Power to the Mobile People
By Mark Frauenfelder, Fri Aug 22 12:45:00 GMT 2003

Why is the stuff on the Web so much more interesting than the services offered on mobile phones? Is it because Internet connections on PCs are faster than mobile phones? That's only a small part of the reason. I'm currently living in Rarotonga, a tiny island in the South Pacific, where I pay three dollars an hour for a Net connection that rarely exceeds 9600 baud. Even at this slug-like speed, I find the Web to be invaluable...

The big reason that mobile services are lame is that it's difficult for ordinary folks to create applications and content. On the Web, it's easy and cheap to start a website. Just go to Blogspot.com, choose a template, and in five minutes you've become a content provider with a potentially huge readership. You can't do that on mobile networks. The publishing systems aren't nearly as open as the ones on the Web. Most of the content and applications on them are created by professionals. And that's a bad thing, because it closes the door to innovation by creative amateurs -- the same group of people who have made the Web such an amazing place.

If you want to see Fee Plumley get excited, ask her why it's important for ordinary people to learn how to create content on mobile devices.

"The internet has been the greatest empowerment tool since the printing press," says Plumley, a former theater designer from Manchester, England. "Mobile phones extended that opportunity on a whole new level. Anyone who uses a device that has the capacity to distribute content of any kind should automatically have the opportunity to create their own content for others. It's more important now than ever before to break down the divide between content creators and content consumers. More people - who still consider themselves technophobes nonetheless - use camcorders / Mini DVs, etc, than ever before. These people, like the Brownie users before them, archive their lives already. Why shouldn't they broadcast them? Data should be free and it should be shared, not packaged by one corporation and sold to everyone else."

Plumley, who used to ring up British Telecom and "shout at them" for offering DSL service that offered upload speeds that were much slower than download speeds, asks rhetorically, "What the hell is the point of creating broadcast technologies and then expecting Internet users to want to pull branded 'same-as-everyone-else's content', instead of being able to make their own and push that out?"

Birth of the Mini-Epic

Plumley and her colleague Ben Jones, a filmmaker and animator, decided to do something about it. With funding from The Arts Council of England's North West Board, they started the-phone-book.com in 2000 with the mission "to explore new technologies as they emerge and see what they can offer creative minds. "Everybody is creative," says Plumley, "It's just that some people don't realize it, haven't had the opportunity to discover it, or have been told that there's is no point in trying because there's never going to be an income in it."

Today, the-phone-book Limited runs workshops around the word, providing instructions on how to create stories, ringtones, and animation for mobile devices. It also has a web site that allows creators to upload their content and share it with other people. "We like to give away the knowledge we accrue," she explains. "It's an arts thing."

Through the workshops, Plumley hopes that participants will eventually be able to make money providing mobile content. "Artists deserve a fair wage too," she says.

Most importantly, the purpose of the-phone-books, says Plumley, is "to curate innovative programs of bespoke content, rather than see adverts and trailers or clips of existing content - which is frankly boring when there are so many creative people out there who could - and can - do so much better."

"WAP is Crap" - or is it?

Plumley and Jones came up with the concept of The-phone-book.com as a kind of challenge to themselves. "Rather than accept the whole 'WAP is crap' attitude that was being promoted by even the service providers at the time -- who genuinely believed 3G was just around the corner," says Plumley, "We instead remembered the 'limit the artist and you give him wings' attitude."

The first thing Plumley and Jones did was develop a system that gave people the opportunity to write very short stories (under 150 words) "at rates which are better than the Observer." They distributed the stories both wirelessly and on the Internet. The-phone-book.com eventually published over 700 "mini-epics" that mobile users could read on the go.

Soon after, Plumley and Jones launched artones.com, a platform for people to compose and distribute ringtones. One of the most popular series is called "Axis of Evil." Created by Nick Crowe, these ringtones play the national anthems of countries deemed by the United States government to be global menaces, such as Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

A Sketchy Endeavor

The-phone-book's latest project is a 3G project called the-sketch-book.com. You can visit the site and see animations created by people (mainly Japanese students) who've taken the-phone-book's workshops. "With the-sketch-book.com," says Plumley, "we knew that if we launched an open submission project straight away, no one would understand what the hell we were on about - the-phone-book.com worked so brilliantly because everyone who saw it thought, 'hang on, I can do that.'" But the complexity of developing animation for a mobile platform is quite daunting, so the-phone-book is traveling around the world to hold workshops. In September they'll go to Australia.

As a consequence of the company's new focus on developing mobile animation, Plumley and Jones have closed down the mini-epic division of their company. "We are free to dedicate all our time to the thing that excited us most - moving image media across convergent platforms," she says.

They've also decided to go the capitalist route. "We're now working towards an independent financial status, so we can no longer have to rely on Arts funding," says Plumley, "and we can make more money for ourselves and our creative community."

Mark Frauenfelder is a writer and illustrator from Los Angeles.