most useful with loudspeakers, but video projectors would be a big help too, since one often has to juggle rear-projection room dimensions to suit several projectors.

In getting that information, I don't mind a little photo image of the product on the description page, it is often useful for telling me that it is the piece I remember from the last trade show. What I don't really want are massive graphics and huge graphic navigation systems and Java or Shockwave multi-media extravaganzas just to get to the location where I could find the info I need. I want to have a navigation system that allows me to find a product by category, or function, since most manufacturers have the most obtuse product numbering system possible I don't want to have juggle product numbers in my head. My favorite manufacturer website for navigation was Sony's Industrial/Broadcast/Professional products website, which used to allow a product to be found by category or function, or application. There are great cross-reference links included, and I never have to figure out whether a product is listed in only one group or another. The Sony site has a product description, an HTML specification page (still no PDF here yet), a listing of accessories (yes!), and a photo of the back panel (another good idea). What it doesn't have that keeps it from being a full five star technical site is dimensioned drawings of each device, especially the projectors, or the data regarding projector placement and lens selection.

There are a couple of pro-audio manufacturers that have large websites, but they still make it difficult to find the specific bits of information you need. If I need a full range loudspeaker that has a 15" bass driver, the last thing I want to do is have to comb through ten or fifteen product categories to find the right one, and you really don't want to have to remember each manufacturer's overly complicated product numbering system, or product classification system. It could be that the ideal device may come out of a pro-sumer section, or industrial, or MI, or cinema audio. I also run across websites where part of the data is in one section and part is in another, things like frequency response/coverage data and specifications are in two separate areas. I can see them being two separate files, but the access to the files should be in the same place.

The one scenario that is worse is when you know the product number but can't seem to find it anywhere on the site. This often happens around trade show time with new products, you've seen it and now you want more information. The website is the easiest place to post new or preliminary information since there is no paper commitment at all. I still think that the website is the place to post new product introduction data sheets, because it can happen the day the show opens, no waiting on printers to deliver data sheets. Some will argue that it is so much work to do that, it takes so much planning and development to do a few pages of product data, and it's too hard to get that coordinated by the start of a trade show (or the end of a trade show even). It still has to be faster and cheaper to put a web page together than to have a brochure printed.

A few manufacturers are replicating their full colour product brochures in PDF format on the web, which may be a great way of getting product sheets into the hands of consumers, but as a consultant, I really am not interested in downloading 800KB-1MB files full of cool color graphics if all I want are product specs. In fact, more often than not, I'm after something that I can fax to an architect or client so they get an idea of what we're discussing. The manufacturer that seems to have that figured out the best is Tascam. On their website (http://www.tascamcontractor.com/) they have PDF format specification/data sheets on most of their products and the images are all B&W line drawings. A fast, efficient, low bandwidth method of getting an image that is faxable, along with actual text specifications for use in a specification document.

The real strength of both web-based and CD-ROM data distribution is the potential depth of information available for each product. While the websurfer may be browsing for speakers for their DJ rig, the same page that has a little blurb on the kick-butt output and small size of a particular loudspeaker, can also have all the links to the more complete data that the contractors and consultants need to have, specs, manuals, coverage, modeling data, dimensional drawings or CAD files, printable specification sheets, etc. There's no reason to hide all of that or make it awkward to find, each user should have the choice of how much depth in information they retrieve. If the information has no value to the surfer, then they won't waste the bandwidth to load it.

There is no doubt that the use of the web and CD-ROM based information delivery systems are having an effect on the pro audio and video industry (both design and contracting). We certainly see it on the consulting side. We receive Autocad drawings on CD-ROM (or Zip discs, or by e-mail, or by FTP) all the time, and we're delivering auralization or presentation material to clients on audio CD and CD-ROM, often using HTML based navigation so that no new applications are required to view the material. CD burners have become so economical, especially where several copies of large files have to be distributed, that it is much cheaper to burn a dozen CD's than get a roll of drawings plotted and printed.

We're also experimenting with VRML files of loudspeaker clusters on our website so that contractors can take a look at the 3D relationship between loudspeakers in the cluster, and really navigate around and through the cluster to understand what the rigging issues will be before they bid. All a contractor needs is the Cosmo VRML viewer (http://cosmosoftware.com/products/), or any other VRML 1.0 or 2.0 compatible viewer to view them. Often CAD drawings don't communicate the subtle nature of the relationship as there are too many overlapping lines in a complex cluster wireframe. It's another reason why we'd like to see the 3D CAD files available from all the loudspeaker manufacturers, it makes building the VRML files much quicker. We really see the web as being a useful medium for distributing information to bidders during tendering, including project FAQ's, and addenda listings. We can even get time-stamped confirmation of the bidders viewing the information by using brief reply mail forms on each page.

There are some people that believe the WWW has already become a circus, but I hope and believe that it will replace the 3 ring circus that we have to deal with now for distributing product information. As the industry moves into the wired age, and net access becomes ubiquitous, I'm hoping that we can all but eliminate the paper needed to deliver bits of information when bits are all we need.

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