Switched on for a revolution (part two)

Expect Britain to be a test-bed for anyone wanting to figure out the next stage in the internet revolution
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The Independent Online

Silently, almost unnnoticed, the next stage of the high-tech revolution is a-rolling - and it is rolling in Britain as fast as anywhere on the globe.

Silently, almost unnnoticed, the next stage of the high-tech revolution is a-rolling - and it is rolling in Britain as fast as anywhere on the globe.

We all remember the hype of the internet and mobile phone boom: the madness that overtook the developed world at the end of the 1990s. We all remember the bust that followed, with huge companies going under and the confident predictions that our lives would be transformed by it all looking rather silly. (I rather seem to recall making some in these columns. )

But while we don't yet have fridges that automatically order more supplies from the supermarket when we run short of eggs, we do book most of our flights on the net. We may not have high-quality videophones, but we do text and send pictures over the airwaves, and half the television sets in the country are now hooked up to some kind of advanced or digital system.

What is happening is a classic example of the way technology comes in waves. There is a burst of innovation. Then there is a period of consolidation as we work out which bits of the innovation we consumers want and which are blind alleys. Then there is another burst. That second burst has begun.

This is of course a global story, for innovation can and will happen anywhere. Scandinavia is the most advanced place for finding new uses for mobile telephony, Korea and Japan lead the mobile-commerce league, and the US leads in the introduction of new bits of high-tech kit. But Britain is especially interesting for two reasons: our experience of interactive television and the speed of take-up of broadband.

Thanks to Sky, the UK has a longer experience of interactive television than any other country. The rest of the world looks at the UK as a test-bed for what viewers want and, more important, will pay for. We know, for example, that people like betting and voting, but they don't like using a television to shop. The lesson is that when an activity blends naturally with watching (like betting) interactivity works very well, and when it doesn't (like shopping) interactivity is not needed.

Now televisions are just on the cusp of their biggest change since colour: the combination of the big flat screen, video-on-demand and of course greater interactivity. We may in five years' time have got to the stage where there is no fixed schedule for watching: we will get whatever programme we want when we want it. In other words, the television will fight back against the personal computer not by becoming more like the computer but by becoming a much better television.

Meanwhile, thanks largely to broadband, the computer will become a much better computer. Britain has been slow getting broadband, but it is now being rolled out with astonishing speed. I have just seen some stats that suggest that this year we will pass the US as having the highest proportion among the G7 largest developed countries of broadband subscribers. Apparently by the end of this year nearly one in five Britons will have broadband at home. It is also coming in just at the time when sufficient uses for broadband are being developed - playing interactive games, whatever.

We can't know quite how universal broadband will change the way we use the personal computer because many of the services that use the greater bandwidth have yet to be developed. Until dial-up access to the internet was widespread the airlines could not make the net the main way of booking flights. Until mobile phone-users started to find texting useful the phone companies did not develop facilities such as predictive text. What we can see is that the "always on" facility of broadband is as important an advance as its greater speed. Combined, they make going on the web the fastest way of doing something: faster than picking up the phone. It becomes the technology of first resort.

So expect Britain to be a test-bed for anyone wanting to figure out the next stage in the internet revolution. What will matter is not what the companies want to sell us, or how they want us to use the kit. Rather it will be what we as users want to do with it. I don't know what that will be, although I would guess that internet shopping will finally take off.

And mobile? Despite the fact that the world's largest mobile operator, Vodafone, is British, we are not particularly innovative in the way we use mobile telephony. We have not taken to 3G, the next generation of mobile telephony, in the way that, for example, the Italians seem to be doing. If you want innovation in finding uses for mobiles, look to Korea, Japan and Scandinavia, not Britain.

The prime lesson is that different countries will use different kit in different ways. Americans will use personal digital assistants and wireless-equipped laptops; Koreans will use their versions of 3G handsets; Europeans will (maybe) use 3G phones, or maybe become more like Americans and use our laptops more.

The point is that we're in the same sort of position that we were in six or seven years ago. New kit is being rolled out: the new generation of mobile phones, upgraded systems that let you do email on the move, all the television developments, and so on. New services are being rolled out, particularly in television. But just as in the late 1990s we only knew what people wanted when they signalled that through the marketplace, we will only know who wins and who loses when we see what people will pay for.

To get a handle on that you have to ask two questions. What is suddenly becoming cheaper? And what do people really want from these cheaper technologies?

We know the answer to the first: the big flat-screen digital televisions, broadband access to the net, and mobile communications in general. We don't know the answer to the second. But it is easy to see possibilities.

There is money in any technology that makes day-to-day life easier. Think of a frustration - for example, not being able to find a parking place - then think of the way in which technology could help. Mobile phones are useless because you can't text while driving, but a satellite navigation system that is linked to smart parking meters ...?

Next, think of our worries rather than our frustrations: crime, for example. The new technologies ought to have contributed much more to cutting crime, but they have so far largely failed. The cheaper they become, the easier it is for ordinary people to use them to protect themselves.

Think of what people really want from television? Interactivity, sure, and that is going to be the big development for the next five years. But as the quality of the visual image improves, expect people also to want higher production values. The more that watching a television becomes akin to going to a cinema, the greater the reward for TV companies that can produce something that looks better than the cheapo stuff they do at the moment.

Think too about the possible end of the idea of a television schedule. If people can chose when they want to watch something and schedules (except for sport) start to crumble, television companies will become more like library owners.

But maybe we do want the schedule after all ... the great news is that consumers make the choice. The first burst of the democracy brought by the communications revolution is over, now another burst has begun.

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