Written whilst flying from Crete to London Gatwick and dispatched via free Wi-Fi service on the Coventry UK Science Park.
Soon after the introduction of 2G (second generation) mobiles, a few extras were added to realize a capability someway between 2 and 3G. In particular WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) technology was heralded as a great breakthrough, offering great promise. Soon TV adverts were showing people watching TV-quality moving images and surfing the net as if their mobile was a full-size PC.
The reality check hit hard fast! On mobiles, moving images turned out to be jerky and of a very poor quality, and as for surfing, just about everything was wrong. Nothing on the net rendered correctly for a scaled-down screen and the response time between pressing a key and some reaction was of the order of 30 seconds or so. The net result? Millions of dollars wasted in promotions and advertising, disillusioned customers and a damaged mobile industry.
Surely no one would be so silly as to do a repeat? Well, er, not exactly! 3G was also launched in a blaze of publicity, and despite the protestations of the technologists involved, it has never been able to deliver against the original claims. Chip sets were later than expected, battery life was shorter that projected and the promised 2Mbps to each handset was never delivered. The bandwidth offer was never feasible (then or now) on any significant scale. So again the promise of TV-quality images and net surfing fell flat!
Despite all of this, and the 3G license fiasco, 3G networks gradually have become a reality. The infrastructure investment has been vast and rapid, at about twice the rate of 2G. But such is the skepticism in the market that customers seem loath to buy. Handsets are almost literally being given away. And they still suffer poorer battery life and performance than their established 2.5G counterparts. And how about 2Mbps? Well, that turns out to be closer to 56Kpbs for reasonably populated cell coverage - exactly as predicted over six years ago in the midst of the development cycle.
So what happens next? What might be the industry's next great gaffe - real-time TV and video-on-demand on the move? Why am I skeptical? Again the numbers just don't add up! 3G simply does not have the bandwidth to simultaneously supply a significant number of handsets with real time anything of quality! And would users want such a TV service? I don't know - and no one does. But look at the sales of pocket TV sets at $100 - hardly astronomic. I suspect this will be a bigger lead balloon than the attempt to get people to do videoconferencing on 3G.
Oops - I forgot to mention the sticky problem of charges. How much will it cost to watch TV for an hour or a movie for two on your mobile? Better start thinking about a second mortgage!
The mobile industry seems to suffer a big disconnect between marketing, sales, engineering reality and the customer base. Young people take pics, make movies and load music files. And they share data - but not over the 2.5 or 3G networks. They use Bluetooth or a USB lead! Why? Because it costs nothing! Try doing anything involving pictures, sound files and movies over a mobile network and it will cost you a packet!
And here comes the next tidal wave - and it aint live TV. Broadcasters may soon be suffering at the hands of podcasting and vBlogs in the same way the music industry suffered at the hands of MP3. And just as the music industry lost the MP3 Wars, it may well be that podcasting will be the nemesis for broadcasting. No one knows for certain but we'll soon see!
One thing is sure - and that is the vision put forward by the mobile telecoms industry will be wrong. Not wholly wrong but well off beam. The reason? Their customers are both smart and canny, as well as the ones calling the shots. Of course the other reason is the industry doesn't seem to watch or listen to either the customer base or engineering advice.
And before anybody in the industry starts shooting emails in my direction, I have used 3G but I gave it to my son! The reason? Wi-Fi gives me more, VoIP fills in the static gaps and 2.5G does the mobile bit really well. Yes I have money to spend but not to waste. Like other users, I look for convenience and value... and technology has to do what it says on the tin!
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.