Saddle-up that Iron Horse!
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Jan 18 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Bikers find zen through mobile technologies.

In new ways, mobile communication technology is riding more with what may at first glance appear to be one of the planet's talk-challenged and voice communication-no-go forms of mobility: motor biking.

In the mobile age, saddling up your Harley or BMW iron horse no longer means an automatic halt to the back seat driving chatting from your loving partnering passenger - or a disconnection from communication culture. Customized logos these days tattoo bikers' handsets: Suzuki Rulz, Vroom and dozens of others. While Ride with Me and other ring tones accompany the roar of engines. Mobile phone culture goes along with bikers. And, there's a growing desire to board bikes with a range of inventive communication systems.

In mobile communication crazy South Africa, where the community of motorcyclists is growing - it's cool, energy efficient and (importantly) an escape from the car-space territorial battleground of the office parking lot - bikers are snapping up ring tones and logos made especially for them. Keep on Movin' and Riders on the Storm are the kind of tones bikers deem cool enough to trill out of their backpacks at the traffic lights. Bikers show their passionate brand loyalty too by wearing biker-friendly logos on their handsets.

"Our mobile services for the biking community are hugely popular. We've had an overwhelming response," says Lisa Krauss, Marketing Manager for Exact Mobile. The company advertises their services in specialist biking magazines. In their advertisements they urge bikers: "Be yourself and personalize your phone with adrenaline rush logos and ringtones!"

Krauss believes their experience of this market reflects the growing need of people to take their hobbies and interests with them wherever they go. And mobile phones provide a perfect vehicle to do this. During the week, after all, some bikers' day role is as suited company executives. Such bikers cannot usually wear their Harley leathers and boots to the boardroom.

But, it seems that catching a glimpse of a Harley-on-your-handset or hearing a few chords of Ready to Run ringing can be somewhat uplifting and a connection of sorts to the freedoms of the open road and your close knit community of fellow bikers. Of course, the creation of image and the implications of what brand clan you support have not just a little to do with the magnetic allure of a mean-machine as one's transportation and toy of choice.

As one motor cycle sales agent wryly confides: "Biking is about getting bigger and better toys. It's about looking cool. Rental services are often used by people who feel a strong need to look cool for a weekend."

Show me your tattoos

Besides biking logos on your phone being a status statement, it seems that catching sight of a business associate's Ducati or 4 Wheeler heraldry on their mobile is like the modern adult version of passwords or secret handshakes that used to open access to treehouse clubs.

The mere sighting of the words Superbike, for a Superbike enthusiast, on a colleague's mobile identifies a fellow speed lover who one can take into trust and hold meaningful discussions on the joys of Movistar racing colors or the grand feeling of watching Grand Prix champion Valentino Rossi's winning moves.

Krauss reckons: "People want to take their hobbies and interests everywhere and anywhere with them today. And mobile communication devices and motorbikes marry especially well, as they are both highly personal forms of technology that people customize and express their individuality with. "Notably, our mobile services for niche markets - for different adventure and outdoor hobbies - tend to consistently draw a good response."

While biking enthusiasts are embellishing their mobiles to express their loyalties and lifestyle, mobile communication itself on motorbikes is also an expanding specialist market.

Technology becomes a part of the ride

Indeed, rather than a herd of strong silent traditionalists out-and-out rejecting the idea of telephony invading the sanctum and zen of a motorbike ride, communication on motorbikes is something bikers are extremely interested in. And, most bikers - even the speed wild ones - tell they take their mobile phones with them for the ride.

Superbike magazine's Ferdie Pieterse, who does Road Tests for Africa's sportsbike magazine, is of the "the faster, the better" speed king philosophy. He has tried to use his mobile while in full flight on a bike with ear and microphone hands-free style systems designed for cars and walking around with. He feels "these just don't work".

He prefers to put his mobile phone in his pocket switched on to the silent vibration option while he's riding. "Really, voice communication on a bike - as in intercom systems, which work to an extent - is more suited for touring and cruising bikes, not superbikes. When I am roaring up a mountain, the last thing I want to be doing is a lot of talking. Usually we are not on a bike for long periods, so calls can wait to be made and taken in my experience."

For touring bikes and cruisers, however, onboard communication is a growing sphere. Specialists in this arena opine that women - renowned (stereotyped some would say) as 'multi taskers' and communication facilitators - riding pillion are the people who prompt investment in a communication system for a motorbike. Passengers who feel "it would be great to be able to communicate while I sit on the back of this bike with not that much to do" start shopping around for onboard systems.

Bike communications systems

Johannesburg-based motorcycle gear specialists Mosskays' Stan Luntz says: "Rider to passenger intercom systems are quite popular. Usually bikers who want these from us joke about things like 'it's the only place I get away from talking from passengers and here I am facilitating it with this device'.

But jokes aside, at the end of the day many people want communication systems. Bikers can choose between very affordable, basic intercom systems and increasingly sophisticated communication options that are available."

Indeed, communication on motorbikes is the specialist enterprise of a South African entrepreneur and biking enthusiast, Michail Jannakos of Baehr Bikomm Systems. He represents and installs Germany based Baehr systems for mainly touring and cruising luxury-end motorcycles. Jannakos, who traveled overland from Africa to Europe on a bike, feels there is an expanding market for communication systems for motorbikes. It is a niche he is pleased to be in.

"South Africans love to communicate and they enjoy biking. We go biking all the time - due to our great climate. These factors make up a good market for my business focussing as I do on communication on motorbikes. It's an exciting area I feel is growing."

Jannakos says the produce he sells and installs are a range of communication systems designed especially for motorbikes. He started his business from home, and now operates from a bike store's premises.

"Basically we provide plug-in-and-go talk communication systems of very high quality for motorbikes. We install the systems, which includes equipping and customizing the bikers' helmets with microphones and headsets. Our passenger-to-rider communication system runs off a 12-Volt power supply on the bike, it is voice activated and at all speeds clarity is superb. For bike-to-bike communication, we have a system using a CB transmitter, and install aerials on bikes. We equip helmets for communication and sound: making it possible for bikers to plug in different devices: from radio to MP3 players and cellular phones. When I am on my bike I simply plug my mobile into the system, it picks up calls automatically and safely, and I stay connected."

Mobile lifestyle

Jannakos quips that often it seems bikers' wives and girlfriends first see the advantages of a communication system. He says that once the system is in place people tend to get addicted to the facility. "Once they have a communication system on their bike they cannot go without it. It happens that when my customers who are going away for a weekend are trying out another bike, they will rush in here and ask if I cannot possibly arrange some sort of communication system for the bike they will be using."

Overall, it seems bikers are keen to see a future where mobile communication will be ultra-user-friendly for bikers.

Says Sales and Marketing Manager for motorbike sales and workshop emporium Mitaka, Braam de Waal, who recently participated in the Rhino Rally in Africa (an event attracting some 14 000 bikers): "It would be really great if on longer journeys communication between bikes was a norm. It can be complicated on a long ride when moving in groups when you have to wait until you stop to speak to one another. Sometimes there are things that need to be said en-route. On a more practical level, since mobile phones have become an item you ordinarily take on a bike, I cannot tell you how often it has happened that myself - and many others - have dropped our mobiles out of pockets on the road.

Besides the growing need and interest in communication on bikes, it seems the biking fraternity has a multitude of specialist demands (and some quite humble) from the mobile technology sector. Including specially designed totally speed-secure pockets in leather jackets for their mobiles along with a prolific composition of cool ring tones.

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Midrand, South Africa.