Burgers, teenagers, and optimism for cabling's future

If you really want to know where all this zaniness we call life in the 21st Century has its roots, go back no further than the debut of the first drive-up burger franchise.

Mar 1st, 2003

If you really want to know where all this zaniness we call life in the 21st Century has its roots, go back no further than the debut of the first drive-up burger franchise. I kid you not. I think that understanding the evolution of the fast-food burger can help us make some sense of, if not give us hope for, the tumultuous world of technology and cabling, and how the next generation is ready to grab onto it.

If you're a fellow Boomer, you can remember, perhaps fondly, those first skinny little fast food hamburgers you could chow down for about 25 cents each. People, especially teens, seemed satisfied. Business began to grow. Franchises were born and expanded. Then someone got the wild idea of making a triple-stacked burger with lots of stuff on it. You couldn't even get your mouth around it. "Who would want that?" we thought at first. Our parents' generation couldn't really relate, but before long, we found out that we'd want that. Because it was bigger, the price was right, and it was still fast. How American can you get?

But it didn't end there. Soon thereafter, there was the arrival of the megaburger—one so big and juicy, a guy could no longer hold it with one hand while driving with the other. "Who would want that?" By now, you know the answer. And somewhere about that same time, there arrived the drive-through window phenomenon, and man, there you go—our society was well on its way to loving life bigger and faster, bigger and faster, biggerandfaster.

Some evidence: A recent national newscast's report on a study of America's eating habits showed that the bigger the portions for the buck, and the faster it could be served, the happier (and, uh, more overweight) we have become. Super-size it. Biggie it. Humongous onion rings and fries the width of Rhode Island, squeezed in the nooks and crannies of a plate piled four-inches high with sandwiches of all kinds that would fit snugly in a Frisbee. We love it. Apparently, we cannot get enough.

Not good for the heart or waistline, but good for the cabling industry, I think.

You see, in the mid-1980s, I was covering this emerging technology known as Compact Disc. There was much excitement, since these little babies could hold entire encyclopedias and pictures and documentation. "Every homeowner will be owning at least one player in the near future!" Yeah, right. Documentation. Who would want that? But then someone got the bright idea to fatten the CD's marketing appeal and use it as a music tool to attract younger consumers. Get more music at once. Get at it faster. No scratchy sound, no hissing, no rewinding or fastforwarding.

What was a great idea but seemed like wishful (and boring) thinking at first has become one of the hottest tech trends of the past decade—because Compact Disc technology has offered bigness, speed, and a great price.

I saw this burger theory at work again while in the PC publishing industry in the late '80s. At first, the experts were skeptical—who would ever want that in their home? But Americans who had already tasted their bigger and faster burgers and CDs—especially the college and young career types—soon realized that they could do more and do it faster with a PC than with a typewriter, file cabinet and calculator. I once worked for a PC magazine publisher at the height of the boom, and we couldn't hire enough employees, nor possibly see an end in sight. But the boom ended, of course, when the market was saturated and just about everyone who could have a PC or two had them. "Now what?" we thought. (Do I hear a few amens from the optical-fiber corner?)

Just when we thought we would never find another job opportunity in the PC field, someone thought, "well, there's this Pentium processor that people might like. They'd have to get new PCs or upgrade. It gives you more of everything and it's faster." Yeah, right. Who would want to do that.

And off we went on another growth spurt.

Now, just as I was skeptical about mega-burgers, CD-ROMs, a computer in my house, and, good-grief-who-on-earth-needs-a-faster-PC?, here I am reading last month's article in CI&M by John Pryma of Genesis Cable Systems ("The top 10 issues for residential cabling systems," page 23) and, I.hate to admit, feeling the same twinges of "yeah right."

"A decade or two down the road, we will be living in fully automated homes with robots serving us drinks and mowing our lawns, while we watch a holographic movie in our home theater. At that time, we will be very pleased that we installed a structured cabling system, without which many of our new lifestyle enhancements would not be possible."

Look, I want to be a believer, but part of me couldn't help thinking: "Yeah, but who would want that?" Besides, I already live in a fully-automated home. I already have a robot serving drinks and mowing my lawn.

Me.

Since I'm a Boomer, I'm programmed for manual labor and waiting on my family because I love them, and all that old-fashioned stuff. But my teenage son and daughter, well, it's not that they're lazy and ungrateful, it's just that their post-Boomer motor moves to the techno-beat of a different drummer.

"Dad, when are we going to get a faster connection? This is so sloooooooow!"

"Dad, when are we going to get another line in this house? He hogs the Internet all night and I can't get on to talk with my friends!"

"Dad, I'm in my bedroom. I'm on my laptop. I have to get something that's on the PC downstairs. This is such a pain! Can't you please do something?"

"Dad, this is so old-school. We need something bigger, something faster..."

From my very first day here at CI&M—almost four years ago—I was reading industry expert after industry expert predicting that the future was, in part, in residential cabling. To this day, it still seems to be a promised land waiting to be discovered by the masses. Educating the marketplace—especially Boomers and older—about "who would want that," so we have been told, remains one of the biggest hurdles.

But, if my own kids are any indication, the current and up-coming generations need no convincing. John Pryma might be right. Like those upstarts who thought owning at least one PC in their home was the only way to live, this generation will not be able to relate to living in a house or apartment that isn't fully wired. Their CDs have become DVDs that scream for home theater and not your basic 25-inch TV. And they not only have at least one warp-speed Pentium in their home, more and more of them will soon be working from their homes—even wirelessly—as telecommuting goes from quirky fad to economical practicality for many American businesses.

So, when exactly will all this cabling opportunity bear fruit? In some parts of the country, where it is easier to build forward-thinking communities and new infrastructure, it's already happening. But while I have no expertise other than a hamburger to hang my hat on, based on recent technology and teenage history, I think it's safe to say that cabling—especially the residential kind—is not dead, long live the cabling installer.

The way I look at it, you can take the passive approach and try to hang on until that magical day arrives, or find out where the market is hot right now and go there. Or better yet, you can help educate the building contractors and developers right there in your area.

I'm not so sure about robots and stuff, but you can tell them the burger theory.

You can even bring my kids.

Steve Smith is executive editor of Cabling Installation & Maintenance.

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