There Is More to the Future Than Meets the Eye

Opinion: Fascination with image technology distracts developers from maximizing information value.

One of the most misunderstood quotations of all time is the one that asserts, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Originated in 1927 by an advertising salesman, the statement was attributed as an Asian proverb to give it more of an aura of ancient wisdom. The key point, though, is that the "worth" he intended to claim was the power to inspire action rather than the power to deliver information.

I dont mean to minimize the importance of persuasion as a function of enterprise IT systems. When you come right down to it, there are really only four reasons for making IT investments at all: to decide what to do, to document what you did, to persuade someone else to do something, or to create content interesting enough that someone will pay to have access to it. Everything else is mere variation in how we apply emerging technologies toward combinations of these goals.

Too often, though, it seems as if application developers—or perhaps, in most cases, their clients—are valuing images over other forms of data by that faux-proverbial ratio of a-thousand-to-one. Its often the case that a few well-chosen words can have much more information value than an ambiguous image—and that the cost in bandwidth, the footprint on storage, and the difficulty of searching through a collection of image data are much, much more than a thousand times greater than the cost of using words or numbers.

Hardware and bandwidth breakthroughs certainly invite the introduction of imagery into environments where it was previously impractical to deliver it—for example, in remote medical diagnosis, where the image quality of cellular telephones cameras is now meeting critical and objective standards for serving physicians needs. There are definitely applications in which it is appropriate to explore additional use of imagery, and it is useful to have new Web services standards available for discovering, securing, and delivering such complex data in the most efficient ways.

Im much more interested, though, in making information useful to people who currently dont get its benefits because they dont have their hands free to use a keyboard or pointing device, or they cant take their eyes off what theyre doing to look at a video display. I hate to see so much energy going into image-oriented technologies and services that we dont continue to develop speech-based systems—especially when the demographics of an aging population make it ever more important to accommodate visually impaired users.

/zimages/5/28571.gifThe growth of digital imaging is driving technological change. Click here to read more.

As sculptors and hair stylists have variously been reported to say, the value is not in what one has at the beginning, or even in what one removes; the value is in what one allows to remain, whether its a statue or a coiffure. Likewise with enterprise data: The mission should be to deliver what is needed, having added value by taking away the distracting and the irrelevant (not to mention the inaccurate).

Its not a technical win to deliver imagery merely because one can, or to use a visual interface merely because its novel. These days, any decent engineer can put a camera and a video screen into any kind of end-user device, and any idiot can use them.

But while that process is keeping people busy with pretty pictures, others will be building and using systems that focus on what matters—producing systems and services that are both more useful and far more cost-effective.

Tell me what Im failing to see at

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