Monday, January 10, 2005

Can you hear me now? See me? IM me?

A few decades ago, my wife came home to tell me that a slightly goofy friend of ours had begun selling cellular telephones.

"What are they?" I asked.

"Unwired phones that you carry around with you," she explained patiently. "You can talk to anyone, anywhere, whenever you want."

"Who the hell would want with one of those?" I responded.

With my bonafides firmly established as a technological visionary, I proffer the following thoughts about the bright future for these ubiquitous nuisances.

As all but the oblivious are aware, cellphones long since have moved beyond being mere portable talking machines. The gizmos now connect to the Net to do text (SMS), email and IM. Some serve as a PalmPilot and a phone (or is it the other way around?). Some take still pictures (the sleek new Motorola RAZR has 4x zoom) and a few are grabbing short bursts of video. Reductio ad absurdum, some phones are equipped with Bluetooth technology that lets you avoid being tethered to the phone itself by carrying a tiny a wireless headset that communicates with the host "portable communications device." Can't choose which of the above features to get? Buy the Treo 650. It does it all, if you can bear to lug it around.

But, as the Jazz Singer said in the talkie that rocked Hollywood, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Cellphones are poised to become platforms for the widespread delivery of games, music and video, which, in due course, will rattle the cages of the establishment media companies. Motorola and Apple will help get the ball rolling later this year by introducing iPods embedded in cell phones. And Verizon is touting a new high-speed network that in certain markets reputedly will be capable of supporting video and other bandwidth-intensive entertainment offerings.

Until now, cellphone electronics have been too puny and networks have been to slow to support true-motion video. The first cellphone TV company in the US is MobiTV, which for some time has been offering a clunky video programming service to the Cingular, Sprint and Midwest Wireless customers who are equipped with certain phones. Unless you have one of the handful of phones truly capable of processing live-action video, however, the pictures look like the slo-mo shots of Neil Armstrong loping on the surface of the moon. Even if you have the right phone, the network in your area might not be fast enough to power the signal. Now, Verizon says, next-generation phones and its speedy new net will take things a lot further:
Customers can expect video and games from a variety of familiar and popular sources, such as MTV Networks' VH1 and Comedy Central brands. A relationship with News Corp. and 20th Century Fox will bring Verizon Wireless customers hot exclusive programs -- "24: Conspiracy," "Sunset Hotel" and "Love & Hate" -- specifically designed for mobile phones. A broad offering of content will also be available from NBC, including newscasts made exclusively for mobile phones.
If Verizon really can make pictures fly over its promised super-charged network , the popularity of the services will be a slam dunk, as the perspicacious Presidental Freedom Medal winner George Tenet might say. Provided that cell networks are robust enough to support the powerful new phones heading for market, people -- especially young ones -- will subscribe enthusiastically to these services, grooving on the portability, individuality and immediacy available to them on their teensy, high-resolution screens.

Video on demand, which will be a small step down the road from one-to-many cellcasting, will create significant pay-per-view possibilities for not only established networks (if they are hip to the opportunity), but also to nightclubs, community theaters, prep sports teams, garage bands and even enterprising individuals like podcasters. It's safe to predict that one of the earliest adopters of this immediate and highly interactive medium will be the technologically astute porn industry.

All this new clicking and viewing will create huge and highly segmented databases, enabling advertisers to vector targeted propositions to consumers wirelessly wired to instantly respond. Watch the trailer, check the show times and click here to buy a movie ticket. Click there to test drive a Honda driven to your doorstep by an eager salesperson. Click everywhere to buy Viagra or refinance your mortgage.

As consumer awareness rises, prices fall, devices improve and programming expands, cellcasting will start nibbling at CD, DVD, gaming, move theater, radio and TV revenues. In addition to grabbing a growing share of a family's entertainment exchequer via subscription and pay-per-view services, cell providers cleverly will pre-empt entertainment budgets by offering mad-money accounts that top up to prearranged monthly sums that can be blown in a few keystrokes on songs, sodas, smut or the Simpsons.

Cell companies already have huge subscriber bases; minute-by-minute knowledge of who called whom, and comprehensive individual credit histories. Add entertainment-consumption profiles, buying patterns and the mad-money banking function to the mix, and you have an info-oligopoly powerful enough to make a robber baron blush. This raises interesting public-policy issues best saved for another day.

The gating factor for cellcasting, of course, is network speed and availability. More than two dozen of the world's cell companies have bought into a new DoCoMo standard that promises to multiply by 10x the speed of the 3G network that now represents the state of the industry's art. Within three to five years, if all goes according to plan, this standard will move off the drawing board and onto the airwaves.

Meantime, I am hoping for a more modest engineering feat from my singular mobile-phone provider: The ability to complete a call when I am no more mobile than sitting at my desk.


Blogger Mike said...

I love this blog. I do. And you're a much better writer than me. But I submit that "long since have moved" is a solid argument in favor of splitting infinitives.

9:39 AM  
Blogger John V said...

Ummm ... "have moved" isn't an infinitive. "To move" is the infinitive form.

But you're right about the construction.

10:07 AM  

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