Network: Put your faith in a wireless world

Alan Sugar turns sour on the future of mobile phones - how wrong can he be?
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The Independent Culture
EVERYTHING CHANGES at the speed of light nowadays. The Internet industry is exploding and the new Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) technology is bringing a whole different way of using the Web to your mobile phone. Are we excited? Hell, yes.

Except Alan Sugar, who said in a Sunday paper that WAP is crap. He thinks the innovators have lost the plot and gone one step too far. His basic argument goes along the lines of, "If I am in the office, I use my computer, while at home I use my PC. Since most of the time I am in one or other location, there is no need to receive information on a mobile phone".

Apparently, Mr Sugar has cracked the business of time travel, as unless he can beam himself up to his office in the best Star Trek tradition, it is hard to understand how he is not, like the rest of us, wasting at least two hours every day to commute. That time is when I use my mobile most, and so does everybody else I see on the buses, trains or even their bicycles.

I reckon the average person working in London spends at least 1.5 hours commuting every day. That is 7.5 hours a week I spend with my mobile phone, away from any PC, and often squeezed on to a bus, where using a laptop would be out of the question. You can't use your laptop while walking, and I walk to and from lunch. So I am using my phone instead of the PC at least another 20 minutes more a day.

I was puzzled by Mr Sugar's assumption, evident in his article, that today equals tomorrow. For him, the few applications which are "must have" on the mobile phone today means that will also be the case tomorrow. That way of thinking led Bill Gates to believe the Internet was insignificant, because nobody would want to FTP files around the network.

Little did he know that applications such as online auctions, MP3 or network gaming would come about and change the face of the Internet forever, despite being virtually unknown and technically impossible only a year ago. I take a strong delight in reminding myself that only eight months ago Rupert Murdoch proclaimed the Internet a waste of time. Today, many millions of pounds later, Mr Murdoch is seen as a leading scion of the Internet investment community, a twist on the story that brings a wonderful commentary on the inability to predict the future by the "masters of the universe".

Communication technology is like kitchen cabinets, every time you get a new one, it fills up immediately and things start falling out of the overstuffed cupboards. The same is happening with the Internet. The more bandwidth there is, the more gets used up in the endless desire to express one's personality online via 3D modelling or some other heavy-duty bandwidth eater such as streaming audio.

The fact that WAP is available (or will be shortly) means intelligent designers will come up with exciting applications which will run on it. I want one to talk me through driving directions when trying to reach the airport in a foreign city. I can't think how many times I was late for the plane due to some twisted adventures on the way.

A good, English-language, WAP-ed road direction service would be worth subscription money, particularly if it covered Tokyo, where they think that Narita airport should be hidden behind the incomprehensible jungle of misleading signage. I am sure thousands of other possible apps are about to jump from the hot development houses in London. The strange thing is the complete lack of imagination or faith in the skills or talent of the development community displayed by Alan Sugar is shared by many business people over 45. I did a mini-survey on a high-powered dinner party last week, and almost all guests over 45 thought Mr Sugar was the wittiest dude around, while everybody under that age just sighed.

The Independent is now an official provider of news and wireless information services to mobile phones on the Vodafone network. Instead of wondering how to solve today's problems with tomorrow's technology, the Indy will be at the forefront of Internet and mobile phone convergence, pioneering the road to the next digital revolution.

Many young developers will get their rent paid out of this move to wireless information provision, and if I were you, I would be learning WML like crazy. I can see already the first seeds of jobs sprucing up on the new media pages that mention WML, and information architecture for the mobile phone applications. Whatever Alan Sugar thinks, mobile phones are the gateway of the future. The sheer number of hours we spend with the bloody thing every day is too tempting to the advertisers to leave us to our own mobile devices. Being on the road every day adds up to a lot of hours, where no TV advertising, no web banners can reach me. Obviously, the advertisers love the idea of getting their hands on a further 10 hours of my time where other media are helpless, so the floods of money that will flow toward advertising on mobiles will dwarf into insignificance the advertising budgets spent on the Web today.

Anticipation denotes intelligence. Playing and testing leads to new applications and fun things to do with cool toys. Cool toys lead to even cooler revenue streams. Whingeing in Sunday papers leads to looking out of one's depth and passe.

Alan Sugar's fee for possibly the worst piece of forecasting of the year has gone to his charity of choice. I am tempted to suggest we should chip in to that charity just to keep him out of the papers. That will at least save us having to spend hours explaining the reality of mobile phones' future success to some impressionable chief executives who took Mr Sugar's opinions seriously.

Let's hope it was a temporary failure of information processing and he will be back on track with some more enlightened commentary on the future of technologies.

eva@never.com

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