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Phones more disruptive than PC or Internet – Rheingold

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Howard Rheingold's got the mobile bug, big time. The genial pop commentator who mapped out virtual communities before most of us had even reached our first Gopher server has been traveling the world and discovered the transformative power of mobile phones. He thinks mobile phones will become more important than the Internet or the PC.

Oh, bugger. He's in our little (global) secret. These devices have created a shared communications infrastructure, texting, that a few remote portions of the planet haven't quite caught up with, and he wants to spread the word.

Now such boosterism will be old hat to most European and Asian readers, who've been walking the talk for some years, and to regular Register readers who will by now know the scuttlebutt of the phone industry's politics as second nature. For years we've been pointing out that the biggest computer company on the planet is not Dell, or Sun or IBM, but Nokia. At the four corners of the globe, people use these computers without even realizing it or sparing a thought about the 'platform battles' that the tech press chews over daily. It's a popular revolt of sorts. This we all know.

But this is a message that needs to land square in the heartland of the most powerful nation on earth, which is the only nation not to heed the call, and embrace this most personal of technologies to its heart.

Rheingold went to Finland, and saw people organize their week's calendars by phone on the morning commute. He also saw barefoot Sao Paulo slum-dwellers use phones to receive labor market updates, and in India fishermen traded tips and the latest market prices in real time using text messaging.

Howard did a reading in the Haight last night from his new book SmartMobs and we shared a coffee beforehand. His explorations were pretty welcome news, we thought, after a weekend of the most bizarre, green ink, survivalist emails we've been getting from Qualcomm cranks: a tiny but vociferous fringe group that harasses comms commentators. (A sample here).

There's a reason for this.

Opt-out

Quite, bizarrely, the US opted-out of the global phone standard and allowed a home-grown monopolist in San Diego to call the shots. It looked like a good move at the time, if you were insulated from the global alliances then taking shape.

Qualcomm was blessed with great technology ideas, but cursed with such feral business manners that it alienated its would-be partners and ended up offending even its most loyal customers (the Koreans have very publicly regretted partnering with the CDMA-bravaggadico. Now the Chinese have got the message.)

Telecomms is a uniquely touchy feely business, and depends on sharing IP. This comes from the interconnected-ness of doing phone business - where all dial tones need must sound alike, across continents - so things happen slowly and on the basis of hard-earned trust. Then some brash kid pops up, and not only tells everyone they've been doing it all wrong all along, to boot, but that they owe this new kid some money. Quite a lot of money.

So we have a modern tragedy, of sorts: Qualcomm could have owned the world (or at least a fairly decent share), but it blew it away. It's not a busted flush by any means - it pioneered an interesting spread spectrum radio technique and bagged 40 per cent of the world's patents in CDMA, and so earns a deserved percentage royalty on future baseband revenues - but it boxed itself into a corner, and now looks destined to become a footnote to history, rather than the pioneer its engineers hoped it would be. Developing nations have adopted an inferior alternative to Qualcomm's technology based not on technical merit, but because it gives them a choice of supplier: something the heads of the San Diego monoculture can't quite seem to understand. They talk ohms and hertz. But people hate monopolies, and they hate bullies. The combination of the two is utterly repellant, no matter how superior the ohms and hertz spiel its technical folk like to talk about might be. The rest of the world long ago realized that such technical twaddle wasn't worth a candle compared to joining a global infrastructure. If you sold X.400 email systems in 1995, you'd know exactly what we we're talking about.

But to give you a flavor of Qualcomm's nutball fringe, let us introduce you do one correspondent who billed himself as "Supreme Dragonlord" aka one Mr Evan Coyle Maloney, who gave us three paragraphs of apparent coherent argument before delivering a warning not to "enslave yourselves to creeping socialism!!!".

Now, not all Qualcomm defenders belong to right-wing militia groups, but a weirdly disproportionate number would seem to qualify. There's an interesting debate about how fringe technologies (such as CDMA) attract nutters, and how nutters are drawn to fringe technologies (such as CDMA), but it's one best left to another place, and more qualified psychologists than us.

So Qualcomm's lasting legacy will not be technology, but poisoning the US market to the kind of services and standards that those Sao Paulo slumdwellers take for granted. And here, Howard steps in.

Text Deficit

We don't think Americans are so uniquely different (despite our mailbag) that they don't deserve mobile data, we were relieved to hear Rheingold agreed.

How did it happen everywhere else, but not here?

Price was a big persuader, reckoned Howard. In Europe, it was cheaper to text someone telling them that you were late, than making that call.

"But there's that Darwinian, biological niche a way for people to communicate that's convenient - people flock to it. It wasn't a plan - texting wasn't a plan. Engineers included it in the GSM standard but it wasn't marketed."

"The messages people began to send were useful. 'I'll meet you at Fifth and Main' - those are really useful. And it doesn't make any sound."

Having traveled amongst the texting continents, was there much disparity betweens patterns of use?

"A Japanese household is not a good place to have a conversation - people socialize outside; so suddenly you could communicate with your friends and your parents couldn't hear you."

"If you're 15 in Rio or Bangkok or London or Helsinki you have a lot more in common with your telephone use. I was surprised how similar it is in Brazil to Europe. Fifteen year olds are really becoming accustomed to these devices. Like the PC or the Internet these will become more powerful. These are thousand of times more powerful now than the PC was in 1980".

So if personal communications were so popular all over the world, why was the USA an exception?

"It's not interoperable. In some cases it was less expensive to make a voice call, the low cost of a voice call made texting a luxury"

"There's always been a reluctance of US operators to let go of high product margins. And they've marketed to 30 year old executives, not 15 year old girls, like they did in Finland.

"When the threshold is lowered, things pop."

We mentioned the green-ink correspondents who insisted that thanks to the car-bound commute, Americans had no time for mobile data.

"Are we so different to Brazil? They commute. I don't understand - how are Americans different to Thais, Brazilians, or Italians?"

"Yeah. LA, Atlanta and Denver are spread out places with a lot of automobiles. New York, San Francisco and Boston are concentrated - I don't think that's it."

And there are so many hours in the week, we concurred, the commute time makes for a pretty feeble demand-side excuse.

"Interestingly enough, the Hiptop, which is Deutsche Telecom, has realized this. And Sprint is new and innovative carrier, while AT&T goes back to the monopoly.

"These are cultures of fear rather than cultures of greed and opportunity. If I was a telco I'd give them away. Give them ten phones and six months' free service."

Rheingold already sees Hiptop as the driver with the consumers while Blackberry has a strong hold with enterprise customers. Last week Nokia licensed RIM's Blackberry software, so it can integrate enterprise messaging in with its regular bundle of consumer services: SMS texting, and MMS.

But the phone companies have a leap, reckons Rheingold.

"It's totally about flirting and gaming."

What a relief it is to hear things aren't so different. Once we're rid of the militia, here, we look forward to joining the rest of the world. ®

Related Link

Howard's SmartMobs blog

Related Story

US 'doesn't need wireless data' - readers

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