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      A Business Forum Book Review:

Business Multimedia Explained:
A Manager’s Guide to
Key Terms and Concepts

by Peter G. W. Keen

          Language is the sub-structure of every culture. One cannot understand and function effectively within any society without first acquiring a fluency in its language. Most of us having acquired fluency in our native language from infancy know how difficult it is to later gain fluency in the language of an alien culture. Upon embarking on a new engagement, a fledgling consultant is counseled: "First, learn the tribal language."

          Communication and multimedia technologies have engendered a new culture in global commerce. Whether we work with a presumably local micro-business or a worldwide multinational corporation, the native language -- the terms and concepts -- of our early years is inadequate to function effectively within this new culture. Many "outsiders" may derisively dismiss this unfamiliar vocabulary as simply "jargon" or "techno-babble," but mastery of this new lexicon is essential -- not just to communicate knowledgeably -- but to truly understand today’s commercial environment.

          Peter G. W. Keen, a professor who has held appointments at leading US and European universities including Harvard, Stanford and MIT, is the author of 15 books on the connection between information technology and business strategy. His most recent release, Business Multimedia Explained: A Manager’s Guide to Key Terms and Concepts (Harvard Business School Press, 379 pages, $39.95 hardcover/ $24.95 paper) offers an accurate glossary to explain and demystify the bewildering vernacular in which we are now immersed. This is a Baedeker Guidebook to a land that in whole or in part is indeed foreign to many otherwise competent persons. It focuses on understanding the new media and the Internet, and on defining the business implications of the multimedia technologies and their applications.

          This guide is presented in an encyclopedic format spanning from "Access Time" to "Zipping." The explanations of each term are authoritative and thorough ranging from a concise paragraph to often several pages for each entry. The entries are cross-indexed; there is also an excellent General Index in the back of the book. Of course, this kind of encyclopedia is subject to criticism by every "expert" finding fault with why certain terms and concepts may not be included as well as why other presumably well-known terms (at least to the "expert") have received extensive coverage. And the swiftness of technological development makes it inevitable that parts of such a glossary will appear dated upon the day of publication; today, the shelf life of many books is scarcely longer than éclairs in the neighborhood patisserie.

          In addition to the Glossary, an important part of this book is a 64-page Introduction. Here, Peter Keen emphasizes the significance of and seeks to identify dominant designs in multimedia technology. "The concept of dominant designs is useful for making some sense of all this turbulence in multimedia technology and competition. A dominant design is one that emerges from the competitive offerings to take what may initially be a relatively small share of the overall market. Quickly, though, that share grows as the wider industry adapts its own offerings to that design. Examples of such dominant designs are Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows, the QWERTY keyboard, VHS, screw-in light bulbs and 8½-by-11-inch paper. The VHS story is well known. It competed with a technically superior design, Betamax, promulgated by Sony, the strongest company in consumer electronics. VHS gradually took the lead. When it did so, consumers started buying VHS players and recorders, which got cheaper because of the economies of scale, which increased the relative gap between VHS and Beta, which moved tape providers to focus on issuing their products for VHS, and so on.

          "Dominant designs thus stabilize the market and establish the blueprints other providers follow. The 8½-by-11-inch paper standard freed up makers of photocopiers to build machines without having to worry about paper. Intel’s 80XX chips helped standardize the entire PC market. Once, there were many software operating systems. Then, DOS established the PC hardware and software markets. Software developers wrote their packages to run under DOS. Manufacturers of printers and telecommunications devices announced that their products were DOS ‘compatible.’ Once a market is driven by dominant designs, prices drop quickly by the very fact that a producer is selling into a proven market and can be sure that an incremental improvement in product or price will capture sales. ..."

          Peter Keen concludes, "One of my priorities in the Glossary is to identify dominant designs and to be very clear in acknowledging where such designs are not yet apparent." Thus, Business Multimedia Explained fully meets its objective of being "a guidebook to territory as yet unmapped for most business managers: that of information technology’s new and accelerating capabilities to process just about any type of media that your ears and eyes can take in and your mind can use."

Your comments and suggestions for these pages are most welcome!

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