For quite some time now everybody in wireless has been trying to find „the“ killer application. It is hoped that such an application will bring the breakthrough for the wireless Internet to be as successful as the PC based fixed line Internet we know today. While reading a book on the history of the Google, I realized that it took much more than just applications for the big breakthrough of Google and the Internet in general. In my opinion, even the early Internet offered an ideal environment for both creators and consumers which in the end triggered its own mass market success. The same is needed for the wireless Internet. However, the worlds of the fixed and the wireless Internet could not be more different. Here’s why:
1. The Creator Side: The Internet as we know it today was shaped by creative people, many of them being students at universities all over the world. Students have two advantages over people working for companies. First, they are not pressured by quarterly results and business plans but they can use their time to investigate and develop whatever comes to their mind and whatever they find interesting. Second, no business model crosses their mind when being creative. Many of today’s big Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo and Excite started off like this. This is not happening for the mobile Internet for a simple reason: At Universities, access to the Internet has always been free for students as it is part of the universities’ infrastructures. The mobile Internet, however, is not freely available to students and academics in most cases. Hence, not many of them go mobile.
2. The User Side: Going back 10 to 15 years in time, services that form the core of today’s Internet such as the world wide web, FTP, HTTP and eMail were used by academics and students for their research. Search engines such as Google, Excite, Altavista and others were created mainly to serve this clientele. On the wireless side however, students and researchers are not the users as the infrastructure is not provided to them for their work. In effect, this means that a vital part of the user base is missing. As a consequence, an important part of the feedback loop is missing that inspires creators to expand and develop new services.
3. The Service Side: The Internet became a big success as most services were free for people at schools and universities to try them and use them over a long period of time. Services such as search, eMail and web browsing were free, as was the use of the network. This inspired people to try them. Over time, they became accustomed to using these services and started to appreciate the added value they brought to both their professional and private lifes. Again, the way things happen in the mobile Internet is quite different. While many services are also free, such as the mobile portals and services of Yahoo, Google, Shozu and others, access to the network is not. Therefore, potential users are not even tempted to try out these services as from their point of view, they can’t use the services for free and in most cases have no idea what it would cost them if they tried.
4. The Hardware: Over the past two decades, the personal computer became an integral tool for students and researchers for both offline applications such as word processing and calculus tools, as well as for online Internet applications. In the middle of the 1990’s, computers became cheap enough for home use. At the same time, people started to see the value of being connected and of being online and thus they also became willing to spend money for Internet access at home. Thus, an Internet connection became a logical extension for a PC at home. At this point the Internet left its free islands, i.e. the Universities, and became an everyday tool in people’s homes as well. Yet again, things are very different in the mobile Internet. Here, the mobile phone is the equivalent to the PC at home. The advantage for the mobile domain is that most people already have a personal mobile phone which is data capable. On the other hand, the Internet is not a „natural“ extension of the main use case of a mobile phone, i.e. voice telephony. Instead, it creates a new range of possibilities which are not directly linked with the initial purpose of the device. While the transformation from offline PC usage to online usage was a natural process, moving from the use of a mobile phone for voice telephony to using it as a device for Internet data services is a rupture in the evolution which seems to be hard to overcome.
does that leave us? It is obvious that even in its early days the Internet was
not free. Somebody had to pay for the computers and the local infrastructure,
and somebody had to pay the telecom companies to build and operate the wide
area networks. Universities are either funded by nations or by tuition fees if
operated privately. While it was accepted that Internet connections are a vital
resource for research and academia, the wireless Internet is still seen as a
luxury good. I whished this attitude would change to create a similar 'creator –
user feedback loop' to kick start the wireless Internet in a similar way as what
has happened for the fixed line world.
So where to take the money from? Well, I guess it’s already been spent on other things. Just imagine: Five years ago the German government alone got 50 billion euros as a result of the 3G frequency auctions. Paid in cash!!! Only 10 percent of that, 5 billion, spread over 10 years would mean that there would be 500 million euros in Germany alone each year that could be invested in research and development of wireless technologies, services and applications. That’s 1000 euros for 500.000 students to buy hardware and network access every year. I am not even sure if there are that many students in Germany who’d want to benefit from this. Staggering numbers, just imagine what the number would be when you count all the license fees paid in Europe and over the world. So what happened to the money? It was used to reduce the huge budget deficit instead of being partially reinvested into the future. Well done, German government and others, that’s how we keep our technical edge!