Sex, Text and Wireless Profits
Walk on splintered Gilders
2001 Review How come the world has a communications infrastructure that the United States - its most prosperous and influential nation and a leader in every other technology market - can't enjoy? How is it that next year will see a flood of new devices that most Americans won't see, let alone be able to use. And how is it, quite simply, that I can send and receive text from friends in almost every other country in the world, without worrying what equipment they're using, but I can't text my room-mate ten yards away?
The roots lie in a series of extremely influential essays published in the early 90s and penned by George Gilder. Gilder is best known today as an investment guru. He was a former speechwriter to Nixon and is a dazzling phrasemaker with some grasp of technology - not too much, but enough to be dangerous - and an unshakeable faith in finance capital.
And my, how he wowed them.
"Gilder has led us into a world of wonder, one in which communication bandwidth becomes practically free," drooled one giddy acolyte. But these Fibersphere essays, particularly The New Rule Of Wireless became the conventional wisdom in the US.
Gilder assured investors that the US had a years'-long technology lead over the crabby Europeans, with their technology-inefficient GSM air interface, and their market-inefficient way of conniving to create standards.
"Why imitate European failures?" asked Gilder, appealing to American's most generous side, the optimism, seasoned with a healthy dose of chauvinism.
And to an increasingly receptive stateside audience, Gilder spent the 90s talking up CDMA, wireless broadband and in particular Qualcomm. The fact that Ericsson and Nokia had both pioneered CDMA work themselves was swept under the carpet. Wireless broadband would become the conduit for video on demand and entertainment services, he predicted.
Walk on splintered Gilders
2001 proved this model fundamentally broke, and the US began to count the cost. What broke it is perhaps the most world's most expensive, when measured per-byte, communications system (and certainly one of the least intuitive to use): the SMS text message.
DID ERTH MV 4 U?
And so slickly did text messaging become adopted that it's easy to overlook its growth.
Over 260 billion SMS text messages were sent this year. In May, the BBC gave over its entire prime-time Saturday-night TV schedule to the fad (and the result was as vacuous as you'd expect).
SMS provided an entirely new medium for virtual sex, with women proving themselves more indiscreet than men.
SMS could be a killer or a life saver. But there were health issues too: users risked being bombarded by attention-seeking pseudo-scientific press releases.
MMS will give hackers new ways of crashing a phone.
Talk is cheap
Of course it may be a passing fad, but we doubt it. It's already proved itself too useful and is really one of most pervasive technologies we've seen, reaching the parts of the population who don't have time for a computer.
It's pretty extraordinary, really, and all the more delightful because the medium has confounded so many Gilders. It exploded without the aid of big advertising budgets, and without evangelising from the carriers who provided the service as an afterthought.
SMS singly demonstrates that people want to user their phones for point-to-point communications rather than tacky entertainment packages, a point expounded in Andrew Odzylko's paper Content Is Not King, published in February, which became the one of those doh! it was-obvious-all-along pieces you can't stop telling people about once you've read. Odzylko told The Register that the most profitable way for the carriers to capitalize on 3G's multimedia potential was simply to encourage people make more phone calls.
By the Fall, we saw signs thatthe next wave of wireless entrepreneurs has a taken a long hard look at Gilder's model, taken another look at the GSM/text phenomenon, and decided which one works. Bullshit still abounds in the wireless industry, but the new startups seem to acknowledge both bandwidth scarcity and the primacy of enhancing the phone as a communications tool, not a vehicle for warmed-up content.
There's a political synchronicity at work, too. By the summer the new Bush administration was ripping up every international treaty it could find, justifying national interest. A few months later, as it sought to build an international coalition, the administration at least appreciated that a reflexive isolationism wasn't in America's best interests.
Less than computing, the telcomms industry just doesn't work in isolation: it's a business that's more given to exchanging intellectual property, too, and reflexively circles the waggons when faced with a Qualcomm or a Microsoft.
As for Gilder? He's unrepentant. ®
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