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Another Perspective


IBM started it.  The company's 1994 annual report had a plain white cover sporting y o u in very large letters.  IBM did it again in 2000, rebranding its midrange as iSeries, but that was two years after Apple introduced its iMac.  IBM completely missed its chance in mainframes, where it could have called the z9 the zMine.  Apple launched its iPod in 2001, and it showed the iPhone just this month, weeks after Time made You its Person of the Year.  The echo persists for a daffy generation whose narcissism may be its nemesis.

Apple iPhone
Apple's iPHone
This new mobile phone has opened
the eyes of handset makers
and wireless carriers, but nobody knows
if will also open consumers' wallets

There's no sign the age of self-absorption is coming to an end, although the karmic effect of that Time cover might turn out to be an important signal.  As it stands, marketing campaigns aimed at hitting the vanity target seen to be very successful, whether they try to sell a reinvented IBM to customers and shareholders or to persuade people that they cannot live without a personal portable soundtrack.  Moreover, the potential for more variation on this theme seems unlimited.  We're wired (and wireless) for it all.  We've got broadband in our homes and, increasingly, broadband in the air.  We're linked to computer systems and to each other by fiber backbones and by an orderly fog of microwaves that extends even to Bluetooth buttons in our ears.

There's some kind of connection here, and not just a network connection.  There are reasons the unashamed rise in individuals' petty self-indulgence coincides with the ubiquity of fast, mobile personal communications.  As Marshall McLuhan observed in the 1960s, media themselves are messages.  If the original telephone was interactive, and changed the way we act and live, the Internet and multimedia mobile phone are even more so, and they are changing every aspect of society where they become available.

Some of the results are easy to see and even to measure, because they occur in the business world, where actions leave trails.

A number of businesses are thriving in the emerging culture.  Amazon, with its personalized web pages, comes to mind.  Others have missed out, sometimes to their peril.  Tower Records, once a leader in music sales, never tuned into the download business that weakened and then killed it.  Most enterprises are somewhere in between.  L L Bean uses its computing technology to personalize telephone ordering, but hasn't quite carried the process through to its web or found a way to book catalog sales via a mobile phone application.

The opportunities are by no means restricted to big outfits like Amazon or L L Bean.  Smaller companies can appeal to the self-absorbed, too.  First, they have to figure out what lessons from successful retail shops or restaurants might apply to their endeavors.  Then they must come up with a way to translating this into something that can be delivered over a network to a computer, to a portable media box, or to a mobile phone.  Solutions for the little guy may not be obvious, but they might become discernible as the giants of Internet media, such as Google and Yahoo, enrich their offerings and take small companies under their wings.

Google's and Yahoo's outreach to mom and pop won't take long, now that Apple has started expanding the horizons of less creative companies, and now that it's starting to dawn on the Internet media moguls that they must become more versatile in order to keep growing.

IBM 1994 annual report
y o u Spells Lou
Lou Gerstner's IBM signaled corporate renaissance
by promising to put customers and shareholders first

Amidst all this opportunity, there's still plenty of room for failure.  The key players in this environment, the mobile telecoms carriers, have pretty much all missed the boat.  They are foolishly chasing pennies by charging for downloads of ringtones, metering web traffic by the megabyte, and generally missing the far larger opportunities seized by the landline operators who offer cheap flat rate broadband.  If the wireless companies wait long enough, Wi-Fi and Wi-Max connectivity are likely to become features of mobile phone handsets.  Then they will lose not only the emerging opportunities but a lot of the traditional mobile telephone business too, as communications companies that didn't overpay for wireless spectrum are supplanted by wireless VOIP that offers much better value.

What's going to happen before very long is that somebody, actually several somebodies, will offer utility widgets that can work in the sparse Java environments of mobile phones.  These widgets will make it very easy to, say, reserve a movie seat from a mobile phone, book a room that's about where you will be after two more hours' driving, hook up with a taxi when you plane lands, or grab a carrel at the university library for the evening.  If the makers of ordinary mobile phones don't get these widgets right away, the smart phone and PDA makers like Palm and Blackberry certainly will.

The only thing surprising about this is that it hasn't happened already, and that the mobile communications industry has had to wait for Apple to make the wake-up call.

The two mystery players here, the ones that could really surprise everyone, are IBM and Microsoft.

IBM is full of fresh ideas it consistently fails to exploit; it's long overdue for a winner.  It has Irving Wladawsky-Berger playing with his avatar in SecondLife but can't come up with a mobile transaction processing system for its Lotus group's message processing server or Websphere.  It is the world's most prolific harvester of patents, but its patent licensing business is growing faster than its business operations, which ought to be able to exploit these inventions a lot more effectively.  Well, maybe IBM wants to see what Microsoft adds to Exchange or its IIS web server before it cuts its idea people a little slack, but if that's the case it may be looking in the wrong place for inspiration.

IBM 1994 annual report
Self Timer
It's always hard to say whether a Time cover
marks a beginning or an end; maybe this one,
exceptionally, will mark a middle

Microsoft is beginning to show its age, if a perpetual corporate adolescent can be said to show age.  It's inconceivable that the best it can do is Windows Mobile, but if that turns out to be the case, it had better pry that Apple doesn't decide to make any of its iPhone software Open Source.

It's not as if Microsoft would fade away, not with its Office franchise, not with its Windows business.  Microsoft has as many of the pieces of the big picture as IBM, and maybe even more.  But it needs an epiphany like the one that Bill Gates experienced when he first woke up to the Internet, and, besides, Microsoft no longer has Bill Gates in the epiphany department.  Is there a Bill Idea in Ballmer?

So who are the people who will come up with the killer iAppications?  They are probably among the people who are reading this essay, or would be if we had more reach.  In a world of so many innovative individuals, judging from the proliferation of blogs and the diversity of clever web sites, all it would take is a little opportunity.

The mobile phone makers need to provide scripting languages for their handsets to make it far easier for a lone geek to sketch out an applet that lets anyone order a pizza in 15 clicks, that lets a roadside mechanic get a distributor cap with a few finger taps.  If they wait for a Google to add order entry technology to the maps showing where the pizza place is located, they might be waiting a long time.  It's not that Google isn't fast or ambitious, it's just that it seems to be great at the broad brushstrokes but not so hot at the detail.  Google will have no problem with the server side of the software, but it isn't quick on the draw when it comes to the client side of things.  That's where the handset companies come in.  They have a lot more at stake.  They sell a billion phones a year and a growing proportion of these phone have lots of brainpower, yet just about all this potential is unused, and most of their efforts at end user software are unloved.  They need inspiration and ingenuity, and if they can't come up with it themselves, they'll have to invite guests to help.

So it doesn't really matter if Apple succeeds with it iPhone, or even if it loses that name to Cisco and has to rebrand its gadget persePhone.  Apple has pointed out that there's a universe of consumers out there who want a gizmo that makes it even easier and more fun to obtain instant gratification.  Those consumers have compulsions, they have money, and they can't resist rubbing the two together whild fondling a quarter pound of electronics.

It's probably going to turn out that there are a lot more of these narcissistic urges than any of us could iMagine.

— Hesh Wiener January 2007

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