Alumni and Technology Executive John Fleming Discusses Trends in Digital Age
What is convergence?
"Convergence is the process of coming together or the state of having come together toward a common point," says John Fleming, president and founder of Vision Corp., a company that makes early-stage investments in communication and media technologies, services and hardware.
John Fleming, president and founder of Vision Corp.
At a recent College of Communication advisory council meeting, Fleming spoke about the rapidly changing digital environment and the implications of convergence for both businesses and higher education.
"These days everything is connected – and daily becoming more so," says Fleming. "The Internet has become the new utility for the consumer. You turn it on and you expect it to be there, the way the dial-tone was the ‘voice of god' for so many years."
With more than a billion PCs worldwide, e-mail traffic topped six billion messages in 2006 and continues to grow. Cell phones, many with Internet access, have become ubiquitous, replacing land lines for many consumers. New WIFI networks are popping up everywhere, with municipalities, as well as businesses and fast food restaurants getting into the act. Technologies like VOIP (voice over Internet protocol), podcasting and free-streaming of radio, movie and digital television services (such as TIVO and Bit-Torrent) have completely changed the way people communicate and consume information.
The underlying technology is transforming as well. "Everything that was wireless is becoming wired and everything that was wired is becoming wireless because the technologies are driving us to that," Fleming explained. "For instance, many computers receive Internet via a wireless connection now, while television, which was a ubiquitous broadcast technology for so many years, is almost exclusively ‘narrowcast' through cable or a digital satellite system."
Further, most traditional telephone "land lines" are being converted over to VOIP, which is a new, highly economical way of transmitting and receiving data-packets, resulting in the cost of long distance falling to tenths of a cent per minute. Cell phone networks often use land lines to complete their calls as well.
"All of these technologies borrow and steal off of each other because there are multiple technologies that can get the job done more economically. That shift in costs has dramatically changed the economics and business plans of the industry. And that's because of convergence," Fleming says. "It takes a while for these innovations to grab hold and change the way we think about things, but we have to adapt because change is accelerating."
As technology continues to change, the hardware and appliances consumers use will change as well, Fleming says. The convergence everyone understands is the two appliances in their home – the television and the personal computer. At some point, the two devices will become one, giving consumers a digital home base-station that will receive information from external sources (television, radio, cable, satellite, Internet and mobile devices) as well as from peripheral devices (digital cameras, camcorders, etc.) and then redisplay the input to a monitor or amplifier.
"It's unclear," says Fleming, "whether the PC or the TV will end up as the primary device, but someone will eventually win that battle. Devices like Apple's Appletv are just the beginning."
With the rapidly changing business climate, the implications for the College of Communication and its students are enormous, he argues.
"The rate of technological change is causing the jobs to come fast and furious," he said. "We have to make sure we're training kids for the jobs of today while giving them the skill set for the jobs of tomorrow."
"People coming out of universities need to be versatile and understand the technologies from the get-go, no matter where those technologies take us," he said. As opposed to retraining people halfway through their careers, we need to graduate people with a basic skill set because we don't know where business is going or applications that will result from those technologies. Who knows what the next YouTube or MySpace will be? "
Fleming goes on to recommend that students should not only be versatile, they should be leaders and innovators in the new communication landscape, transforming industries like news, advertising and engineering and creating the next generation of applications.
Engineers will be able to say what can and can't be done technologically, but it will be the communication professionals who will know what to do with that information, how to sell it and productize it. To do that, Fleming says that future students will need to be familiar with basic digital technology as it relates to PCs, as well as have a good background in PC and Internet applications. It's vital, Fleming says, for the college to couple its traditional training in critical thinking, writing and content creation with media and technology literacy, as well as to give students a strong background in finance, marketing, business law and engineering.
Fleming believes that it is incumbent upon the college and the university to institutionalize an interdisciplinary approach.
"Interdisciplinary education is going to be the key," he says. "In today's world, an engineer or a businessman must be able to communicate effectively to be competitive in the job market. The university's challenge is to decide how everything relates and how to train its students.
"Let's face it," he says, "kids with that sort of training are going to get jobs. An engineer that can walk and talk and write well will be a valuable commodity."
John Fleming is a former member of the College of Communication Advisory Council and of The University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture's Solar D Decathalon Advisory Committee. He has had a 30-year career in the information technology industry.
Laura Byerley, (512) 471-2182