From: Norman J. Jacknis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Wed Jun 09 1999 - 21:54:48 EDT
With the explosion of cell phones and PDAs like the Palm Pilot, I thought
this message from a community telecommunications group might be of
Permit a dissenting opinion from a guy who carries around three antennas
wherever he goes. (Radio, cell phone, wireless modem, in case you're
>From the point of view of populations that already have telephones, cell
phone definitely had a major gee-whiz factor, and probably still do among
those of us who are impressed by new toys. For seventy years, the only two
major innovations in the home phone were modular cables and touch tone;
then in the space of a decade, suddenly there are 76 million folks with
phones in their pockets.
On the other hand, take a population without phones, currently measured at
around 1.2 billion or so according to Bell Atlantic, and a cell phone won't
seem any different from the old cast-iron Ma Bell device. Both are pretty
miraculous -- pick it up and talk to people.
Excepting, of course, that we don't have to dig up your village to give you
a cell phone. We do if we want to lay cable. All things considered, where
you don't already have a massive investment in a wired infrastructure, it's
a no-brainer for both the end-user and the provider to go to wireless. (At
least for voice transmission -- different story for the time being if you
need data as well. But that's changing rapidly.)
I wouldn't want to place any bets on the future of Iridium or Teledesic,
there is no doubt that someone is going to do what they're doing, someday.
In 20 or 30 years, you'll have instant wireless access to an entire
of telecom services, probably through a commoditized connector that will be
embedded in just about every electronic device you own. Given the rapid
progress and initial breakthroughs being made in new spectra, I'm guessing
that this is as likely to be transmitted through quantum physics or some
other totally new type of medium as it is to be transmitted through the
slow, and crowded electromagnetic spectrum.
(Our grandchildren will ask: "You mean you actually put up SATELLITES to
blanket the planet with RADIO WAVES?")
So I think the appropriate question is not how these technologies fit into
our current perspective, but what new possibilities are opened up by them?
A Palm VII can be used to send email. Or you can program the infrared port
to control your television. Or you can use that same port to steal a car
(just find a car with an IR lock system, and sit with a cup of coffee while
the Palm cycles through 100,000 combinations).
Likewise, is my cell phone really a PDA because it can store 200 names and
numbers? Is it a Nintendo because it can play games? A mail browser
because I can forward email through the pager function? If I write a
program that finds data on the Web and emails it to my cell phone, do I now
have a web browser?
The point is that it doesn't matter what it is, it matters what it can do.
My cell phone is my pager and my email notification service. My Palm is my
Game Boy and a novel or two that I haven't read. My PowerBook is too
versatile to even begin to categorize it -- as an example, whenever I'm not
using it, it's looking for intelligent life in outer space. (No joke --
http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu for details.)
So as a result I'm rather confused by Ryan's mention of "promoting" two-way
pager technologies over other systems. The systems that will survive are
the ones which provide the greatest flexibility. Why buy a pager when
technologies supercede a pager? What is it about a two-way pager network
that gives it wider reach than a cellular network? And why do we assume
that any of these descriptions will be in the least bit valid in three
If the pager companies are scrambling to prove their relevance, they've
already lost the battle. Watch for the same thing to happen to current
phones in a few years -- who would want an Iridium phone after some
enterprising company finally comes out with an xDMA/GSM phone that will
on any cellular network, anywhere?
So, I'd say here are some good tenets for telecom activists over the next
1) Don't tie yourself in to any particular technology. The Ma Bell phone
lasted decades -- the Nokia 6160 will probably be utterly useless in five
years (and superceded so badly that I won't want to use it after two).
2) The horses to bet on are the ones with the most flexibility. Ryan looks
at the Palm VII and sees a new, unproven transmission standard. I look at
the Palm VII and I see a user base only slightly less rabid than Macintosh
users, and a brand new communications medium. The "web clipping" Palm
services is only a subset of the existing Web because that's where the
content is, but if this market matures you may very well find yourselves
reading about the "Palmweb" in a few years -- which means that savvy
companies and organizations will have to have a Palmsite as well as a web
3) Immature technologies need nurturing. Companies promoting immature
technologies need publicity. Large amounts of cash will be thrown in this
general direction. I'm sure Palm would be glad to loan out 100 Palm VIIs
for a community technology project to an organization who could get that
story on page 3 of the New York Times.
4) Certain technologies help our causes by the nature of their being.
TCP/IP naturally leads to free speech and open discussion in a way that
proprietary networks do not. Cable television and narrowcasting lead to
more content, lower quality, and (arguably) more stratification of society.
The issue, however, is not cost. A Palm VII is too expensive for the
today, but the technologies in the Palm VII may power your toaster
Of course we should continue to work for greater access to technology --
especially the artificial price points that keep most computers over $1,000
while old usable computers are junked -- but don't let the early adopter
price blind you to technologies that can really make a difference in your
communities, sometime down the road.
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