New Technologies and Inherent Functions

I’ve been thinking a lot about portable televisions lately.

Yes, portable televisions — not those clunky, old 12-inch “portables.” I’m talking about sleek, handheld little color jobs, such as the TV-1900 from Casio. Clear, sharp, portable, and 129 bucks. A pretty sweet little gadget.

Now how many people do you know who have one of these things?

Unless you’re an usher at a football stadium, chances are that you don’t see too many people glued to their portable TVs. Believe it or not, most folks are content to go about their business, commuting to and from work, waiting in airports, or killing time in cabs without having their noses glued to handy pocket TVs.

Sure, sure, sure… you could make a good case that in normal use, these aren’t exactly cable quality. The channels are limited, and because these little devices receive the TV signal through the air, it’s easy to lose the picture when going behind a building or into a tunnel. The user experience isn’t perfect. But if you’re addicted to TV, what choice do you have?

Plenty in the next few years if you believe the wireless industry. Now that current wireless Internet services haven’t panned out yet as The Next Big Thing, carriers around the world are pushing wireless broadband — “third generation,” or “3G” — as the savior of the wireless world. Over $100 billion was spent in Europe during the latest spectrum auction as wireless carriers duked it out over who was going to have the rights to the new high-speed spectrum.

The plans for using this increased bandwidth are flying fast and furious. Carriers are just now beginning to tempt us with visions of handheld video on demand, streaming audio through our cell phones, and (perhaps) even wireless videoconferencing. Nokia is rolling out big plans for phones that play MP3s and use 3G services for enhanced multiplayer video games. Other carriers, such as Sprint, are following suit, hoping that 3G will jumpstart the now-lagging wireless industry.

But (if I may enter the treacherous land where the emperor has no clothes) — will anyone care? Promises of broadband glory have been with us for ages (including some interesting observations from Dana Blankenhorn this week), and yet the world still hasn’t changed all that significantly for most Net users. In fact, failures such as Pseudo.com and Pop.com and problems at former giants such as shockwave.com point out that zippy multimedia content by itself doesn’t guarantee success.

That’s why I asked the question about portable TVs earlier. They exist. Right now, today, for $129 you can get full-motion wireless video. Just pop on down to your local electronics retailer and join the revolution. There aren’t even any monthly access fees!

To be fair, broadcast TV doesn’t have any of the interactive features broadband wireless would bring. But if you listen to the hype, most folks aren’t talking about interactivity; they’re talking about streaming movies and audio — television and radio to you Luddites out there.

OK. Maybe that’s a bit facetious, but the point is that the things that work online (wireless or wired) are things that take advantage of the medium rather than simply repurposing content from one medium to another. If you look at the big successes of the Internet, you’ll see that what’s been successful has been so because it isn’t possible except on the Internet. Email. Instant messaging. Peer-to-peer (P2P) networking. Worldwide, multiplayer games. eBay. All these things wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. They succeed because they understand and leverage the medium for what it’s good for: providing an instant, universal conduit to connect people and information around the world.

When we’re considering what technology to look at for our businesses, it’s important to never divorce the technology from what it can do. Take Napster, for example. As much as its supporters don’t want to admit it, the reason that Napster is (or was) so popular has nothing to do with the inherent usefulness of P2P technology as much as with the fact that Napster let regular folks gorge on music for free.

It was the content, not the technology, that made the service so popular. Just look at how it’s declined since most music was filtered out. The success of Napster is much more about free music than it is a referendum on P2P technology. Just because Napster was successful doesn’t mean that any new P2P technology will be.

As we move into the future, a future that’s sure to be (eventually) more wireless than wired, take a look at what the technology can do for people, not just what it’s technically capable of. Look around to see what problems need to be solved and how the unique properties of new technology can solve those problems. In the end, revolutions are always about people, not technology.

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