Andrew Walmsley on digital: Digital revolution knows no boundaries

For the past 11 years, I have sought out my respite from the digital maelstrom on a small Greek island. Just a few years ago, there was no cellphone coverage; getting on the internet required you to dismantle the phone socket, and the one internet cafe on the island offered two computers sharing one ponderous dial-up connection.

It was charming, idiosyncratic, picturesque. After a few days, however, it was pretty annoying.

Arriving there last week, it has all changed. Instead of upgrading the phone system, it has gone straight to Wi-Fi. Across the island, laptops can be used pretty much anywhere, and it has brought the global media village crashing in.

Islanders who have spent their lives getting the papers a day late now have Facebook profiles. They are downloading episodes of Lost. They are video-conferencing on Skype. They are more online than we are. Their media world has changed beyond recognition, and it has not been a gradual process.

It was a reminder of what we've been through over the past 10 years, as email, instant messenger, online shopping, Google, eBay and iPlayer have reshaped our access to information, to media and to each other.

But it was also a reminder that this change continues unabated in markets like the UK just as less developed countries catch up.

Last week's Washington Post carried an interview with Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's ever ebullient chief executive, who predicted that by 2018, all media would be delivered via the internet. 'There will be no newspapers and no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything will be delivered in an electronic form,' he said.

Of course, we can all see why Microsoft would like it to be so, but the question is how realistic this is.

Already, cinema is transitioning to digital, fundamentally changing the distribution economics of the medium and enabling more choice in cinemas, as well as altering the way advertising can be delivered and targeted.

Internet radio has been around for years, but, ironically, it is wireless that is causing a new surge in popularity as portable internet radios that connect through a domestic Wi-Fi network become common.

Viacom is wiring the London Underground for digital ads, launching cross-track projection later this year, and anyone who has ever visited Japan will have seen the explosion in huge digital billboards there.

However, print and TV offer the biggest prizes. Ballmer complains that television is insufficiently interactive, and fails to offer sufficiently personalised content - he would like to watch his high-school football matches from back in Detroit, for example, and, he knows they are videoed, but he'd love to watch them online.

The internet is raising the bar; changing consumers' expectations of what other media will deliver. In time, it will be consumer demand, not technological change, that will make TV an internet-delivered medium. Technology is the enabler, but it will be consumers who decide - and no matter what the current establishment might hope for, TV will be a massively more attractive medium when consumers can control their consumption, as PVRs show.

Which leaves print. While the convenience and resilience of paper will ensure it is around for some time, the economics of printing relies on volume. As electronic media eat away at that volume, offering up-to-date news, searchability and multimedia, there will come a tipping point where paper simply becomes uneconomic.

Even on a small Greek island, the media world now is almost unrecognisable from 10 years ago. As Ballmer cautions, it's not really important whether digital will dominate in eight, 10 or 14 years - the point is that it is inexorably replacing other media as the means of distribution. And that process isn't slowing down, it is accelerating.


- Steven Anthony Ballmer was born in 1956 and has been chief executive of Microsoft since January 2000.

- Ballmer graduated from Harvard University in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in mathematics and economics and lived down the hall from Bill Gates.

- He then worked for two years as an assistant product manager at Procter & Gamble, where he shared an office with Jeffrey Immelt, now chief executive of General Electric.

- Since joining Microsoft in 1980, Ballmer has led several divisions, including sales and support.

- He was ranked the 43rd richest person in the world in this year's Forbes list of the World's Richest People, with an estimated wealth of $15bn (£7.7bn).

- Clips of Ballmer's flamboyant stage appearances at Microsoft events have been circulated on the web. 'Dance Monkeyboy' features Ballmer sprinting and hopping around while screeching and screaming for 45 seconds.