Four Futurists on Tomorrow's Mobile Media
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Jul 12 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Articulating exactly what that future might look like isn't so easy. But keeping an eye on the people defining it helps.

Industry-watchers agree that mobile communication products and services are likely to grow explosively over the coming decade- huge infrastructure investments worldwide, thriving early markets in Scandinavia and Asia, and the convergence of Internet and mobile technologies guarantee that something big is bound to happen to the mobile industry between now and 2010. That's the easy part. Articulating exactly what that future might look like isn't so easy.

Crystal-gazing into the mobile future becomes more difficult when you try to forecast the actual shape of future markets, industries, or (especially) to predict what people are likely to do with new mobile capabilities. It used to be easier, when predictions were based on where technology was going. In 1975, if you know what Doug Engelbart had done at Stanford Research Institute and what Alan Kay was doing at Xerox PARC, you could paint a fairly accurate picture of what kinds of technologies people would be using twenty years later.

Mobile communications industries don't manufacture widgets, however, they enable people to engage in social communication. It's far easier to predict how people are going to use an automobile or a washing machine than a social communication device. Engineers build PCs and telephones, but people decide, for social reasons of their own, that usage of email and SMS are going to explode.

If the histories of previous media are any guide, people will continue to find new ways to use mobile media as a form of social communication, whether or not the technologies were designed to be used that way. The fantastic success of chat on France's Minitel system preceded the Internet industry by more than a decade, and chat was a tool that was literally stolen from the Minitel system administrators by early Minitel users and appropriated by people who then used it for sex chat.

Two decades later, teenage girls in Tokyo were the first to build a culture around text messages. A century ago, the inventors of the telephone thought it would be used to broadcast concerts.

As if the notorious unpredictability of people were not enough to complicate prognostication, technical and regulatory barriers and conflicts add further uncertainty. Bluetooth or Wi-Fi? GSM or i-mode? One more complicating factor is the acceleration of evolution of enabling technologies: The converging technologies of mobile voice communications, desktop PCs, and the Internet are each evolving rapidly, and changes in each technology can influence or totally alter the way they combine.

In times of confusion, the dreamers are often the best guides. At the beginning of the summer, 2001, I sought ought visionaries and futurists who were willing to take some chances and talk about what the mobile future might actually look like: Kenny Hirschorn in London, Risto Linturi in Helsinki, Par Strom and Zaheed Haque in Stockholm not only have some intriguing ideas about where the mobile industry is going, they each have a history of successfully looking ahead.

"Dreamers are often the best guides..."

Kenny Hirschorn is the group director of strategy, imagineering, and futurology for Orange, PLC, the London-headquartered wireless giant owned by France Telecom. The sign on his London office door says "Future Boy." In previous lives he was a top session musician in Nashville and a manager in the microchip industry. He's playful and earthy, and nobody would ever accuse him of censoring his opinions. Outside his office is an "imaginarium" filled with toys, pillows, whiteboards, and wireless devices, where he leads teams who are not only envisioning the future, but also inventing it.

"In the US, mobile communication is about the phone," Hirschorn told me. In Europe, it's about the lifestyle. We want to be the remote control for your life." When I asked him for a more detailed prediction of what kind of product or service Orange intended to provide, he painted a big picture on a grand canvas: "We will awaken you in the morning, start your coffee, read you your email, tell you the best route to drive or train to take, translate for you, manage your appointments, filter your incoming messages, book a parking place, tell you where your children are, program your music. It's not about the device. W e aren't the bank or grocery store, but we tell your bank to transfer funds at your command, tell your grocery store to deliver the goods you need when you need them. We connect you, help you access content, keep track for you. We don't sell soft drinks, but when you see a soft drinking vending machine, we help you make a transaction, and take a tiny slice of what you pay."

Although the "remote control for your life" sounds removed from today's voice calls or short text messages, consider that Orange has recently acquired "Wildfire," the intelligent software agent with a pleasant voice that acts as intermediary and filter for phone calls, and "Ananova," the artificial newscaster that provides a lip-synched, high-resolution, artificial newscaster. Combine these easy-to-use communication intermediaries with advances in mobile devices and online services, and Orange's intentions make sense.

If Hirschorn is extroverted, given to wearing open-collared shirts, outspoken and outspoken, and not afraid to pepper his scenarios with profanity, Risto Linturi is his polar opposite: Quiet, proper, with a suit and tie, a Linturi is a deliberate speaker. But, like Hirschhorn, he doesn't constrain his imagination. Originally inspired by Jules Verne and more than 1000 science fiction books, Linturi has been analyzing, forecasting, and designing future technologies since the early days of personal computers.

An independent consultant and former director of technology for Helsinki Telephone, Linturi lives in the worlds he foresees. His custom-built cyberhome on the Gulf of Finland enables visitors to connect with his mobile telephone, wherever he is, if they ring the doorbell when he isn't home. He holds his Nokia when he talks, using it to gesture, literally wielding it as the kannykka (extension of the hand) that Finns often call their mobile telephones.

Linturi believes that mobile communications, which have revolutionized management practices in Finland, are going to present a severe challenge to corporate cultures in which communications are organized around top-down hierarchical decision-making. "Managers in Finland keep their phones always on," he pointed out, when we met for coffee at Helsinki's Hotel Kamp.

"Customers expect fast reactions. In Finland, if you can't reach a superior, you make decisions yourself. In order for managers to influence decisions of subordinates now, they must keep their own phones open to incoming calls-- or else decisions will be made without their input. This is a particularly Finnish organizational behavior now, but I think it's likely to spread."

Digital cities

Linturi is particularly interested in creating digital cities, where mobile devices provide access to intelligent signs and invisible radio data beacons in the physical landscape, animated route guidance, smart transportation services. His Helsinki Arena 2000 project catalyzed the development of service providers such as Arcus which has created a digital map of 25 square kilometers of Helsinki and is providing animated route guidance for mobile phones and net users.

Large-scale digital models of cities and urban information provision networks are under development worldwide, providing a testbed, marketplace, and supporting infrastructure future mobile applications of the kind Arena 2000 provides. An international conference on the emerging field of designing digital cities movement convenes in an October, 2001 conference in Kyoto.

Par Strom, based in Sweden, focuses on the business opportunities opened by mobile communications, and agrees with Linturi that physical "hotspots" where mobile devices will be able to access broadband Internet services and location-specific messages, have commercial potential for malls, railroad stations, and other public places where foot traffic is concentrated.

According to Strom, Telia has 100 hotspots in Helsinki, where properly equipped handheld devices can tap into a fixed wireless network. "Hotels don't realize the potential in providing hotspots to their wired clients - it only costs around US$500 month to host a wireless LAN."

Strom points to a few specific possibilities beyond hotels offering bandwidth as part of their services: "Wireless services can drive people to physical locations: A store that sells to teenage boys could sponsor a mobile game that can only be played within one of the stores. People waiting in queues at theaters and other public places could be given places in line via SMS when they are in range. People standing in lines aren't buying popcorn."

Since local area wireless networks can turn small enterprises into bandwidth providers, albeit within a limited range, Strom believes one critical uncertainty is whether all the cafes, bars, hotels, and other micro-providers of mobile Internet access will find ways to cooperate. "It they do," he predicts, "they could attack the markets of major operators."

Zaheed Haque loves to opine about the future of the mobile industry, but he is primarily an entrepreneur, not a consultant or futurist. His mobile software platform and portal company, room33 has weathered the ups and downs of the industry since it was founded in 1998, and appears to be healthy in these direst of times for startups. I met with him in the room33 headquarters in what Haque call's Stockholm's "mobile valley."

Haque might be a dreamer about the future of the mobile Internet, but he's skeptical about some of the notions other futurists put forth" Applications that will not succeed include videoconferencing via mobile devices, or using them to browse through Harrod's." In one of his provocative position papers, he proclaimed: "I'm going to tell you that the present vision for the future sucks. That it will continue to suck until we start paying attention to what people actually want from the wireless world. I'm going to show you that people don't want their phones to be tools of productivity as much as they want them to be tools of leisure. They want to hang out and waste even more than they want to build. Half the time you need information coming to you in a timely fashion and for the other half, you find yourself with a couple free minutes to kill and no other ready entertainment at hand. You want wireless connectivity to work, but you want it more to play."

Whatever the shape of that mobile entertainment industry Haque foresees, it won't be handheld video streaming: "I'll go on record and say it will never fly. Never." In terms of where to look to see what works, Haque says: "Girls. Not only do demographics from Scandinavia and Japan show that teenage girls were drivers of mobile phone use, SMS and wireless services, but they also show that girls continue to be heavier and more active users than their male brethren."

Digital cities, teenage girls, voice and email software intermediaries, remote controls for your life, doorbells that talk to your mobile phone. These fragments of visions aren't meant to be pieces of a map, but the places where skilled dart-throwers end up when they target the future. It's up to us to connect the dots.

With a background in technology writing, Howard Rheingold is the world's foremost authority on virtual communities. His 1988 article in Whole Earth Review, titled "Virtual Communities," contained the first-ever published reference to the concept. His 1993 book, The Virtual Community, was the first work on the phenomenon of social communication in cyberspace.

Howard served as an online host for the Well since 1985, and sat on the Well Board of Directors. In 1994, he was the founding Executive Editor of HotWired, the first commercial webzine with a virtual community known as Threads. He now runs a private community, Brainstorms.