Click to Start – Define or be defined

I bought a new mobile phone the other day, my previous handset having succumbed to a couple of years of being dropped, bumped and banged, and the occasional temporary duty as a hammer for my young son. In keeping with my general philosophy of buying technology with as few bells and whistles as possible, I managed to resist the temptation of phones with cameras and other multimedia add ons.

However, I confess I was torn. Torn by the promise of the latest entrant to Australia’s mobile market – Hutchison’s ‘3’. Those of us living in Melbourne and Sydney cannot help but notice the marketing campaign for the latest mobile telephone technology. Known as ‘3G’, it enables high speed data connections over the mobile network – fast enough for video and audio to be transmitted.

The bottleneck to a true ‘wired world’ is the bit of wire which connects us to the world. Until recently we experienced the world in slow motion with dial up internet access modems. Then broadband internet came available – mostly via ADSL (read more about ADSL in my previous Click to Start). Once you have broadband you won’t go back. Now broadband data is available on a mobile phone handset.

The ‘3’ advertisements are replete with ideas for this new gadget – a father working back late singing a lullaby to his baby; a young woman phones her boyfriend to show him the couch she wants to buy. And the public relations machine is in full force, with newspaper pieces describing how landscape contractors are using 3G video phones to monitor the work in progress on their building sites.

Hutchison is spending up to $3 billion rolling out the new 3G service in Australia – that’s a lot of dough in a saturated marketplace. There are 13 million mobile phone users in Australia. I just checked the population clock on www.abs.gov.au, and as of now there are 19,880,103 people in Australia – 65% of everyone, from babies to grandparents apparently are mobile users. There are around 7.5 million households in Australia – so we’re close to two phones per household (three if my daughter wins the war and gets her own).

Like microwaves, video players, CD players and personal computers (and, I’m reliably informed, electric toasters), Australia has maintained its reputation as a world-leading adopter of technology. The big question is, is 3G a new technology, or just an enhancement of an existing technology. The difference is important. In the US – a fast technology adopter – it took radio 38 years to reach 50 million people, personal computers took 16 years. The Internet only took four.1  New technologies, in fast adopter countries, are both revolutionising the community, and taking exponentially shorter periods of time to do so.

It’s fascinating to watch ‘3’s competitors launch their ‘spoiler’ campaigns in a concerted attempt to hoodwink us that they too can offer you the new miracle.  It’s instructive that these are the same companies which have taken an age to make broadband access available, and still do so at prices which persist in blocking access for many users.

Telstra has been particularly active – capital city residents may have seen a major press campaign, with full colour advertisements for ‘3 wishes’. It was some vague attempt at tempting you with discounts on services, and a competition or two. The reality is it was nothing to do with promoting Telstra products, and everything to do with positioning the number ‘3’ in your minds as associated with Telstra – just weeks before Hutchison launched their ‘3’ network.

Now Telstra and Vodaphone are promoting their ‘multi-media’ mobile phone services, which lets you take photos with your mobile phone and send them to someone else either via SMS to their mobile, or email. Sounds great. But tell me this – what do you reckon would be cooler if, side by side, you compared a phone which can send a photo to someone, to a phone which allows you to have, in real time, a video phone conversation? I know which one is going to suck me in.

Telstra and Vodaphone are using ‘current’ technology – ‘2G’ – although yet again they seek to run interference on ‘3’ by coining a new phrase – ‘2.5G’, to try to close the gap in your mind. Hey, it’s only .5 difference, cool!

If I was feeling terribly uncharitable, I’d wonder which PR spin doctor was behind the recent media beat up of the banning of mobile phones in swimming pool change rooms, because of privacy concerns. I’m certainly not arguing that privacy isn’t an issue, but seeing as we’ve had picture-taking mobile phones for a while now, the coincidence with the launch of ‘3’ was curious.

Back to my question – is 3G going to be a ‘new technology’, or just an upgrade?

In terms of sales, one would be forgiven for thinking it’s an upgrade. Sales are slooooowww. I read recently ‘3’ had only achieved sales of 1,000 connections in the first couple of weeks, despite their marketing blitz, including attractive pricing structures which do their darndest to convince you this video technology won’t cost you anymore than your current mobile. At that rate it’s going to take a while to recoup $3 billion.

And the uptake in Europe is also slow. I quite like the chutzpah of ‘3’, advertising how you can make video calls overseas. What they neglect to tell you is that the only other countries you can make a call to are the UK, Italy, Sweden or Austria. As opposed to virtually every developed country in the world with the current technology phones. According to Telstra’s web site I can use my mobile in over 100 countries with their international roaming.

‘3’ is desperate to convince you that your new video phone handset brings the world to the palm of your hand. It doesn’t – yet. But the potential is incredible. Access to the internet and data at the same speed as broadband internet. Video and audio in real time. It’s this unrealised potential which does it for me, so I think it’s a new technology. It’s just desperately unfortunate it is being launched into a saturated marketplace.

Some signs from overseas that others agree with me:

  • Endemol Entertainment, the Dutch based TV producer of incredibly popular shows around the world, has announced it intends to shift half its business to supplying content for mobile phones and the Internet within three years.2
  • "Once the 3G rollout is complete and terminals reach critical mass and over, those Media Companies who are not in the mobile game, will start facing even more problems as they hang on to their declining traditional business areas."3 

    ‘3’s illustrative examples of the potential uses of their 3G network phones are lightweight, and clearly pitched at the early adopter consumer, giving them easy excuses to splash out. It takes me back to the early marketing of personal computers as the ultimate recipe filers and personal cheque book balancers. Hands up everyone who files their recipes on their PC, and can get their cheque book to balance, with or without a PC? I suspect few of us.

    It took a couple of really clever people to have inspirations like the web browser, word processor, spreadsheet, and email. We then developed practices and tools, drawing on these innovations, which have ensured PCs are now ubiquitous. We all followed along behind these clever people, albeit as, my new favourite phrase, ‘fast followers’. So, in reality, I think there were a few early adopters, who all showed us the way.  They defined the technology, and we hung onto the tailgate for the ride.

    With the greatest of respect to the green thumbs, I’m not entirely convinced that 3G’s future lies in landscape gardening. And my children certainly don’t want me singing them to sleep – indeed, they don’t want me singing at all, because I can’t. These are just the ‘recipe filers’ and ‘cheque book balancers’.

    What I’m looking out for are the early adopters, and what they come up with. How will they define the technology for us? How will they create the ideas, applications and uses which will unlock the potential that ‘in your hand’ broadband data must hold?

    If I were ‘3’, I’d be giving a free handset to every artist in Australia. I’d engage the minds of the most creative of our community, and let them, this time, define the technology, instead of the spreadsheet and word processing inventors from the PC generation. And if Hutchison’s largesse doesn’t extend that far, then let’s make sure our creatives are still encouraged to explore and engage with this new technology.

    Whoever defines ‘3G’ will determine the tailgate us fast followers grab hold of. If we sit back, someone else will do the defining for us, and we’ll lose our moment. Define or be defined!

    Check out ‘3’ at www.three.com.au.

    ‘Click to Start’ is a column covering arts and technology issues, appearing on artshub.com.au and screenhub.com.au.

    1. http://www3.optus.com.au/content/1,1463,84,00.html

    2. http://uk.gsmbox.com/news/mobile_news/all/73365.gsmbox

    3. http://www.cellular-news.com/story/8590.shtml