Every New Year and Queens Birthday I look through the honours for a few names I think should have received a letter from the palace. Every time I’m disappointed.
I don’t want to belittle the work that Jony Ive has done at Apple, he’s made life that little bit better for many millions of people. It’s just that the honours system tends to slew to celebrity and there are some people who have made life a lot better for a lot of people and a bit better for billions, such is the power of the mobile phone.
The person who I’m most surprised gets over-looked is Charles Dunstone. The founder of Carphone Warehouse started with £6,000 and now has more than a thousand shops spread across the world. When you look at the criteria for an award he ticks all the boxes. The system looks to reward those who have made a significant contribution to British industry, significantly exports. Carphone has certainly generated lots of revenue from overseas. It looks to reward those who have employed a lot of British people, and Carphone does that. And it looks to recognised people who’ve been instrumental in charity work. Charles Dunstone has been a leading light in The Princes Trust, not just seeing that his own businesses employ people who have been through the rehabilitation scheme but leaning on other influential business people to do the same. With every honours list I assume his name will be on the next one but it just doesn’t happen.
Next up are British engineers who might not fulfil the major categories but whose contribution. One of the things which has made GSM so successful is it’s security. There might be regular stories about how it’s been cracked and anyone with a bent coat-hanger and a laptop can listen in but the truth is that following a call from cell to cell is still the stuff of secret service departments and organised crime. It’s a very long way from the analogue days of a Tandy scanner. Creating a security system which is transparent, so that it doesn’t hinder those allowed to use the technology is a challenge which regularly defeats companies. Doing it to a budget and getting it to work is harder still, but perhaps the greatest success is that it has stood the test of time. All forms of encryption fall to improvements in cracking technology and the co-operation of hackers. When GSM was designed the ability to co-operate was limited to Fido networks and meetings in Amsterdam. Since the specification was written we’ve seen the mushrooming of the web and yet GSM has, to all intents and purposes stood up to the onslaught. The man who designed the encryption protocols, A5/1, A5/3 and A5/2 (In that order – don’t worry about it) is Charles Brookson. If engineering is to be recognised some kind of award should find its way to him.
While the work Charles has done affects every mobile phone user, it’s silent. It sits there working protecting people without them being aware of it. My next candidate-more-suitable-than-Sir-Jony is Kevin Holley. He is the man who invented SMS. Think about that. There are about six trillion text messages sent a year. That’s 190,000 a second. No other messaging technology is as pervasive as SMS. Kevin doesn’t help his claim to be the inventor, he’ll say things like “well a lot of us worked on it”, but ask those around at the time and they will tell you that the germ of the idea to use the SS7 signalling channel a bit like paging was his when he chaired the standards committee SMG4. He’s right in that his idea was developed, as is the way with standards by many others including Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert, but if you are looking for the Edison of the text message it’s Kevin. The scale of the success of his invention is impossible to comprehend at 1p a message, a day’s revenue is £164m. It’s changed the lives of people using it for mobile money, saved the lives of people stuck at sea and on mountains, and yet the inventor is unrecognised.
Kevin is not however my top nomination for a meeting with the queen and a sword. That goes to Nick Hughes. People who read the name will have one of two reactions to that. Either “Who?” or “Yes, of course.”.
Nick is father of the M-Pesa, the mobile money scheme in Kenya and which has set the model for mobile money in the developing world. Nick didn’t set out to build a business that would change the world but he did want to make the lives of millions of people better. While working at Vodafone’s Corporate Social Responsibility department he looked at my favourite subject – phones for older people – before moving on to mobile money. To set the scene think of a person who lives in the rift valley in Kenya. It’s subsistence farming on $2 a day. By moving to Nairobi, working as a cleaner and sleeping on floors they can earn $5 day and send some money home. Typically this meant saving $100, taking it to the bus station and asking someone to take it to the Rift Valley for them. There would be a significant fee, if it arrived at all. With M-Pesa they go to the local Vodacom shop, hand over $25 and get the money credited to their M-Pesa account, they then send an M-Pesa text message home where the recipient goes to a Vodacom mobile money agent, shows them the message and some ID and receives the cash. It’s cheap, quick and secure and has changed the life of millions of Kenyans. Banking has grown as a result. When M-Pesa started Kenya had around four million bank accounts, today there are more than six million, but the growth of M-Pesa is much more spectacular, I’ve not seen recent figures but it’s pushing 20 million. For Vodafone it’s been a CSR triumph significantly improving the lives of millions of people, it’s also been an economic success with revenue from transaction charges, massively reduced consumer churn and higher spending on the network. In the criteria of making lives better for people and making money for British companies isn’t Nick more deserving of recognition than Jony?