A one to one with the future

Our love of mobility and communicating is why Vodaphone has become bigger than BT or Ford
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IF YOU want a measure of the way the mobile phone has become one of the dominant technologies of the last decade of this century consider this fact. When its takeover of the US company AirTouch is complete, Vodaphone will be a more valuable company that BT.

It is an extraordinary story at several levels. It is a financial market and business story in the sense that it is the largest takeover yet of a US company by a foreign one: Vodaphone remains a UK-based company and has just over half of the combined business.

It is a corporate success story in the sense that Vodaphone did not even exist as an independent company 10 years ago - though its parent, the defence electronics firm Racal, goes back further - and it has turned itself into a global communications giant.

It is a technical story in the rapid development of mobile phone technology - taking two inventions which were more than 100 years old, the telephone and the wireless, and creating a new and devastatingly attractive product. Vodaphone did not invent mobile phones, credit for that goes to the US company, Motorola, which developed the walkie-talkie back-pack phone half a century ago. But it has been extremely successful at using technologies other people have invented and creating an immensely successful business out of them.

But above all, this is a powerful social story and that is what I want to concentrate on here. A communications revolution is happening at the end of this century which will become as momentous as the transport revolution at the end of the last. This is as important as the car.

The market knows this, or at least it thinks it does. Why should it rank this company, which until a few years ago hardly anyone had heard of, as more valuable not just than BT but also Ford, Volkswagen and Honda put together? The answer is that these people reckon mobile communications will change the world - just as the telephone and the car have done.

At the moment we can only glimpse what might happen. That is partly because the technology is not there yet. Anyone with one of the new satellite phones can, in theory at least, be reached anywhere in the world. The GSM system, now the standard for most people with mobile phones in the UK, works in most of the world aside from the US. But the single, simple, cheap global system is three or four years off, maybe a bit more.

The difficulty of imagining the scale of the coming change is more a conceptual one. We can imagine having neat mobile phones that would work anywhere in the world for a nominal sum, but it is much harder to imagine the social consequences. We can, so to speak, imagine how the hardware will operate, because we almost have it now. The much more difficult thing is to imagine the software - how the technology will be used - and the social consequences of that use.

Let's try. I assume that there will be half a dozen or so companies that will offer true global communications; Vodaphone will be the first of several. Most people in the developed world will have an account with one or other. The service won't just be a mobile phone and a message service, but also a string of other things that we might want. The technology will be very cheap, so the only way these companies will be able to make money will be by selling us added-value services.

We can imagine very easily a phone/message service, where quite a high proportion of calls are not two-way conversations but a series of one- way messages. We will simply take the calls, or leave the messages, when we want to. But imagining the range of services that we might be offered is much harder. My guess is that there will be two broad groups of service: high-tech ones and low-tech ones.

The high-tech services will be technology-based. The phone could be a global positioning system, though that has always seemed to me to be a technology chasing a market rather than the other way round. It could be an Internet access point - it already has been for a couple of years. It could be a diary or an address book. And we will learn to find out train times, book our flights and find a way round traffic jams (until everyone else does the same) by electronic means.

Take that a stage further and things like electronic tagging become practical, creating the possibility of making prison almost unnecessary. If you know where people are, you don't have the same need to incarcerate them. Mobile phones have already become an enormous help in cutting crime. They have also (ahem) greatly increased the efficiency of the drug distribution networks.

All that is easy to see because it more or less exists in some clunky form at the moment. The low-tech services are much harder to envisage. By these I mean services where the telephone is the access point for another human being to do something for you. A global communications giant will know an enormous amount about its customers. I don't mean what they say, or the data that they send over the system, but the scale of their use and their physical movements.

There is obviously an enormous privacy issue here, but I am sure that the global telecommunications companies will want to use the fact they are billing us for calls to become a convenient way of billing us for other services we buy. Need a baby-sitter? Pick up the phone, talk to a human being who sorts it out, pay the sitter (of course) but also a small fee to the phone company. Now it won't be the phone company itself that organises the job, but some sub-contractor.

That may seem a silly idea, but then it would have seemed silly 30 years ago to buy designer coffee or designer sandwiches for the price these places charge. The key point is that the phone, because it is mobile, becomes the entry point for buying/selling services in a way that it could never have been while it remained fixed.

Now take a further leap. The systems will be global. We won't need to know which country the signal is coming from. So these services may not come from people in this country. Of course if they have to be physically delivered they do, but many services can be delivered electronically. So countries which can generate a comparative advantage, perhaps because their people are better educated or maybe even because they simply speak English, will be able to sell these services anywhere in the world. The entry point would be the mobile phone.

This is just scratching the surface. We cannot know the scale of the revolution because as all past history shows, it is only when people have got a technology in their hands that they think of new ways of applying it. What we do know is that human beings love mobility and they love communicating. Put those together and you have a company worth more than companies which just provide one or the other. And that is why what was a funny little mobile phone company has become bigger than BT or Ford.