Up in the Air? Get a life – a digital life!
Untethered communications – wireless in all its forms – have built a solid revolution on air. The wireless revolution is reaching ever deeper into the long-neglected lowest levels of the world’s society, and to the remote inhabitants on Earth. A combination of wireless reach, transfigured economics, accelerated technological adoption, and rapidly emerging and evolving forms of social networking, is creating digital meta-worlds and digital lives that will inevitably blend with and morph into our ‘real lives’.Companies such as Motorola, working with the GSM association, are working on a sub-US$30 handset. In a keynote speech a few weeks ago at the ITU Telecom World event in Hong Kong, Ed Zander, Motorola’s CEO, said that the US$15 phone was on its way soon. He also said that the low-cost market is, “… one of the most exciting opportunities.” Mobile operator Orange’s CEO, Sanjiv Ahuja, another keynoter at the World Telecom 2007 event, also believes in this low-priced market, “…not because it is altruistic, but … because it makes good business sense.”These, and a host of other astute business leaders, are adopting, adapting, Richard Feynman’s nanotech mantra, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom”, to business economics. Wireless has made even the ‘LDCs’, the least developed countries, into respectable, profitable, markets for digital technology – with profound implications for the future of their economies, societies and cultural identities.Wireless technology’s over-the-air technology is changing lifestyles and lives at the very bottom of the global economy. It is not yet the sort of change one sees at the summit of the economic pyramid, in the most developed countries, but given the power of technologies to radically transform not just simple tasks, but whole economies and societies, it is just a matter of time. By past standards, it won’t take much time. It took 74 years for the telephone to accumulate 50 million users, 38 years for radio, 16 years for the PC and 13, 5, 4, and 2 years, respectively, for television, mobile telephony, the Internet and Skype. It took mobile telephony 21 years to get to the one billion user mark, but only three years for the second billion. Digital life and lifestyles are flourishing in the virtual world on the Internet – and they will grow faster then even the fastest of the hardware technologies cited.The Internet, the Worldwide Web, Skype and now online communities, social networks and the like are growing at Formula One velocities. MySpace, YouTube and Second Life are good examples of the astonishing growth rates of social networking. They also illustrate some of the ways the current boom, there is already a bubble, is different from the last boom – the ‘dot.com’ boom/bust – both as businesses and as social phenomena.
The dot.com boom was built on IPOs, initial public offerings, of stock in new Internet technology related companies. Market speculation, buying frenzy, was rampant and – in the end – disastrous for many small investors. Today, the business model does not depend upon making a fast buck on the stock market. One reason, of course, is that much of the new technology is essentially virtual; it depends upon ideas that propagate socially, virally, and is not capital intensive. Second, although the use of IPOs can be expected to grow, most of the new companies now depend upon professional venture capitalists or are self-funded, family garage, operations.
The business models have been largely advertising supported, but there are interesting twists such as Second Life’s virtual economy, which hosts virtual business conducted in ‘Linden dollars’. Linden dollars, L$, can also be bought or sold on-line for real-world money and there have been reports in the news of virtual businesses, virtual land and buildings, virtual properties, avatars, services and whatnot being bought and sold for ‘real’ dollars.
The dot.com dream – open, go public and cash in through an IPO – has been replaced by the open, build fast and sell out to Microsoft, Google or eBay fantasy. eBay saw the synergy between VoIP and eCommerce and bought Skype to let buyers and sellers talk to and see one another on line – to deal, squeal, bargain and bicker. Google bought YouTube to capture the market and screen time of its young, involved, users. Will another eGiant snap up Second Life and infiltrate itself into the virtual world it has created?
There are still relatively few on-line ‘meta-worlds’ of this sort, where one can lead a complex meta-life, start a business, make friends, have a party, whatever…, but they will multiply. Today, messaging on a mobile phone is a much more common form of digital social networking. This will remain so for awhile in the developing world where access to broadband and more sophisticated Internet access terminals is quite limited. However, as the cost and availability of both broadband and fully featured, smartphone-type, handsets go down – as they inevitably become commodities – virtual worlds that reflect the real worlds of the emerging economies will thrive on mobile handsets. In the emerging economies functional literacy, true reading and writing skill, is rare. So, I suspect mobile eBay/Skype-type VoIP, talk/see, interfaces will give birth to virtual worlds that will rapidly become real-worlds where one haggles, does business, goes to school and meets with family and friends. Given the accelerating uptake of technology, that time may not be too far off.
In the developed world, social networking, sites and services will become the home turf of urban tribes and international communities of all sorts. Social networking will be an increasingly important way to find kindred souls, shared interests at work and play. This will create a sense of community and, conversely, create a different sense of self with a digital identity – perhaps several for different needs and different interests.
Today, Second Life’s digital world uses avatars, cartoon-like images that represent each participant in the virtual community on-screen. In the future, the handset’s camera will be able to insert the participant into the on-screen virtual environment. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lively trade sprang up for virtual plastic surgeons, developers of software that dynamically alters a dumpy middle-aged office worker’s appearance, on-screen in real-time, to that of a 20 year old surfer for a night of virtual disco-hopping with equally altered women escaping from a drab real-life.
Throw advanced versions of the recently released Nintendo Wii, with its body motion sensing remote interface device and MMORPGs, Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, into the mix and enjoy physical activities – with your abilities digitally enhanced – in a social environment from the privacy of your home. We are seeing the birth of the ultimate role-playing fantasy life.
Need an upgrade? Be a distinguished executive, be a rock star, a reassuring, grey-templed, doctor, dress elegantly -virtually – in the latest most expensive styles. You will find whatever you need, want, or want to be in your virtual world. Up in the air? Don’t like your life? Get a life! Get one on the air – over your mobile handset. Get a digital life; get several, everybody will be doing it, affordably.
Connect-World: Europe I (2007) will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are media sponsors such as: GSM World Congress (12-15 February, Barcelona), IPTV World Forum (5-7 March, Olympia, London), CeBit (15-21 March, Hanover), and C5 World Forum (26-29 March, Milan).In addition to our normal global mailing, this issue will also be distributed to a select list of world leaders, to the ranking executives of the world’s largest companies including the Fortune 1000, to government authorities, and to international institutions. This issue will also be available on our website to all other interested readers throughout the world.The theme of Connect-World: Europe I (2007), our coming edition, will be Thriving or surviving with convergence.Traditional network operators, broadcasters, telecom and information technology service providers of all sorts are facing a disconcerting, distressing, competitive landscape. The variety of choices convergence brings the consumer can leave service providers and equipment suppliers with some hard choices of their own to make. The companies that understand the spirit of the new competitive landscape are thriving on the innovation – those that do not are increasingly adopting survival strategies.The distinct niches built-up over the years within the information and communication technology sectors are melting together like an ice cream sundae – telcos compete with broadcasters that compete with cable companies that compete with power utilities that compete with ISPs that compete with everyone. Like sundaes, convergence comes in many flavours and has as many meanings as practitioners. With convergence, forget the ice cream – take your favourite means of communications, mix with your hardware of choice, top with applications software and a liberal dose of content and serve your own converged desert using an equally converged device.
Convergence is changing businesses, the players the equipment and the services we have become accustomed to; in their place new companies, technologies, equipment and services are arising. New problems are also arising. New multi-sector, multi-technology regulation will be needed, security issues assume new dimension, privacy may be threatened and the same consumers that will benefit from the changes will also need protection.
This issue of Connect-World Europe will examine changes wrought by the many forms of convergence and what they mean to businesses and end-users alike. We will also look at the regulatory situation and the strategic factors that the players, old and new, need take into account.