Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 30/1/2005Second 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.

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.

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