My Cell Phone is Not a TV

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 15 November 2003

The wireless industry’s insistence on bringing the wrong media to our cell phones may cost us – and them – the whole game.

Sure – I can imagine bizarre circumstances under which I’d be glad for my cell phone to display broadcast television or stream digital files from cinema libraries. But not very many. And certainly not enough to sacrifice the promise of wireless telephony to yet more misguided efforts to suck profit out of the wrong end of my handheld.

Indeed, wireless industry investment speculators – like the legions of hapless internet investors of the 90′s – seem hell bent on justifying massive investments already made into next-generation wireless platforms. Led more by the priorities of their PowerPoint presentations than the principles of communications technology, wireless providers have found new funds to nurse their skyrocketing debts by promising that we’ll all soon be paying to stream video content on our cell phones.

Sure, a streaming video demonstration looks great on a boardroom rear-projection screen, where it belongs. But it’s an inappropriate application for a handheld.

These are essentially three different scales of devices. To use the American measures: inch devices, foot devices, and yard devices – and each has a particular range of appropriate functions. The easiest way to lose money, spoil a device in the consumer mindset and, potentially, neglect a medium’s true potential is to invest in and implement content for the wrong scale of platform.

Inch devices, like cell phones, pagers, and PDAs, are for a single person’s use, and are unique for their ability to help a person deliver important information from anywhere. Their screens are not for reading, but for eyeballing or copying a fact or figure that will most likely be used on that very device. Stock quotes, weather forecasts, or restaurant addresses are appropriate data points for a communications device on which you might make a trade, a date, or a business meeting. Yes, avid sports fans may want to check an important score (and then call their bookies) but do they want to watch a tiny, inscrutable image of a goal being kicked? No. They’ll want to get home to see the event on their foot devices.

Foot devices, like computers, TV sets, and kiosks, permit just about as much data retrieval as data entry. They’re for one to three people to collaborate. This is where you can open a file and work with it – respond to email with appropriate deliberation. (How many of you RIM or cell phone keypad users say little more in your emails than “I’ll get you an answer when I’m at my desk?”) It’s a great place to watch a movie with a friend or two, especially when you want the ability to freeze, edit, or alter the image.

Yard devices are things like large screen TV’s, movie screens and white boards. They’re less for collaboration than presentation – or one-to-many communication. Most of us will use them to simply receive information or entertainment. This is where you’d watch the “big game” with a dozen friends, or conduct your satellite conference with corporate headquarters.

Yes, devices can be jerry rigged to perform outside their normal best range of functionality. But these stretches should not guide the evolution of these devices – particularly when their primary functionality is barely adequate or at risk of further neglect.

No matter how much circuitry, RAM or bandwidth we can shove into our cell phones, they will remain inch devices and best suited for inch-appropriate media. The killer app for cell phones already exists: the voice phone call! And the misdirection of this entire industry’s resources away from the voice call could cost us all, dearly.

How? Why should over-development of entertainment media on cell phones compromise their functionality as phones? Because it take the development community’s eyes off the prize: replace land lines altogether.

Cell phones are almost ubiquitous. But the reason they have not made land lines obsolete are obvious: they are less dependable, and their voice compression standards are vastly inferior. This is where the wireless voice industry should be putting their money and attention – their purported area of expertise.

While you may think it’s silly to imagine a day when the company’s switchboard is routing nothing but wireless-to-wireless communications – and is itself a wireless component – to me it is the obvious and quite attainable next step. The natural evolution of this medium. It is, quite simply, a better solution than running conduit and copper through our architecture and urban landscape. A no-brainer, and the real profit potential for any wireless company.

Instead of competing with one another to offer entertainment that’s doomed to fail on the wrong devices, they must get back in the business they seem to find too unsexy for their investor pitches: helping us communicate.