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Restricted mobility

What ever happened to internet access on the go?

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Whatever happened to the wireless internet, once seen as the holy grail of IT innovation? And why is the biggest thing in mobile phones not internet access, but comedy ringtones and crude text messages?

Two new books – Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet by Bruno Giussani and The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected by Jeffrey Lee Funk – attempt to make sense of where the wireless internet has come from and where it is going.

Hopes for wireless internet access remain high, with Giussani arguing that ‘in the long term we will be all amazingly networked – we will actually no longer log on to the internet, but we will be part of the internet, we will be a node of the network’ (1). Funk argues that ‘the fact that the mobile and fixed-line internet is very different means that we must “reinvent the wheel”…an entire new wheel, or network, of services, users, content, devices…business models, and portals/search engines needs to be constructed, to make the mobile internet work.’ (2) Sun Microsystems is so excited about the wireless internet that it describes a car as ‘just a Java browser with tyres’ (3).

But reality does not match such ideals. Giussani points out that mobile phone users ‘experience every day the realities of wireless communication: interference, weak signals, lost connections, limited range, incompatibilities, lost data and short battery life’ (4). Despite the obsession with wireless technology that followed the dotcom crash in 1999 and 2000, ‘everyone recognises that most scenarios of future usage drafted during that period were based on fantasy projections and overoptimistic forecasts’ (5).

And even today, ‘speculative concepts…where everything is seamlessly connected and one action sets off a cascade of coordinated automatic reactions across multiple machines, are still confined to laboratories and press releases’ (6).

What about WAP, which was supposed to enable web browsing from mobile phones? The technology had its merits, but the hype created unrealistic expectations. Giussani believes that ‘by using the internet as the metaphor, the industry ended up benchmarking WAP against it. As soon as consumers got hold of the first phones, the zippy web-like experience promised by the industry’s marketeers crashed against a reality of unreliable services, busy gateways, unimaginative services, slow connections, and expensive rates.’ (7)

So what is a realistic expectation of what a wireless device can deliver? Funk traces the polarity between ‘reach’ and ‘richness’ in older media and technologies, where ‘reach’ conveys shallow content, of general interest to many, and ‘richness’ conveys detailed content, of specific interest to few. He claims that in the age of information technology these poles have been driven further apart than they were before – citing devices such as personal watches as examples of high reach, and devices such as PCs as examples of high richness.

It is tempting to conclude that wireless devices are condemned to just conveying shallow content. As Giussani notes, ‘nobody has really figured out yet how to create a presentation that is visually captivating, fast-loading, and information-rich, in a space that you can keep between your thumb and your index finger’ (8). And there are fears that wireless devices will be the handmaidens to existing internet content – ‘operators are worried that they will become little more than a big pipe through which other players will send (and sell) their data. The industry calls it the dumb pipe syndrome.’ (9)

Is dumb pipe syndrome inevitable, or is it throwing the baby out with the bathwater? People still aspire to access rich content and intricate services over wireless devices. Take 3G, a high-bandwidth family of technologies for broadband telephony that has become the new hope since WAP’s disappointing performance. ‘The industry expects mass adoption of 3G cellular services somewhere between 2002 and 2004’, says Giussani (10).

But despite the 3G hype, Giussani gives a sobering view of where we are now. ‘3G…is an unproven technology – it barely works on experimental networks and in laboratory conditions, with handset prototypes still the size of shoeboxes. It has no clear business model, the contours of consumer demand are at best elusive and discussions are based on unstated and ambiguous assumptions.’ (11)

So why is there so much speculation that 3G will soon allow appointments, bookings and purchases to be organised on the move? Giussani says that ‘most of the technologies to perform these tasks already exist. The problem is that they lack real convergence’ (12). Indeed, the diverse technologies that compete in the sphere of wireless telephony (3G, Bluetooth, Wireless LAN and others) look daunting – even before you think about integrating all these technologies into the bricks-and-mortar world.

Such convergence challenges have been fantasised away by some commentators who have have already jumped beyond 3G, to 4G: ‘more a notion than a technology…the idea of a system of systems like the internet, a generic air interface that would take advantage of several or all kinds of different wireless technologies and combine them with the wireline network’ (13).

One of the biggest challenges standing in between the dreams and the reality is the tension between state-centralised planning and market Darwinism when it comes to implementing wireless technical standards and divvying up the available radio spectrum. The terms dictated by governments who grant licenses to use the 3G spectrum have been controversial. And governments are often more interested in wanting to be seen as leaders in the New Economy than they are in doing something for the public good.

But while the costs and conditions for licenses have been distorted by political factors, the companies negotiating for licenses have hardly been bastions of rationality. Giussani says dryly that ‘one would like to believe that the mobile telecom operators that have spent astronomical sums on 3G wireless licences have a clear idea of what they’re going to do with the spectrum they bought, how they are going to make business sense out of these huge investments, and what services they expect to offer their customers, for what prices – and when’ (14). However, there is scant evidence of any such clear ideas.

The biggest wireless internet success story, and the focus of Funk’s book, is i-mode in Japan. Giussani explains that NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese wireless operator that created i-mode, ‘considered using WAP as its platform, but with WAP discussions progressing so slowly, they opted instead for using a series of less sophisticated but ready-to-use technologies, such as standard internet protocols, designing their own solution around them’ (15). In other words, i-mode accommodated existing standards instead of pioneering new ones.

Additionally, ‘DoCoMo never tried to present its service as being the entry door to the internet, like European and American operators have done with WAP’ (16). So i-mode didn’t create unrealistic expectations about the content and services available.

NTT DoCoMo should be applauded for taking the initiative in wireless technology. Its solution to the conundrum of wireless innovation was an ingenious one. But was the solution truly innovative? The moral of i-mode’s story seems to be ‘lower the expectations of your users, and adapt to existing technology, and you will succeed’. In today’s cautious climate, this is a moral many can live with.

Indeed, it is this moral that Funk draws from the Japanese experience. ‘People keep talking about how new technologies are needed in order to make their contents and other critical items succeed’, he complains, ‘but it is actually a new set of critical items that are needed to make the mobile internet work with existing technologies in the US and Europe.’ (17)

It is worth noting that i-mode is most popular among Japanese youth, and that by far the most popular type of content accessed through i-mode is entertainment. ‘Screen savers, ringing tones, and horoscopes were the so-called killer applications that caused young people to subscribe and actually become “very happy” i-mode users’ (18), says Funk.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, or with the youth market. But should we really be using them to define our ambitions for the wireless internet? Is Funk right to conclude that ‘the mobile internet is more appropriate for young people than business users’ (19)?

Trends in the West, as well as in Japan, would appear to add weight to Funk’s arguments for a greater emphasis on youth and entertainment. Giussani says that in the West, ‘ringtones are so popular that it’s not uncommon for music artists to release a new song in ringtone format at the same time as the compact disc or possibly before’ (20). As Andrew Calcutt has argued on spiked (21), today’s widespread interest in SMS text messaging is symptomatic of an adult obsession with youth culture, and with a fear of physical proximity.

Text messaging almost seems to have become a pathological obsession. According to Giussani, ‘in early 2001 a Danish truck driver entered a clinic to “detox”. He was…sending 200 messages a day.’ (22) Unfortunately, it is in a culture where people can be considered text message ‘addicts’ that the wireless internet is being developed – and the more companies tailor their products to the existing culture instead of challenging it, the more they reinforce that culture.

There are various barriers to innovation thrown up by contemporary culture. Ill-informed panics about the dangers of electromagnetic radiation have not only impacted on mobile phone use, but are directly holding back wireless rollout. Giussani writes that ‘residents all across Europe are becoming increasingly hostile to new base stations – to the point of damaging or destroying them. 3G networks require more base stations than current systems.’ (23) Meanwhile, ‘in the United States, the lack of scientific evidence about the mobile phone’s health hazards is being compensated the American way: by filing massive class-action lawsuits against operators and manufacturers’ (24).

Wireless companies should not have to waste resources on fighting such lawsuits, but should be allowed to focus on innovation. ‘On the internet, it used to be that content is king, but in the wireless space, context is King Kong’ (25), explains Giussani. In other words, to make wireless content relevant to consumers, you have to have a better idea of what they are doing and where they are doing it than you do when they are sat at a PC.

But even here, ‘the ability to pinpoint a person’s geographic position at any time through her mobile phone raises serious privacy implications that have not yet been worked out’ (26). As with previous online innovations (27), the ongoing debate over electronic privacy will most likely mean that wireless innovations are shot down for their privacy implications before they are properly assessed for their technological potential.

It is ironic that at the same time as wireless technology is seen as a potential invader of privacy, it will also allow new kinds of privacy that will increase the wireless consumption of pornography – just as the added privacy of accessing pornography on a home PC rather than in a newsagent shaped the original development of internet business. According to Giussani, ‘accessing pornography on the go will gain popularity as the technology improves and users realise that it’s more private than a PC…mobile pornography (or wireless spice as it has been called) may soon become a public issue, even before those grainy pictures get any better.’ (28)

If people want to access pornography over the internet or any other medium, that’s their business. But a world where it falls to pornographers to drive innovation is a world where innovation is impoverished.

For Jeffrey Lee Funk, companies innovating on the wireless internet should learn from recent failures by ambitious companies in other fields. ‘Apple’s early investment in PDAs, Monsanto’s support of genetically engineered foods, and America’s (including General Electric’s and General Motors’) investments in factory automation are just a few examples of firms that invested in the wrong technologies’ (29), he says.

According to this logic, wireless innovators should rein in their ambition and keep an eye on the short-term. But it is this attitude – among businesses and governments alike – that has hampered wireless innovation until now, and made it the province more of fantasy than of reality.

What the wireless internet really needs is a bit of audacity and long-term vision.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Moving on, by Sandy Starr

The magic of mobile, by James Woudhuysen

Generation Txt: mixed messages, by Andrew Calcutt

Buy Bruno Giussani’s Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet from Amazon (UK)

Buy Jeffrey Lee Funk’s The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

(1) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p6

(2) Jeffrey Lee Funk, The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected, p3

(3) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p257

(4) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p 4

(5) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p23

(6) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p67

(7) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p85

(8) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p89

(9) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p209

(10) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p42

(11) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p21

(12) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p25

(13) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p75

(14) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p33

(15) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p101

(16) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p105

(17) Jeffrey Lee Funk, The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected, p5

(18) Jeffrey Lee Funk, The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected, p25

(19) Jeffrey Lee Funk, The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected, p178

(20) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p132

(21) See Generation Txt: mixed messages by Andrew Calcutt

(22) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p183

(23) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p34

(24) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p279

(25) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p 163

(26) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p164

(27) See Storm over Hailstorm, by Jason Burton

(28) Bruno Giussani, Roam: Making Sense of the Wireless Internet, p178-179

(29) Jeffrey Lee Funk, The Mobile Internet: How Japan Dialed Up and the West Disconnected, p176

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Topics Politics

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