I’ve been writing about this industry so long that, back in the 1980s, British Telecom lent me one of its first analog cellphones to try out. It wasn’t quite one of those huge brick-like phones that early adopters held to their ear: It was even bigger, with a battery pack the size of a decent dictionary, connected to a sturdy handset via a black, curly cable.
On the first day, I took it with me on the train to an interview for a technology magazine article I had been commissioned to write. And I was too embarrassed to use it. I had never seen anyone use a mobile phone in public. For most people, the height of technology for calling home or doing business on the move was a bank of pay phones that accepted prepaid cards or — even better — billed the call automatically to your home or work phone account. I had both sorts of cards in my wallet.
On my commute into work this morning, three decades later, almost everyone in my heavily crowded train carriage in south London was using some sort of mobile electronic device. There were iPhones, Androids and BlackBerrys, and a fair sprinkling of tablets, including iPads and Kindles. People were talking on the phone, emailing, texting and just reading.
I’m still a bit of a dinosaur. I used my Android on my walk to the station to check that the train was running on time and that the connection I had to make midway was also on time, but I spent the journey itself reading a paperback book. But that gave me a chance to think of how mobile technology has changed our lives in three short decades.
If you are also old enough to recall the 1980s, you’ll remember how you kept in touch with people: phone calls from home in the evening and on weekends, so long as the person you were calling was also at home. If you wanted to organize a party, you didn’t put up an invite on Facebook. You sat there with your address book for an evening and phoned your guests. If you wanted advice on a place to stay, you bought guidebooks and hoped they were reliable before you phoned a hotel or two — or you used a travel agent. Remember those?
Once we got over the embarrassment of using mobile phones in public, people adopted new mobile technology at their own pace. I recall a babysitter, in the late 1990s, proudly putting her new Nokia phone on the table, so we could all see it. She had arrived in the new era. And a colleague at work — a technology consultancy, no less — asking, “Why does my phone have a little envelope sign on the screen?” The answer: “Because someone’s sent you a text message, Karen.”
We now can organize our business and personal lives a lot more efficiently. I’ve already said how I check my trains on the way to the station — but I can also stand on any street in London, and Transport for London will sense where my phone is, list the nearest bus stops, and tell me how long I have to wait for the next bus from each.
These days, London is full of people looking at street maps on their tablets as they make their way from one tourist attraction to the next — hardly noticing the buildings themselves. The network knows where we are at any given moment. But why haven’t we seen any of those much-promised services that I, and others, have been writing about? I mean those things that work in the fixed Internet world. If I check the price of a flight to Barcelona for a potential weekend break, you can bet that next time I look at one of a number of news sites over the next few days, there will be a little ad from an airline offering flights to Barcelona.
Not in the mobile world, though. When I am in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, my network will know I’m in the city. But you can bet that no one will use that information to recommend restaurants to me. When I check in at the airport on the way home, the airline likely won’t offer me deals on flights back for a short break. When I wait for the departure, there will be no special offers from any of the shops in the terminal.
Simply put, there are few attempts to offer useful and relevant information to end users via mobile.
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could allow my network to tell my bank automatically that I’m in Spain, so it doesn’t block card payments? Even better, the bank could then tell me the location of the nearest cash machines, especially those with the best rates.
At the heart of these ideas is the notion of mobile context, with enterprises and operators working together to enhance the experience of their shared end user. Frankly, I’m okay with my operator knowing where I am at all times, and the local transit organization sending me information — as long as it’s beneficial and relevant to me.
As more mobile users start to realize this, you can expect the operator and enterprise players to take notice. The smartest ones already have.