Mad Dog 21/21: Between y o u and i
January 15, 2007 Hesh Wiener
IBM started it. The company’s 1994 annual report had a plain white cover sporting y o u in very large letters. IBM did it again in 2000, rebranding its midrange as iSeries, but that was two years after Apple introduced its iMac. IBM completely missed its chance in mainframes, where it could have called the z9 the zMine. Apple launched its iPod in 2001, and it showed the iPhone just this month, weeks after Time magazine made You its Person of the Year. The echoes persist for a daffy generation whose narcissism may be its nemesis.
There’s no sign the age of self-absorption is coming to an end, although the karmic effect of that Time cover might turn out to be an important signal. As it stands, marketing campaigns aimed at hitting the vanity target seem to be very successful, whether they try to sell a reinvented IBM to customers and shareholders or to persuade people that they cannot live without a personal portable soundtrack. Moreover, the potential for more variation on this theme seems unlimited. We’re wired (and wireless) for it all. We’ve got broadband in our homes and, increasingly, broadband in the air. We’re linked to computer systems and to each other by fiber backbones and by an orderly fog of microwaves that extends even to Bluetooth buttons in our ears.
There’s some kind of connection here, and not just a network connection. There are reasons the unashamed rise in individuals’ petty self-indulgence coincides with the ubiquity of fast, mobile personal communications. As Marshall McLuhan observed in the 1960s, media themselves are messages. If the original telephone was interactive, and changed the way we act and live, the Internet and multimedia mobile phone are even more so, and they are changing every aspect of society where they become available.
Some of the results are easy to see and even to measure, because they occur in the business world, where actions leave trails.
Some businesses are thriving in the emerging culture. Amazon, with its personalized Web pages, comes to mind. Others have missed out, sometimes to their peril. Tower Records, once a leader in music sales, never tuned into the download business that weakened and then killed it. Most enterprises are somewhere in between. L L Bean uses its computing technology to personalize the telephone ordering process, but hasn’t quite carried the process through to its Web or found a way to book catalog sales via a mobile phone application.
The opportunities are by no means restricted to big outfits like Amazon or L L Bean. Smaller companies can appeal to the self-absorbed, too. They will have to figure out what lessons from successful retail shops or restaurants might apply to their endeavors, and come up with a way to translating this into something that can be delivered over a network to a computer, to a portable media box, or to a mobile phone. The solutions may not be obvious, but they might arise as the giants of Internet media, such as Google and Yahoo, enrich their offerings. This won’t take long, now that Apple has started expanding the horizons of less creative companies, and now that it’s starting to dawn on the Interned media moguls that they must become more versatile in order to keep growing.
Amidst all this opportunity, there’s still plenty of room for failure. The key players in this environment, the mobile phone operators, have pretty much all missed the boat. They are foolishly chasing pennies by charging for downloads of ringtones, metering Web traffic by the megabyte, and generally missing the far larger opportunities seized by the operators who offer cheap flat rate broadband. If they wait long enough, Wi-Fi and Wi-Max connectivity are likely to become features of mobile phone handsets. Then they will lose not only the emerging opportunities, but also a lot of the traditional mobile telephone business too, as communications companies that didn’t overpay for wireless spectrum are supplanted by wireless VOIP that offers much better value.
What’s going to happen before very long is that somebody, actually several somebodies, will offer utility widgets that can work in the sparse Java environments of mobile phones. These widgets will make it very easy to, say, reserve a movie seat from a mobile phone, book a room that’s about where you will be after two more hours’ driving, hook up with a taxi when you plane lands, or grab a carrel at the university library for the evening to study. If the makers of ordinary mobile phones don’t get these widgets right away, the smart phone and PDA makers like Palm and Blackberry certainly will.
The only thing surprising about this is that it hasn’t happened already, and that the mobile communications industry has had to wait for Apple to make the wake-up call.
The two mystery players here, the ones that could really surprise everyone, are IBM and Microsoft.
IBM is full of fresh ideas it consistently fails to exploit. It has Irving Wladawsky-Berger, its chief technologist, spending his days in SecondLife, but can’t come up with a mobile transaction processing system for its Lotus or Websphere software. IBM is the world’s most prolific harvester of patents, but its patent licensing business is growing faster than its own operations, which ought to be able to exploit these inventions are lot more effectively. Well, maybe IBM wants to see what Microsoft adds to Exchange or its IIS Web server before it cuts its idea people a little slack, but if that’s the case it may be looking in the wrong place for inspiration.
Microsoft is beginning to show its age, if a perpetual corporate adolescent can be said to show age. It’s inconceivable that the best it can do is Windows Mobile, but if that turns out to be the case, it had better pray that Apple doesn’t decide to make any of its iPhone software open source. It’s not as if Microsoft would fade away, not with its Office franchise, not with its Windows business. Microsoft has as many of the pieces of the big picture as IBM, and maybe even more of them. But it needs an epiphany like the one that Bill Gates experienced when he first woke up to the Internet of his earlier years in 1995, and it no longer has Bill Gates in the epiphany department.
So who are the people who will come up with the killer iApplications? They are probably among the people who are reading this essay, or would be if IT Jungle had more reach. In a world of so many innovative individuals, judging from the proliferation of blogs and the diversity of clever Web sites, all it would take is a little opportunity.
The mobile phone makers need to sort out scripting languages for their handsets to make it far easier for a lone geek to sketch out an applet that let’s anyone order a pizza in 15 clicks, that lets a roadside mechanic get a distributor cap with a few finger taps. If they wait for a Google to add order entry technology to the maps showing where the pizza place is located, they might be waiting a long time. It’s not that Google isn’t fast or ambitious, it’s just that it seems to be great at the broad brushstrokes, but not so hot at the detail. Also, the mobile phone makers have a lot more at stake. They sell a billion phones a year and a growing proportion of these phone have lots of brainpower, yet just about all this potential is unused.
So it doesn’t really matter if Apple succeeds with its iPhone, or even if it loses that name to Cisco and has to rebrand its gadget Persephone. Apple has pointed out that there’s a universe of consumers out there who want a gizmo that makes it even easier and more fun to obtain instant gratification of whatever urges they have that might be satisfied by a quarter pound of electronics.
It’s probably going to turn out that there are a lot more of these urges than any of us could imagine.