What Kind of Animal is Data?

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By BRational
April 1, 2002

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I believe Rex has raised interesting and important issues about wireless data and 3G (in his initial post; ...the rest of the back and forth appears to have quickly deteriorated). While much of my response is already in a previous Rex-induced post (Rehashing 3G), this new helping from Rex presents a very cogent analysis of why some consumers may take a while to adopt 3G. What I would quibble with Rex about is that the arguments he makes will indeed explain why he may not be an early adopter, and why a fraction of like-minded people might not adopt either. But this is does not constitute evidence to conclude that nobody else will, or even that there would not be a sufficient fraction to make a business case that will.

The main point I want to address here has to do with the convenience factor of wireless data. I find that the analysis Rex presents has merit, but in my view misses some key points that I would like to highlight. My point is not to convince Rex (ha!) but to give some closure to the picture started in our earlier discussion, and perhaps to contribute to his own reasoning through this complex issue, the same way he has stimulated my own thinking. Before I address the main point above, I want to touch on a statement at the very beginning of Rex's post, that I found helpful to pinpoint some of the source of dissonance in this debate.

1. Rex said: I question whether or not the consumer actually wants or needs wireless data connectivity in his daily life.

I think right here may be a source of frustration in this discussion. The relevant question, in my opinion, and the one I tried to discuss in my "Rehashing 3G" post, was whether the consumer will actually consume wireless data. Rex's concern is whether the consumer wants or needs in the present. Somehow this seems to assume that to consume in the future, one must want and need now. I think many of the examples here were to illustrate areas where neither visible want nor need were measurable, though actual consumption materialized when the opportunity became available. How do you presume that people will want and need something they do not know exist, and that they do not yet understand? This has bedeviled marketing folks for a long time, and the usual approach is to do focus groups, test marketing, and so on. But in some cases the utility will seem overwhelming to entrepreneurs and they will take the plunge. The initial ones will fail, but the next wave succeeds. We've already seen the failure of the too-early-to-market, like Metricom, MobilStar and the various wi-fi providers.

What I had tried to identify in my post were other instances where new technologies created demands and behaviors that were not manifested to the consumer prior to the availability of the opportunity�a situation that is very common in technology, where inventions end up serving functions that are different from those originally envisioned. I will only mention one. Computers were created to crunch numbers. Yet by far the most common use of computers today is for access to communication�what we're doing this very minute as we read this post on the web. Computers were not invented to replace typewriters, but they have.

2. Wireless voice (I'm going to use the term 2G for short, from here on out) allowed - allows - people to speak while on the move or in remote locations, relative to their wired counterparts. It is, therefore, convenient in two different allows communication where there was none and it does not require the user to devote his attention to it while using it; we drive and talk, we shop and talk, we watch a ball game and talk, etc.
We embrace it because the data itself is the focus of our attention. When I work on a business plan for a new, million-dollar piece of equipment, the computer supplies data from a variety of sources (often from itself)...I'd be lost without it. The computer provides information that's critical to the mission. But, again, it is a focused activity that essentially precludes the presence of competing media, other than perhaps the sound of the CD in my D:\ drive.

a. Aha! First of all, the sound of the CD in your drive IS data! Images, sounds, are all DATA in the wireless data debate. It is not just specs for computing machinery that constitutes data.

b. What retained my attention though in this statement was the very well taken point that one can talk while driving, but not use their fingers to manipulate a handset. A first level reaction here is that most anything is becoming voice activated; I no longer dial in numbers on my mobile phone. I just ask for "home" or "Linda" and it connects me. Full-menu voice interaction is not that far-fetched. The folks at Wingstar and On-Star have invested quite a bit in voice-activated interaction, because of the obvious concern for driving safety (I know this first-hand).

c. The more interesting issue raised is one that I had previously identified for why SMS may not be such a big deal in the US. Note that in the US, the mobile handset user is always seen as driving. Mobility is not limited to talking while driving. While percentage use of mass transit in the US overall is in the low single digits, our larger, older cities (NYC, San Francisco) have much higher use of public transportation. In most of the rest of the world, mobility in cities relies on more efficient forms of transport than solo driving (and that is one of the main reasons, in my view, that SMS has taken off everywhere else, because people can use both hands while using public transportation, while they do not care to let in others on their conversation; the other reason is the pricing model�most other countries do not have "all-you-can-eat" plans for voice calling like we do here, and have to pay by the minute of calling, often depleting pre-paid units rapidly, whereas SMS caries a very generous allocation).

d. While we drive, we may also have others with us who are not driving. Spouses, significant others, children, co-workers, car-poolers, etc... and occasionally, even we may not be the ones driving, as we are spouses, co-workers, etc.. to others who may be driving...

e. Finally, the notion of wireless mobility is not only about literally accessing data while we are moving, and it is not only about using little handset screens to do research! It is about accessing data anywhere anytime using a variety of devices; it may be Starbucks, but it may also be in another city as we go on business, at a train station, etc... While local-area 802.11b/a networks may provide access in some of these locations, getting authorized to access such service will remain problematic, unless it becomes bundled with our nationwide wireless data plan�exactly what the 1X networks will achieve. Why would anyone thing that accessing the "public" 802.11b/a networks would be any easier than plugging into an Ethernet connection on a University or corporate campus for which we do not have recognizable credentials? Better get those DNS numbers...

3. I would consider 3G data to be a marginal improvement with a relatively limited scope of meaningful application, if we are to measure it by the same criteria as the aforementioned technologies.

Why would untethering access to data be any less momentous than untethering voice? We seem to have no disagreement that 2G wireless voice was a major breakthrough and enabler of the corresponding wireline phone usage. Having the latter at home was a first degree of freedom compared to going to a public phone or to the calling stations; cordless was the second degree of freedom that allowed us to use it around the house. The parallel with computers was to have Internet access at home instead of just at the Internet Caf� (or at work/libraries), and now to have 802.11 a/b serving exactly the same function as cordless. If wireless voice was such a big jump from wireline, why wouldn't wireless data be an even bigger improvement, considering that we spend a lot more time at our computers than talking on the phone?

Data may be a different animal, but it craves mobility just as much as voice.

BRational (finally bought a digital camera... who needs THAT?...)

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