Sunday, July 17, 2005

PCs are to Mobile Phones as...

While reading an interview with Ajit Balakrishnan, the CEO of Rediff, an Indian company that has 35 million registered users for its portal software, I had a thought. I know the analogy isn't perfect, but work with me, OK?

Perhaps PCs are to mobile communications as the telegraph was to the telephone. They all offered the ability to communicate over long distances quickly. PCs, like the telegraph, had a big head start in the marketplace. They each require a large investment in technology by the user, a corps of intermediaries who keep the system running, and usage rules and customs that are dictated by the dominant service provider. Mobile phones, like the land lines that preceded them, are more democratic (small "d" democratic) in that the need for intermediaries is diminished, the technology is put to all sorts of uses that didn't seem immediately apparent, and while it's all pretty complicated behind the scenes, it's also pretty simple for the end user. (Although my grandmother never did quite get the hang of all numbers in her telephone number; to the end, she thought her number was "MAdison 3-0770.")

There are lots of ways the analogy breaks down; for example, will there ever be a US cellular company with the government monopoly that AT&T enjoyed at its apex? I doubt it. But it does provide a way of thinking about how we need to move library services to mobile communications if we want to be where the users are, doesn't it? We were still using Western Union lines to send interlibrary loan requests from the Charleton County Library to the State Library in Columbia, South Carolina, in the late 1970s, but I'm pretty sure we didn't assume everyone would have a Telex machine at home or in their offices to work with us!

1 comment:

Andy Havens said...

I have a bit of a different view on this, coming from 10 years in marketing in the wireless telco world.

To us, by 2001, when I left the industry, the answer clearly was: "Mobile Phones are PCs." And the difference between a computer and a cell phone in 2005 is almost nada; it's a difference of degree, not of kind.

That wasn't true in 1992, when I got into the biz. Cellular phones back then (car phones, big and bulky, fat-cat toys) were analog radios that you used to connect you to the landline phone system. Sometimes -- very rarely -- they connected you to other cellular users. The towers were analog radio towers. Computers were used for switching and billing, but not much else.

Now, the "guts" of almost all cell phones are entirely digital. It's a little PC with a screen, a microphone, a speaker and a minimalist keyboard built right in. And many of them now come with color screens, cameras, MP3 players, games, etc.

One of the hardest things to get over in any new technological shift is the memory of the old tech. "Madison 3-0770" for sure.

It's a phone, right? And phones are for talking... But custom ring-tones and screen-savers are now a billion-dollar industry. Jewelry for cell phones is a multi-million dollar industry. Sending text-messages and pictures is a billion-dollar industry.

Could libraries connect their services to cell phones? Sure? Something like QuestionPoint? Why not? There are real librarians with real voices at the end of that tunnel. And sound to download and listen to with clips of eAudiobooks from NetLibrary on your phone. Lectures recorded on your university library's Podcast directory? Cool.

And text is getting better on portable devices, too. I've read several books on my Palm Pilot, which is the same rez as a Treo, which is a great cell phone.

Mobile phones are PCs. And they're smaller and portable and always on and more intimately linked into people's "personal space" than are computers. If we can get library services linked into cell phones appropriately, that would be a huge step for libraries.

Thanks for the great post, George.