The Wall Street Journal Europe, op-ed page

February 19, 2002

 

All That Glitters IsnÕt Gold
The Mobile Industry Must First Perfect the Basics

By Kenneth Neil Cukier

 

PARIS -- A $21,000 platinum-plated mobile phone? Are they nuts?

 

The product line of Vertu Ltd., the luxury mobile-phone venture launched by Nokia last month, is emblematic of all the absurdities surrounding the long-hyped Ōnext generationĶ wireless world that allegedly awaits. In miniature, the gizmo is a portable prototype of the star-studded stupidity that saw European mobile operators pony up tens of billions of dollars in 2000 for 3G wireless licenses.

 

The network operators, handset makers, equipment manufacturers and service providers believe that customers will clamor for so-called third-generation mobile-Internet services due to fancy features and flashy phones. Of course, so far, the industryÕs idea of a swank service is letting users download a different ringtone from the Web, or inventing an even easier way to type little letters onto little screens in order to send simple text messages.

 

What mobile phone users want isnÕt sleek and elaborate stuff but very basic things. Wireless companies must come to appreciate that consumers wonÕt advance into the 3G universe until theyÕve satisfied more primal concerns. So instead of trying to tempt users with self-flattering phones or new-fangled features, mobile companies should forget the gilt and feel some guilt: Users want mobile phones that work.

 

Imagine: Wireless calls that actually sound clear and donÕt mysteriously disconnect during a rainstorm; an easy way to change the settings or check messages when travelling abroad; a sense that the system is secure; a means to block text marketing messages. In short, customers want very ordinary and obvious things--the sorts of banal attributes that typify a new technology as it heads into the mainstream. Using a mobile phone should be as easy and reliable as earlier technological innovations people carry with them, like keys, credit cards, the rollerball pen and the wristwatch.

 

As the leaders of the wireless industry convene in Cannes, France this week for their annual hypefest, the GSM World Congress, they might want to keep in mind the needs of the actual users when considering how to shape the future of their sector. The companies need to make the third-generation standard a success to garner a return on the costs of licenses and building new networks. But consumers wonÕt cotton on to new 3G services because of more hype and emerald-coated phone cases. Instead, they will take it up if things as simple as todayÕs mobile systems start to work as promised.

 

There are four main areas that the industry should focus on:

 

Workability. Unfortunately, users have become inured to poor audio quality and unreliability; phone calls that sound like a fax transmission and cut out for no apparent reason. AT&TÕs analog engineers of yore had it right when they devised the concept of the five-nines, that the phone system should work with 99.999% uptime. The mobile industry must adopt the same standard of reliability.

 

Usability. TodayÕs mobile phones arenÕt really user-friendly, itÕs just that weÕve let our expectations drop so low that we unconsciously settle for whatever we get from the phone makers. It doesnÕt have to be this way. The interface can be changeable according to each userÕs preferences. Moreover, new forms of interfaces should be created that are simpler, such as voice-recognition systems.

 

Platform.  Mobile operators and handset makers should concentrate on creating a platform for data and voice communications without presupposing what those uses will be. Whenever the technology industry tries to foretell usersÕ interests, it fails. Even in the case of the Internet, the World Wide Web wasnÕt created by Net engineers but from outside their world, by a physicist at a European research lab.

 

Yet the Internet was successful because it was flexible enough to allow something like the Web to be grafted onto it. Having been designed as an open platform, it never tried to dictate what users would want to do on the network. Likewise, the mobile industry should be open to letting users and third-party service developers devise ways to use the networks rather than restricting it and believing the only thing users will want are services they can sell.

 

Security. If the industry is to see mass adoption of data services, and if consumers are going to move to doing more advanced things over mobile phones, then the security and integrity of the system must improve. As mobile phones get more technologically sophisticated, they become prone to greater snafus, such as crashing due to bugs in the system, getting infected with a virus, or being hacked into. Remedying these concerns becomes more vital as the phoneÕs uses gets more elaborate, too, such as acting as a credit card, keys or identification.

 

If these rallying points seem vaguely familiar, they should: TheyÕre identical to all the pet peeves that computer users faced in the early days of the PC. In fact, as the mobile phone becomes a commonplace convenience rather than a luxury for the elite, the wireless industry takes on more of the characteristics of the computing industry. In so doing, it shares some of the worries: The phone canÕt crash all the time, and the interface has to get easier to use. As a platform, it has to allow users themselves to determine what they want to do with it. And it has to be secure.

 

ItÕs a vital stage to pass through. In the mid-1980s, the computer industry changed focus slightly. Flush with relatively abundant and cheap processing power and memory, the industry developed better interfaces that let people interact more easily with the machine. Instead of all the power of a computer going into the task of the computing, it devoted some of those transistors to doing nothing other than letting the person operating the machine do it more easily. Achieving that interface revolution turned out to be essential to win the mass adoption of computers in offices, schools and homes.

 

The mobile-phone industry hasnÕt gone through such a stage in its development, but it must if the potential of third-generation services to be realized. Although the mobile industry has been blasted for hyping 3G and not delivering, the next-generation wireless systems really do constitute a breathtaking advance in the way that people will use technology.

 

But to get there, the first step is to make the system work reliably so that consumers will place confidence in mobile communications and do the elaborate things that 3G makes possible on its high-speed, fat-bandwidth networks.

 

The degree to which the mobile industry is a success at that can be measured by the extent that the mobile phone becomes a truly consumer item -- that it emerges as an object of vanity rather than just utility. It would be a decadent world where function follows after form. And in the case of Vertu phones -- just as pocket-watches begot the Rolex and fountain pens gave rise to Monteblanc -- history is on VertuÕs diamond-studded side.

 

VertuÕs emergence as a company is, ironically, evidence that the mobile phone is becoming mainstream. But the companyÕs success will depend less on the glitz than on whether the broader industry can make the systems function at their most basic level. Nuts, isnÕt it?

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Mr. Cukier, a former technology editor at The Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong, is writing a book about the Internet and international relations.