Dial M for new mobile

Third Generation. Even the words evoke a flop.

Only 15 years ago, Japanese scientists and government ministers were trumpeting the Fifth Generation Computing Project. This was the next great thing of the time, an effort by the government to produce machines that could reason like people. It fell flat, as did other much-trumpeted technologies.

Remember the video-on-demand that was going to put video rental stores like Blockbuster out of business? How about Iridium, the Motorola-backed satellite system that promised wireless communication around the globe? The only job ahead for that bankrupt hulk is to bring the satellites down without hurting anyone.

History has proven to be painfully picky when it comes to world-changing technologies. And hype, in the end, counts for nothing. So what makes this mobile internet anything more than another techno dream waiting to crash? Lots of things.

The most important is that to embrace the mobile internet consumers don’t have to buy anything new.

More than half a billion people carry mobile phones and that figure is expected to grow to one billion within the next three years.

Outside of Japan and Scandinavia, cellular phone demand is driven purely by one killer application: voice. That alone is enough to put the machines into people’s pockets and purses.

But next time they buy one of these phones, chances are it will be a web-surfing model. This means one-sixth of the globe will be equipped for the mobile net, whether they’re interested or not.

At the same time, phone companies are racing to build the massive systems for the mobile net. The expense is eye-popping: just one license and build-out in tiny Britain may well run to $16bn.

Yet in competitive markets, phone outfits can’t afford to stick with old technology.

‘To drop out of the race,’ says Martin Bouygues, chairman of France’s Bouygues Telecom, ‘means death’.

So the 3G system, it appears, will be built. But will customers warm to it? The smashing success of Japan’s i-mode, where nearly seven million users surf on wireless devices, is evidence that they will.

True, Japan is not always a bellwether for the rest of the globe. But developers there, as well as in Europe and the US, are coming up with applications for the mobile net that appeal to two crucial markets: businesses and kids.

Think Louis V. Gerstner and Pikachu. Between them, the chairman of IBM and the lightning-tailed Pokemon character represent the vanguard of the mobile web. It’s business that is likely to lead the charge in America. In fact, it already has.

United Parcel Service, for example, wouldn’t survive a day without its vast fleet of handheld terminals. Those are customised machines, and, outside their speciality, frightfully dumb.

But when smart, cheap machines arrive, companies are sure to jump to them. Start with the simple stuff. A salesman who can scan real-time inventory on a mobile computer will be able to close a deal, right away, on the same machine.

And, when that sales force gets used to mobile net surfing at work, do they stow the machine when they get home? Not likely.

At the dawn of this technology, companies will turn to web phones simply to speed up work and save money. But it’s kids who will use them to turn the world upside down.

With their mastery of machines, from Game Boys to cell phones, they are likely to embrace the omni-connected world without question. In the process, they’ll come up with stunning applications, mixtures of music, chat, e-mail and games that may at first appear absurd.

But kids are likely to change the way the world communicates. In the end, it’s a matter of getting what you want when and where you want it: here and now. It’s the essence of modern life.

Time was, people used to gather in living rooms to listen to the radio.

It followed them, through the decades, out to the car, to the beach, and finally, with the Walkman, onto the head.

Phones followed much the same migration. And now, like it or not, it’s the web’s turn.

  • This is an edited extract of an article that first appeared in Business Week.
  • Stephen Baker is a special correspondent on the magazine covering European hi-tech from Paris.v

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