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The Not-Quite-Yet Boom

The Not-Quite-Yet Boom

What is the "final frontier" for wireless? And what is the elusive impediment that's been acting as a brake on its explosion? Is it a business barrier, a technological one, or a human one?

These are some of the questions that have now become such a part of mainstream American life in 2001 that even Newsweek stopped to examine them in a recent special report. The verdict was that the future of the wireless experience is behind schedule, though it wasn't quite as clear as to why.

Let's consider the case ourselves. Why hasn't there yet been what Newsweek calls the Wireless Big Bang, "when all our devices, appliances, and gadgets suddenly meld into a big goo of connectedness, and everything and everybody is in touch with one other instantly and persistently"? (On a factual note, the International Telecommunications Union reported that at the end of last year, mobile phone penetration in the U.S. [40%] and Canada [23%] lagged significantly behind other developed countries, such as Taiwan, Austria, and Italy [nearly 80%].)

From a business point of view, it isn't enough for potentially useful technologies to exist; they cannot possibly become pervasive unless companies can organize themselves to reap their full potential. And where wireless is concerned, the business barriers have been many. While the PC boom was fueled largely by high profit margins and sinking costs, the wireless non-boom (or Not-Quite-Yet boom, at least) has been characterized by low profit margins and rising costs.

As far as technology goes, wireless has, if anything, been cursed by the multiplicity of good technologies rather than any dearth of them. Recent history provides us with some clues. "Hotspot" technology, the use of the high-speed wireless Ethernet standard termed 802.11b by the IEEE to provide what's now becoming popularly known as "Wi-Fi" (because it can deliver Internet access speeds of up to 11Mbps to users), has been around for a while. And yet what's being hyped by the carriers is not fast Wi-Fi, but slower 2.5G and 3G.

Why are we all being urged to wait for 3G when a technology already exists that's more than 10 times faster than the planned 3G mobile phone networks? Is it because the investment in 3G licenses has been so immense that the world's telcos are locked in to a future in which it is necessary to amortize the cost of acquiring them? If so, then the "not-quite-yet" nature of the wireless boom isn't a business phenomenon, nor a technological one. It's a human one.

We humans seem inextricably wedded to the idea that if we have to choose between a gargantuan benefit tomorrow and a (merely) huge benefit today…we instinctively grab at the former. And businesses are run by humans. Humans who say to themselves, "If a three-person company like Microsoft can move from grossing $16,000 per annum in 1975 to $145 million just 10 years later, and $5.9 billion 10 years after that, then what might be possible for a converged technology company like ours not even starting from scratch but instead armed with billions of dollars from the get-go?"

The answer, in the wireless universe anyway, remains: Who knows? So far, all that's been achieved is, at best, a "Little Bang".

The human aspects of the Not-Quite-Yet boom go far beyond business behavior. As consumers we must perhaps bear our share of the blame. Have we been too passive in questioning the various master plans of the would-be wireless magnates? In blindly accepting that first WAP, then XHTML, could and would change not just our phones but our lives? In failing to listen to the industry's internal admissions that the Internet may be one thing, but that the "wireless Internet" is quite another: as in, one is a desktop-based phenomenon blessed by stable and universal standards, while the other is an untethered, roaming phenomenon dogged by differing - and often outright conflicting - standards, from GSM versus CDMA at the macro level to J2ME versus BREW at the micro level?

Why didn't we as consumers just have the courage to say, "Let us know when it's all actually a reality - until then, go take a hike?" As Nobel laureate nuclear physicist Richard P. Feynman once said: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

Oddly, the one aspect that is a reality everywhere else in the world, SMS, is the very aspect of wireless that's taken off most slowly in the U.S. But who's to say that even this circle will ever be squared - not, anyway, now that it's been discovered that a single SMS message sent from a PC to a mobile phone can cause the phone's SIM card to be destroyed.

A Dutch expert named Job de Haas was the one to break this news to WBT this month. Part of a company made up of former hackers, de Haas has so far proven that it's possible to cause a meltdown in three of the world's most popular cell phones, the Nokia 3310, 3330, and 6210.

In these anthrax-troubled times, we need news like this about as much as we need an outbreak of bubonic plague or a 300-foot tidal wave to sweep down Wall Street. Because the Not-Quite-Yet wireless boom could always, in the worst case analysis, transmogrify itself into a "Never-Never wireless boom."

This is why a business expert like Philip Kotler, S.C. Johnson & Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, describes m-commerce as "a trillion-dollar wager that enough individuals and groups will take to using the wireless Internet while on the go."

Kotler is well aware, as with any other business wager, that the poker hand being held by the world's platform/application providers, content developer/aggregators, consumer goods/service suppliers, network access providers, and device manufacturers may prove to be nothing but a hideously expensive busted flush.

Perhaps they're all hoping that someone will cast a spell on the whole wireless value chain, and that profits will begin to gush. It was Arthur C. Clarke, I believe, who famously proclaimed: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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