Network: Yet another great leap

New Media: `Any broadcaster who is not yet looking at UMTS needs to pull their socks up'
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The Independent Culture
FORGET WAP phones, UMTS phones are going to have the most impact on our lives. Playing with one of the little devils (albeit a demo version) last week, I felt like I was a small child again, mesmerised by new technology. If anything was ever going to change the way we use communication technology and TV programming, I'll wager that the third generation video phone is it.

While WAP is undoubtedly going to be a success and find its market space very quickly, UMTS video phones are going to take the ever-increasing demand for more than just voice services a giant leap forward. Or at least this is what I'm hoping. The big question is when will they be available? The answer is, goodness knows. Probably by the start of 2001, but in my experience any new device which allows consumers to get excited inevitability comes a cropper when delays set in.

Needless to say, we still have a few good years of WAP before video phones hit the market. Shame really, because once you've played with the demo model you don't want to settle for second best. Not only do they offer Internet services, but with the broadcasters getting involved in a bidding auction, we're likely to be able to get video on demand while on the move.

Think back to the excitement when video and CD players hit the market. Then imagine the dilemma you would have faced if someone had given you a glimpse of the development of the DVD player while you were weighing up the purchase. You'd be slightly miffed and demand they speed up the better technology, so you don't waste your money. Didn't BT do the same with ISDN when it could have easily started rolling out ADSL years ago?

Having just bought a DVD player, I now worry about hurting the feelings of both my redundant CD and video player, which is why I'm thinking I might wait for UMTS, or at least talk nicely to whoever it is who wins the licences to get on the pre-launch trials.

What emerged last week is that any broadcaster who is not yet looking at UMTS needs to pull their socks up. It seems vital for them to consider how this latest advance can fit into your business strategy.

The usual suspects, BSkyB, NTL and Telewest, have already expressed an interest, as have Tesco and Virgin. But what about the BBC and ITV, which could use the video phones as a new broadcast channel? It's going to be an interesting few months with bids due by mid-January and the licence auction set for March.

CallNet on hold

Judging by the huge amount of e-mail received after last week's column about CallNet0800 (www.callnet0800.net), I underestimated demand for a fully fledged, completely free ISP. Predictably, so did CallNet, or BT, as CallNet would have you believe. Within the first few hours of the service launch at 8am last Monday, CallNet was inundated with "thousands" of calls, so many that the network capacity which CallNet rented off BT for its 0800 number couldn't cope and was taken down. BT fought back by saying it had allocated the extra capacity to CallNet but that CallNet had "not agreed a date to test the capacity".

Boo debuts

It's finally happened, and part of me is still in shock. The most over- hyped site in the history of the Web, and one that everyone doubted would ever launch, has finally gone live. In case you don't already know, boo.com was switched on last Wednesday amid gasps of relief from staff and disbelief from everyone else. Fingers crossed, it may even be able to stay up after months of "testing servers" and fine-tuning the site. It may also cotton on soon to the fact that not everyone on the net uses flash-enabled browsers, or even the very latest browser.

Boo.com is also going to be the most scrutinised and criticised site ever, having successfully managed to upset a lot of journalists by giving launch dates and interviews and then constantly putting back the launch over a six-month period. As if enough anticipation hadn't been created, boo.com is a;so mounting a substantial online and offline campaign to test its servers.

Virgin vacancies

Strange things are afoot at Virgin Net with defections prompting new managing director, Alex Heath, to jolly up his remaining staff with hyperbole and what appears to be a hate campaign against ic24, which is where the underground tunnel from Virgin Net leads, apparently. I imagine David Clarke, head of new media at Trinity Mirror (aka ic24) and former-MD at Virgin Net, has never felt so popular.

But why is everyone suddenly upping sticks? Couldn't be something to do with the Virgin Group's new digital strategy that's diluting the Virgin Net brand, could it? From what I hear, Rowan Gormley, head of Virgin Direct, is now a firm convert to the Internet and is advising Richard Branson on where they should be going. Apparently, Gormley was behind the appointment of the ex-Virgin Direct man Heath as MD of Virgin Net, when Virgin Net employees were being told a top hard-hitting Internet man would be recruited.

Heath is now proceeding to move Virgin Net towards washing machines and nappies, the so-called Virgin Unlimited, killing off probably the best strategy Virgin Net had ever come up with - evolve into an entertainment portal.

The problem here, of course, is that the die-hard Virgin brand believers at Virgin Net are disenchanted, believing Unlimited to be a ridiculous strategy. It's a case of stick to what your good at. Virgin Net has a real chance of making its brand synonymous with entertainment, rather than stretching itself too far and losing its core values.

amyv@qpp.co.uk

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