A simple riddle explains the problem cellular data advocates have faced since before I wrote my non-selling book "A Guide to Field Computing" in 1992.
The riddle is this: what happens to your lap when you stand up?
The answer, of course, is that it disappears.
In 1992 the proposed solution was the "pen tablet," a PC the size (and double the thickness) of an 8 1/2 x 11 notepad. The "pen-tops" used handwriting recognition and ran either the Go operating system (based loosely on the Mac) or Windows for Pens (based on Windows).
Go went, and so did Windows for Pens. Greater success came in the form of a notebook computer you could fit inside a coat pocket. This was the Palm PDA, which now has many imitators (including a Windows-based version called the Pocket PC). The PDA is great when you're standing still but when you're moving its attention demands render it useless.
The simplest device to use while you're moving, of course, is a cell phone. (Even that has its dangers, I realize.) At the CTIA show a week ago I saw many devices aimed at putting data inside what's now a ubiquitous device. I saw middle-aged men squinting at Palms and Pocket PCs that doubled as phones and I saw more ear pieces than in a Presidential motorcade. But the pen-based devices were still frustrating, and the addition of the ear pieces just turned them into phones, which don't require broadband data pipes.
The answer of the WISP Cowboys is to ignore the problem. Their 802.11 systems are designed simply for wireless DSL. You use the same desktop and laptop computers you use now. Your lap stays down. A "cloud" of broadband access simply surrounds you (and your workspace), extending it through ceilings and walls.
This CTIA show did offer some serious attempts to deal with the device problem, whose solution is necessary if cellular-based broadband systems like 1XRTT are to make any headway. Eye-based PCs use the lens of your glasses as a screen on which to display data. Voice computing systems can take spoken input and even deliver translated spoken output, but they're still bulky. They're specialty devices for getting Pashtuns and Farsis to help us play hide-and-go-seek, to understand phrases like "which cave is Bin Laden hiding in?"
This may be why the real "flavor of the month" for cellular data at this show was SMS. SMS can live inside current cellular systems - no expensive upgrades are necessary. SMS can live inside present cellular phones. Teenagers love SMS because trying to tap text messages on a 12-key keypad within a 160-character limit gives them skills and codes their parents can't understand. SMS is already a big fad in Europe and Asia, and I'm sure it'll go over like Pokemon over here. (Those who are slow on their codes can buy ring tones and logos.)
SMS, and successors like MMS or EMS, are just short-term solutions, however. They don't really answer the problem posed by James Doohan in "Star Trek IV" when he picked up an Apple mouse and spoke into it like a microphone.
Speaking of "Star Trek," it's apparent even that show hasn't fully solved the device problem, either. They've had 35 years to noodle on a future freed from the constraints of Einstein's Laws, market forces, and technical limitations, but the crew of "Enterprise," the 5th show in the series (and the one set closest to our own time) still uses a variety of devices for input and output. Communicators and tri-corders are still discrete - the latter in this show are much larger than the former. The former is based on a cellphone, with no screen, while the latter is based on the PDA, and has a screen.
What's missing, still, is an "innovation" from the second show, "The Next Generation." That is, an intelligent interface. The desktops on "bridge stations" were "designed" (through the talent of imagination) to change their displays in reaction to input. This let the crew pound away at one desk and solve a host of problems.
You'll recall the screens of these desktops were seldom seen, unless they were specialized units like the engine flow-charts in Geordi LaForge's (Levar Burton's) engine room.
So this is the industry's five year mission - and I'm predicting it will now take at least that long for mobile, broadband data to really arrive as a result. Create an intelligent interface, one that changes in reaction to input. Make it flexible, capable of handling fingers or voice commands. And make it small - the size of the present PDA screen (that tri-corder is too clunky). Along the way, by the way, you'll make PCs usable by the blind, the deaf, and the disabled of all sorts.
It's a tough job, but until it's done mobile broadband will remain something you hold in your lap, not in your palm. The lap is a huge, important market. But it's far from the whole game.
Like everyone else in journalism I've been hit by hard times. ClickZ is just the latest publisher to admit that they can't afford me. My remaining paid gigs, at Boardwatch and BtoB, have cut their frequency in half and look shaky.
My response is to get busy. I've got a plan for a new journalism business model which is seeking $250,000 in angel capital. I'm planning on turning the best of these columns over the last five years into a book called "Boom, Bust & Beyond." I also have two other books lieing around here ready to go. We'll have a special "sale" page at a-clue.com ASAP. (But if you've got some writing work that needs doing, click here for reasonable rates.
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Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...
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Takes on the News
Is Wi-Fi Being Killed?
Michael Powell cannot kill Wi-Fi, no matter how hard he tries.
He will try, because one thing is clear above all else. Michael Powell is a bought-and-paid-for agent for media monopolies. He will do anything to fight the very idea of real competition, in content or access. Had he been appointed by a Democrat, he'd be derided as a Communist. Since he was appointed by a Republican, does that make him a fascist?
Regardless what he is, he will not succeed. A lot of the Wi-Fi Cowboys are shaking in their shoes right now, fearing they're about to be closed-down by petitions from satellite radio companies that they cut their power output.
Maybe their businesses will be forced to close. But Moore's Law continues advancing. Next year's radios will be better able to deal with the new power limits. There are vast new oceans of spectrum in the 5 GHz band that can be exploited, and that will be. (The neighbors are nicer there too, I hear.)
There's also a huge, bright wonderful world out there that has seen what Wi-Fi can do and won't let go of it, no matter what the U.S. government might think. On the ISP-Wireless list I've seen notes from ISPs in Paraguay, Mali, and even Haiti who are using this technology to deliver broadband where it didn't exist before. The momentum is irresistible. Most of the world has no alternative, no cable and telephone monopolies worth protecting.
Here's your Clue. Freedom trumps everything, even the U.S. government.
A Lesson from Scientology's "Leadership"
The Church of Scientology has been an Internet leader since the Web was spun. It's been a leader in stretching the envelope of what you can do, legally, to keep your critics from speaking.
These efforts tend to exhaust even some Scientology critics but they're harbingers. Just as porn shows what Disney will do in an advertising sense, so the Scientologists demonstrate what copyright holders will do in a legal sense.
As far back as 1995 Scientology sued, in Finland, to break the anonymity of someone who posted to Usenet. (In defiance, the manager of the remailer used by the target shut the service down.)
The church's legal strategy is based on copyright law. Its teachings are protected by it, thus anyone who discusses them (or criticizes them) violates its copyright. (The Mormons later followed the same path but settled their case after winning a landmark ruling against hyperlinks.)
In all the above cases businesses have followed the path of the church. Today companies routinely go to court in order to gain the names of anonymous critics and intimidate them. Studios did win a ruling against hyperlinks to DeCSS. That's why I watch what the church does, and how its efforts turn out.
Its latest effort is to try and close down Xenu.Net, a major Scientology critic based in the Netherlands, or at least keep anyone else from reaching it. Letters based on the DMCA moved the up-stream provider of Xenu's ISP to close access to the rest of the Net, damaging dozens of other businesses who had nothing to do with the case. Bigger headlines followed its move on Google which first removed, then replaced, Xenu in its index based on Scientology legal action.
A lot of ink is being spilled over what Google did or should have done. (They should have made Xenu accessible in a search for "Scientology critics" but dropped it from searches under "Scientology.") But the underlying issue is simpler.
There is a conflict, a direct conflict, between copyright law and the First Amendment. Insofar as the DMCA does threaten our rights to talk, write and read, it's unconstitutional.
Publishers Don't Know Their Business
In recent weeks there have been a raft of announcements from major newspapers, most of them in Europe, closing access to their sites except to paid members.
Unlike the "Wall Street Journal," which made payments a basic part of their original Web strategy, these announcements had a touch of malice to them. They followed a lot of whining to the effect that the BBC represents unfair competition, that its Web site should be closed or scaled down.
The response of The Media Guardian's Trevor Clawson was a typical British harrumph to the effect that compelling content creates its own market. That's nice, but it's nonsense.
The real problem is that newspapers still don't understand the business function of publishing, so let me repeat it. It is "to advocate and organize a market or lifestyle." The key to profit is the word "organize."
No media Web site has yet done much to organize its marketplace. When markets are organized by a publisher, they create services worth paying for - directories, market reports, match-making services. Advocacy brings people in, but organization is the name of the Web game.
Most publishers see themselves only as advocates, and they're amazed when their free Web sites, filled with advocacy, fail to draw advertising revenue sufficient to make up the costs. They don't know this medium, and they probably never will.
So don't worry about them. Create your own organizing services, within your market, draw income from them, then go on to add advocacy at your leisure, and for the entertainment of your audience.
Clued-in is the fact that the number of registered Internet domains is finally falling, as speculators let their .com names expire. Verisign insists this is turning around, but I predict it will never go back to what it was. For this we are thankful.
Clueless was the case that forced ORBZ, a spam blacklist, to close. Even the city that brought the action apologized.
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