Moving on

For the mobile internet to succeed, innovators need to stop worrying about consumer concerns.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

‘Do you exist in the future if you don’t have an IP address?’, asked IT consultant Simon Roberts at the iSociety symposium ‘MobileUK: perspectives on the social impact of mobile technology’ in London on 23 January 2002 (1).

With its aim of assessing the past, present and future of mobile telecommunications, the symposium put forward a vision of the future where every person, pet and even household object will have its own internet protocol (IP) address – granting them ‘existence’ in the network.

But before looking to the future, we should take stock of how people use existing mobile devices. Judging from anecdotes at the MobileUK symposium, mobile devices are mostly used to avoid talking to other people, to avoid being responsible to other people, and to deliberately make our lives less organised – the opposite of what the technology was intended for.

In the course of his research, Simon Roberts was told by one woman: ‘I didn’t have a mobile phone for a month, and it was as if somebody had died.’ Another speaker had seen two men exchanging data on palm-pilots, before lighting up cigarettes, letting out orgasmic sighs, and saying, ‘That was great’. In Japan, the latest trend is apparently for young people to phone each other’s mobiles, let them ring once and then hang up – letting your friend know that you are thinking about them without having to talk to them.

We were told about a teenage girl who sits down every week to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but spends most of the programme talking to a friend on the phone about what’s happening onscreen while text-messaging another friend about it. Rather than concentrating on the TV or concentrating on talking to friends about TV, both are done half-cocked at the same time.

This might all sound like harmless fun – but we were also warned that mobile phones can break up marriages. Apparently, unfaithful spouses use a second mobile phone to conduct extramarital affairs, but sometimes the ruse backfires when the unfaithful spouse accidentally sits on their mobile and dials home during a tryst. Why do our mobiles seem to be turning against us?

We can be certain of one thing: it isn’t the fault of the tools themselves. The MobileUK anecdotes and discussion only illustrated how mobile technology gives expression and extension to existing social trends. And if mobile technology is put to questionable use by some, that’s no reason to stop believing in the technology’s potential (2).

Strangely, it seems to be in the workplace that mobile technology is used in the most inconvenient ways. At MobileUK, Max Nathan of the Industrial Society (3) claimed that ‘when we switch on our machines, we become too available’ – in short, we can be harassed more. So far from making our working lives easier, mobiles can make work ‘less private, more intense’. Meanwhile, Professor Richard Harper, director of the Digital World Research Centre at the University of Surrey (4), explained how mobiles in the workplace are mostly used for inefficient micromanagement, to tell others ‘I’ll be late’ or ‘let’s postpone’.

Harper says that companies which encourage heavy use of mobile communication by their employees tend to be inefficient. Meetings start late and are constantly interrupted. And even if the interruptions are silent – text messages and vibrating phones – they still sap people’s attention from the business at hand. So whether it’s teens watching Buffy or executives watching their budgets, the distracted mobile user seems to be a common type.

Dr George Tsekouras and Dr Andrew Grantham of the MobiCom project at the University of Brighton (5) gave a useful historical perspective – distinguishing between innovation-led ‘technology push’ and need-led ‘market pull’ in the development of previous technologies, like TV and the washing machine (6). How are such factors affecting the development of mobile technologies?

After the backlash that followed the introduction of WAP phones in the West, and the contrasting success of i-mode technology in Japan, many claim that far-reaching innovation is presumptuous, while incremental, market-led innovation leads to success (7). But this philosophy – which not only caters to the multitasking Buffy consumer, but is shaped by the experiences of the inefficient mobile businessmen – could spell disaster for innovation, preventing mobile technologies from achieving their full potential.

If we’re always on the lookout for ways to develop today’s products according to how they are used now, new scenarios for use will arise only haphazardly, instead of developing from an ambitious vision. Of course, innovators have much to learn from consumer use – but this learning process can only really get started after the consumer has been offered something genuinely new by the innovators.

The mobile industry has a tendency to hail the extension of existing innovations as though it were new innovation. So broadband communication – which allows more information to be transmitted over a given period of time – has been presented as a panacea for all mobile ills. This notion was attacked at MobileUK by Mike Short, vice-president at the UK mobile provider mmO2, who pointed out that ‘you don’t buy a car based on speed alone, so why should you want to communicate based on speed alone? It’s nuts.’

A more serious consequence of the mobile industry’s obsession with consumers is a privacy impasse. This impasse occurs when a new application requires a lot of personal data in order to function, and consumers seem reluctant to provide it. The more innovators try to integrate products, services and identification – so that shopping, banking and communication are customised to the consumer’s needs – the greater the amount of data needed from the consumer. As Mike Short put it, ‘start to imagine what’s in your wallet, and if that was stored electronically’.

What seems to be happening is that concern about invasions of privacy is running ahead of the uptake of technology – so that every time a new application requires the collecting of sensitive data, it can be held up by consumer concerns. These hold-ups are often the result of the industry projecting today’s consumer concerns onto tomorrow’s technology, rather than giving the technology a chance to succeed or fail with consumers on its own merits.

So Dr Phil Stenton of Hewlett-Packard Laboratories (8) regaled us with details of the ‘Blazerjet’, a combined wearable jacket and mobile device (9) – before expressing concerns that mobile technology ‘will allow people to segment to death’ (10). The endless pursuit of the customer, by addressing their perceived needs in the most specific way possible, seems likely to become a process of diminishing returns.

Yet the privacy impasse is overstated. Anticipating consumers’ sensibility to privacy issues is an academic exercise, until the technology has been properly developed and introduced into the market. Not long ago, there was widespread doubt that people would ever give their credit card details online, but many people now do precisely that, with new technologies ensuring that such transactions are secure. If new applications are similarly secure and useful, why shouldn’t consumers go for them?

Mobile seems likely to bring to a head all of the nascent conflicts of interest in the internet privacy debate. The challenge is to take a technology that has so far been subverted by the more backward and nervous elements in business and society, and take it forward with confidence.

Sandy Starr has consulted and written on internet regulation for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and for the European Commission research project RightsWatch. He is a contributor to Spreading the Word on the Internet: Sixteen Answers to Four Questions, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 576 KB)); From Quill to Cursor: Freedom of the Media in the Digital Era, Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, 2003 (download this book (.pdf 399 KB)); and The Internet: Brave New World?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

Restricted mobility, by Sandy Starr

Privacy online: what’s the problem?, by Norman Lewis

The magic of mobile, by James Woudhuysen

Generation Txt: mixed messages, by Andrew Calcutt

spiked-issue: Privacy

(1) See the MobileUK section of the iSociety website

(2) See The magic of mobile, by James Woudhuysen

(3) See the Industrial Society website

(4) See the Digital World Research Centre website

(5) See the MobiCom website

(6) Evolving Scenarios for Emerging mCommerce Services (.pdf 93.9 Kb), George Tsekouras and Andrew Grantham

(7) See Restricted mobility, by Sandy Starr

(8) See the HP Labs website

(9) See BlazerJet technology: wireless computing from the comfort of your own coat, Alison Templeton, HP Labs, 11 October 1999

(10) Context and Control (.pdf 1.32 mb), HP Labs

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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