Making Things Easier By Making Them More Complex
By Mike Masnick, Thu May 19 21:15:00 GMT 2005

In the ongoing effort to jump start mobile data offerings one company has come up with a solution it claims will make downloading data much easier. The only problem is the supposedly "easy" solution involves a complex system using bulky cards. Easy never seemed so complicated.

There's a growing recognition that the complexity of getting data on and off of a handset is slowing down mobile data usage. A big part of this is the ongoing effort by many operators to block off the routes on to and off of the phone in order to force users to use operator approved cellular networks -- complete with the operator run tollbooth. Of course, as some are pointing out, one big reason why subscribers are trying to download data to computer and then transfer it over to handsets is because it's much easier to surf the web and download things on a computer than on a handset -- where a combination of the interface and (again!) operator interference makes things difficult.

It's one thing to recognize the problem (i.e., downloading digital data is difficult). It's another thing entirely to come up with a solution. While the obvious and most compelling solution is to stop trying to lock things up and let subscribers actually do what they want on phones, it appears the operators aren't backing down from their protective ways without a fight. Instead, they're coming up with bizarre gimmicks. The latest is a system of "cards" that you can use to more easily download content. To be honest, a "card" may be a slight exaggeration. While the device has the basic dimensions of a credit card, it's much thicker. Realistically, it's a small, single purpose device. That single purpose is to help you download content to your mobile phone. Similar to those very early modems which required you to stick your phone into the modem to make the connection by sound, these cards will emit a series of tones when held up to your handset's microphone. You press the buttons on the device to indicate the content you want, and it will emit the proper tones, and your phone will then find and download the correct content or application.

Such a solution does have some benefits. It makes it easier for someone to "gift" content to someone else. One person can just buy the corresponding card and hand it over. Also, it easily ties into prepaid offerings where people can just buy "top up" cards of minutes. However, as a real solution for making mobile data "easier" it just seems to add another tangible item to the mix. The benefit of digital goods is that they're not tied to anything tangible, and are infinitely reproduceable. In some ways, it seems like this is a way to make the intangible tangible for the sake of introducing some sort of artificial scarcity into the system.

Either way, it seems like an attempt to keep control with the operators while still trying to come up with something that seems like an easier way of getting content onto a phone. Perhaps it's already time to come up with a corollary to Andy Grove's Law -- which he just coined yesterday. Grove says that technology will always win, routing around legal blockades. Perhaps it's not just legal blockades, but the blockades of technology providers who try to retain too much control as well.