Give 'em an Inch
By Douglas Rushkoff, Mon Nov 06 00:00:00 GMT 2000

It happened to the Internet, but can it happen here in the wireless space, too? Can a communications technology - or an entire telecommunications infrastructure, for that matter - get hijacked and its very essence redefined by people who don't even understand its true potential?


As anyone around since the early interactive days can attest, big business successfully transformed our Internet-capable computers from community-building tools into direct-marketing platforms. Now - if the covers of the gee-whiz-techno-investment magazines are any indication - these same business folks have got their sites set on our cell phones. But this time, anyway, I think they're fighting a losing battle.

How it happened before

Back in the late 80's, it was hard to imagine that someday someone might actually try to sell something over the Internet. In fact, to get an online account and participate in newsgroups or receive email, new subscribers had to promise not to use the Internet for anything but legitimate research. When a pair of immigration lawyers used the Internet to advertise their services - disseminating what amounted to the first spam email - they were kicked off the Internet, altogether. We all cheered, confident in our ability to repel future attacks.

The Internet's devolution from a commercial-free zone to a strip mall was not a natural progression. E-commerce sites did not emerge on the World Wide Web because they serve the Internet's users, or because they turn a profit. As the quarterly reports of most dot.coms will attest, they accomplish neither.

No, the Internet provided businesspeople with a *story.* New technologies give entrepreneurs a way to pitch new companies, and they give investors an excuse to pour money into them. Although the Internet was a fine invention for communication between people, it wasn't earning anybody any money in its original form. As a business phenomenon, however, the Internet represented the salvation of NASDAQ, and the buzzword at the core of almost every business plan (read: Ponzi scheme) hatched in the 1990's.

The Internet was vulnerable to take-over in a way that cell phones aren't. Very few people had experienced the Internet, so almost no one knew that the World Wide Web interface favored by business was merely one possible way of navigating the digital landscape. If your first experience online is through Microsoft Explorer, then you never question the fact that you're not being asked to participate except through the "buy" button. You can't remember a time when the keyboard was used for something other than entering a credit card number.

The other factor that made the Internet so ripe for the picking was its own users' and architects' quest for legitimacy. Back then, almost no one believed the Internet was more than just a passing craze. (My first book on the Internet was canceled in 1992 because the publisher thought the "fad" would pass before the end of that year!) When major, Fortune 500 companies decided they wanted to get online, almost everyone - ex-hippies and lefties, even - rushed to help them. Their interest confirmed our legitimacy. It meant our Internet had come of age. Of course, it also meant the end of the Internet as we knew it.

The failure of the Internet to provide any real value to its many investors ultimately brought us into the situation we're today: everyone is desperate to find a new, "next big thing" before the entire pyramid on which the NASDAQ market is based crashes to the ground. To the rescue comes wireless.

Perhaps every new technology is forced to face the challenge that now confronts the wireless arena: Will the need of business to find a new technology investment - a new "market leader" - outweigh the need of that technology's users to communicate with one another through it? In other words, do we like our cell phones enough the way they are to keep them becoming the fodder for another set of hyped business models?

Why it won't happen again

Personally, I don't believe the handheld, wireless device will go the way of the Internet. Here's why:

Unlike the early Internet, cell phones already have genuine place in our lives. Almost everyone reading this article has used a cell phone at one time or another. The rest have certainly used a "land line." We have a clear set of expectations about how such devices work. We won't tolerate commercial interruptions of our conversations as quickly as we accepted them online - where we had little experience with a standard protocol. Imagine picking up your phone at home, and having to wait through an advertisement before the dial tone came on. (As if Mr. Moviefone weren't bad enough.)

The other key difference is that there is no fledgling wireless community out there, desperate to prove itself worthy of the attention of big business. The cell phone is already a ubiquitous appliance, and its users need no validation.

But now that cell phones are quickly incorporating new functionality - like WAP and messaging - all eyes are turning towards the human thumb as the potential savior of the digital economy. No matter how badly Wall Street needs a new story to justify a new round of outlandish valuations, the wireless space does not appear destined to mutate itself into marketing universe. Besides - so far, those businesses that have attempted to exercise their commercial business plans through the wireless networks have only revealed their absolute incomprehension of how these devices actually function in people's lives.

Consider scale, for example. Different kinds of devices have different roles in our day based on their function and scale. WAP devices, pagers, and PDA's are all what might be called "inch" devices. Like a notepad and paper, they are used to jot down notes that get used elsewhere. They are for tagging things, remembering numbers, or storing reference points that get manipulated on another sort of device, later on.

That other device would be a "foot" device - like a computer, or an Internet terminal. Through a foot device, an individual manipulates data, creates text and graphics, or sends it to other people.

Finally, the data will be presented to groups on a "yard" device, such as a television monitor, video projector, or even a billboard. There, the text or images can be viewed and collaborated on by many people at once.

The big problem with the WAP industry so far, is that it seems determined simply to shrink down the World Wide Web into the three lines of text available on most cell phones. Most of the WAP providers I've spoken with explain that WAP is just in the beginning stages, and that soon there will be hundreds of pixels on a cell phone screen. They are missing the point. It's not a matter of fitting more data into that little screen.

A cell phone's WAP interface is not a good place to buy books, write email, or do the crossword puzzle. It's not the right scale. It's a fine place to record that you need to send an email, or jot down the URL of a crossword puzzle you want to print out at home, or even tag the name of a book you want to buy.

This has nothing to do with adding or subtracting functionality from the wireless units themselves, and everything to do with understanding what people really want to do with one-hand devices while they are out and about in the real world.

Just as online companies have finally learned that people don't want to sit at their desks watching streaming videos on the computer (a foot device trying to be a yard device), wireless companies must come to grips with the inappropriateness of inch devices to provide the user experience we've come to expect from computers.

So what's next?

There's still room for development and growth in the wireless area, and anyone watching what's going on in the thumb-driven youth cultures of Japan and Scandinavia already has more than a few cues of where to start.

The "killer app" of any scale device always involves whatever size or type of information is most easily passed from one person to another on it. Media devices create units of what I've been calling "social currency" - the tidbits we pass around to one another as a way of making or sustaining friendships. Jokes around the water cooler, gifs attached to an email, or mp3 files over NAPSTER. The best TV shows give us something - usually a scene or guest star - to talk about with our friends.

The best wireless applications, too, will be the ones that provide people with a means of exchanging social currency, wherever they go. What will that be? Exactly what forms of social currency are appropriate to wireless inch devices? Who knows? A stock tip? The sports score? A smooch? A GPS location?

All I know for sure is that it won't be an opera, a PowerPoint presentation, or this article. It'll have to be something that fits under your thumb.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of seven books on new media and popular culture. His newest book, Coercion: Why We Listen to What "They" Say was published by Riverhead in September 1999. His radio commentaries air on NPR's All Things Considered, and his monthly column on cyberculture is distributed through the New York Times Syndicate and appears in over thirty countries. A professor of media culture at New York University, Rushkoff lectures about media, society, and change at conferences and universities around the world.