Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Scandinavivan adventures show how 3G should be done, while a lack of politeness costs our hero dear

Monday 28/11/2005

(Note: portions of this diary are from last week, for reasons which may become clear later. Quantum chromodynamicists are keen to point out that time is not necessarily linear, and that more advanced ways of thinking about causality and temporal effects may provide better explanations for continuum electrodynamics. Also, the behaviour of IT journalists as Christmas approaches. Thank you for your attention).

Off to Sweden to see mobile data courtesy of Business Arena Stockholm, who have decided that it's a good thing to ship various UK journalists across to promote the local wireless industry. There's a lot of that about, given the Nordics' long-running love affair with radio — they invented the European analogue mobile phone system and there are hundreds of companies involved.

There's also a lot of snow about too, which might sound unexceptional but it clearly caught the Swedes by surprise — it's not just us Brits who collapse in amazement when white stuff drifts down from the sky. The flight is two hours late because of problems at Arlanda Airport — not enough de-icing equipment — and the traffic is crawling when we get there. We arrive at the hotel after midnight with only the memory of a €4 airline sandwich between us and starvation, but the kitchen and bar are closed..

My mood is not improved by the room, which takes that famous Swedish minimalism to new levels. "Dear Guest", the note on the table says, "This hotel has been redecorated and equipped to the highest standards, and we are justly proud of our reputation as a showcase for Stockholm design. PS. Your room has not yet been refurbished." There's no broadband — a socket on the wall is marked "DATA" but there's no cable — and the minibar contains two small bottles of mineral water and a chirpy note saying "The drinks are on us! Help yourself!".

I try and get a connection on Wi-Fi, but the solitary unencrypted public access hotspot can only be accessed by standing on tiptoe in the corner of the room with my laptop held over my head. It proclaims itself to be the Stockholm municipal network. It wants a password. I want carbohydrates. Neither of us are getting anywhere.

It is not a happy Rupert who pulls the covers over his head in preparation for the 7am wake-up call.

Tuesday 29/11/2005

This is more like it. We're at the IBC Euroforums Nordic Telecom Summit, listening to Marie Ehrling, chief executive of Swedish ex-state telco Telia Sonera. She's upbeat but non-controversial, presenting a familiar story about how exciting wireless is, how it's not true that Telia tries to protect old technologies and markets and slow down the adoption of new ideas — whatever anyone says. It is all very familiar to anyone who's enjoyed a BT press conference, as is the discontinuity between the picture painted by Ehrling and the experience of her customers. My pal in the Swedish farmlands still hasn't got a date for broadband — but apparently the Swedish Prime Minister is buying a holiday home nearby and even in that painfully egalitarian world this makes a big difference.

Ehrling's followed by Schlomo Liran, chief executive of 3 Scandinavia. Full of beans, he's not afraid of controversy. He points out that thanks to aggressive mobile price cuts, people are switching over from fixed lines and that there'll come a time when that's true for broadband as well. Swedish telecom prices have fallen dramatically — it used to be one of the most expensive places for phone calls, but now mobile tariffs are roughly five pence a minute. He complained that termination costs — which is what one telco charges another to accept a call — were nearly double that, so every time someone called a Telia number from 3, 3 was losing money. Telia was fighting 3's efforts to change that and set termination costs at 50 percent of the total call costs, but it was up to the regulator.

And then he got even bolder. Posing beneath a picture of Madonna's crotch — Madge having launched her new album in conjunction with 3 in the Nordics — he declared that his music playing phone was "the Super iPod" and 3's online music delivery system was "Super iTunes". And there were the PowerPoint slides to prove it. As Andrew Marvell wrote in his famous poem, "Let's Get It On Before It Drops Off" — "At my back I always hear, Apple's winged lawyers hurrying near".

Thing is, he's right. Once you get the prices down, the question of whether you want your phone to be an iPod is moot. It is, whether you want it to be or not. If you can stream media to your phone without any extra cost, why do you want storage? A flat-rate subscription model that combines a Napsteresque all-you-can-hear deal on the music and a very high cap on inclusive data transfer, and you're unbeatable.

Ah yes, flat rate. I buttonholed him after his talk and asked "But won't it take flat-rate to make it all work over 3G?" "We have flat-rate 3G here," he said, in one of those responses that journalists find as unwelcome as they are informative. "Oh, really? How much?" seemed a sensible response. "Around €40 a month. No cap."

"And when high speed 3G comes in?" I asked, remembering how impressed I'd been with the Isle of Man's HSDPA network. "Well, we can't make it any more expensive, can we?" he said. "And you make money at that?" "Oh yes," he said. "No question".

So: if 3 Scandinavia can make money selling a flat-rate uncapped mobile broadband service at what would come out at around thirty quid a month, why are we paying through the nose in the UK? And doesn't that enable a whole world of other new services? I mean, forget about DBV-T and all these other mobile TV ideas, just stream over the Internet from your home digital TV receiver and you're done.

3 UK? O2? Voda? T-Mobile? This is the future calling, chaps. Hello? Hello?

Wednesday 30/1/2005

Second day in Sweden, and we're back at the Toblerone — the local nickname for Kista Tower. Kista is an area of Stockholm set up as a science park, only they want to make it into a science city. There are hundreds of companies here, but just the one tower. It's the second highest in Scandinavia, where they don't do towers, it has a lot of snow on the top (where we're taken to kick around the white stuff in a brief break from the PowerPointSchrift going on downstairs) and a great view.

There is the traditional location-based services demo, where the gaggle of journos are given a wireless-enabled PDA apiece and herded through the adjacent shopping centre. As we pass various shops, adverts pop up on the screen and when we get to the underground station a map appears. As always, the demo serves to show just how bad the idea is – when you're shopping, you're looking at shops. When you've got to the train station, there are maps to look at there. It's a great idea to have a pocket map that knows where you are and can direct you to where you want to go, but we've got that with the latest batch of GPS devices: anything more active is distracting.

We also see some useful and clever stuff: health is big, of course — and will be bigger than you can possibly believe, if I haven't mentioned that enough yet. I particularly liked a portable database of all drug interactions, which has the potential to save more lives than you'd believe, and a mobile ECG logging device. A mobile online communities portal and a location-based communications system didn't do it quite as well for me, but I'll be writing all those up in more detail later.

The best part of the Swedish experience was the reminder that despite twenty five years of high capitalism in the UK and the well-nigh relentless propaganda from here and the US to the contrary, there are other ways to run a country. The 3G licence allocation in Sweden was a beauty contest, not an auction: that meant much less money to the government in the short term, but that the people who got the licences were the ones who proposed the best network. That meant a lot more cash to spend on the infrastructure. They needed it, of course, as the service and coverage agreements were quite draconian — "there are places in the North where you can't get electricity or gas, but there's great 3G coverage. There's one base station for every user," said Schlomo. Universal access. There's an idea.

But the result seems to be a 3G service that's years ahead of ours, with a lot more innovation and much greater affordability and no lack of competition. It's chasing after the fixed broadband market, which is particularly exciting. Likewise, in Stockholm, connectivity is seen as a municipal service. To stop everyone digging up the street all the time, the council ran fibre everywhere and then sold it on below cost to service providers. They're rolling out a WiMax network to get to those places beyond the fibre, and encouraging all sorts of new services.

Which is good, but the services they encourage may not be the sort which can migrate to the Internet, and thus they'll never get to critical mass. How you balance the dynamics of maintaining the social contract, nurturing innovation, guaranteeing services and producing results that are globally competitive is beyond me — but I know which countries have the better high tech industries and the lead in wireless.

And which country has the airline with the best sense of humour among its cabin staff — the trip back to the UK is enlivened by a SAS stewardess who tells me off in her native language for some infraction of the take-off rules. "Er, sorry, I only speak English," I said.

She smiled: "Oh, blah de blah de blah, bork bork bork! Swedish!"

Indeed.

Thursday 1/12/2005

Goodbye, November. No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds. But plenty of hits. Audit month is over. We won't know the final scores on the doors until ABC finishes its task of filtering out robots, spiders, employee and other non-readers from our logs, but the raw numbers stonk.

So pleased are the powers that be at our performance that we are despatched to a local restaurant at lunchtime and not expected to come back. The rest of the day is probably best kept as local lore: we shall not mention the reporter who tried to proposition a colleague, bruised a rib as they fell down the pub stairs and had to be ladled into a cab while they still had a job. Nor the other editorial member of staff who declared themselves far too drunk to carry on, only to change their mind and order two pints of lager and a quadruple scotch. I'm not sure they've been seen since.

The real trouble with the afternoon is that it changed to evening, when certain industry Christmas parties kicked off. And so it came to pass that taxi-loads of exceptionally merry ZDNet UK staff appeared at the Nokia bash: that company coped magnificently. Even when sulks ensued.

Industry Christmas party etiquette is surprisingly complex. Invites are issued with varying degrees of precision to sub-groups of hacks, with the implication that others may or may not be welcome depending on status, closeness to that particular bit of the industry or whatever. The invites are invariably RSVP. Unfortunately, just because a hack Rs doesn't mean they'll attend, and just because they don't doesn't mean they won't. Nobody wants to look like an unseasonal meanie, so most of the time if you just fetch up at a party you'll be let in, providing you're known, can be vouched for or are in some other way vaguely convincing.

As a result, party organisers know better than to expect a strong — or even mathematically significant — correspondence between the names on the list and the bodies inside. However, sometimes there is a more serious side to the RSVP: at Nokia, if you had R'd you got a rather tasty new mobile in your goodie bag. If you hadn't, you got an Advent calendar. With chocolates inside.

Had I R'd? No. Had large numbers of my friends? Yes. Are they insufferable? Yes.

Do I care? Let's leave that, and move on.

One final piece of useful information came out of the strange and bathyspheric end of the day: some among us had worried that the recent liberalisation of the licensing laws would put an end to their favourite and most inadvisable Soho drinking holes, where a final nightcap could be got well beyond the time the World Service takes over from Radio 4.

Such places still thrive.

Oh, dear.

Friday 2/12/2005

Today is a day of questions, if not of answers. The non-smoker may ask themselves: what is this packet of Lucky Strikes doing in my pocket? The uxorious may wonder: who is Kaz and why is her number in my mobile phone? The normally abstemious may puzzle: who stole my higher consciousness and replaced it with the hindbrain of an angry alligator? It's no good asking one's colleagues. Sentience is in short supply.

Skip forward a week…

Friday 9/12/2005 …and the pain has gone. Or rather, it's retreated enough for pleasure to once again be taken in the pain of others. Schadenfreude is a nasty and destructive state of mind, especially when some of those who suffer are hard-working people whose success may be taken from them by the machinations of a rapacious and capricious system.

Yet it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. The story, still unresolved at the time of writing, involves Research in Motion who — as you surely know — has been involved in a long and expensive legal battle with a company called NTP over who invented certain key technologies in the BlackBerry portable email system. Now, this has turned into a tussle of mind-mangling complexity, running up and down the US court system, spawning sideshows in the patent offices and generally keeping a very large number of lawyers in clover for many years. As such things do.

Things have come to a pretty pass. Although all but one of the patents have been dismissed and the last one is looking shaky, the courts have decided that NTP should prevail. RIM disagrees, which means an ugly game of brinkmanship. The odds of the US BlackBerry networking being turned off by judicial fiat are shortening by the day.

One may draw certain lessons from this. Yes, it is possible for a patent dispute to close down a product or service. Are your disaster recovery protocols good enough to cope were this to happen to one of your key technologies? And yes, technology companies are increasingly liable to patent-based assault. If you work in technology and innovation, do you feel safe?

So where's the humour? It's that one of the first and still one of the most enthusiastic BlackBerry clienteles is the legal profession. They love it. Couldn't live without their crackberries. They're as addicted to the lil' rascals as a teenager is to his Gameboy. They're facing life without their favourite drug — and it's all their own fault!

Whatever the outcome, expect a dose of reality to trickle through the legal system as even the most gung-ho lawyers remember their childhood stories about being nice to those farmyard birds which produce the most precious metal. IP reform that genuinely does protect innovation without encouraging armed conflict may be more welcome now that the downside has made itself quite so clear.

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