2000 Roundup: A mixed year for mobiles

WAP sucked (big time), 3G broke the bank (and won't refill it till 2010), and the argument continued to rage on how bad mobiles are for your brain. Undeterred the public kept buying them... lots of them

The mobile phone industry entered 2000 on a high, as it luxuriated in the aftermath of its record-breaking Christmas the previous year.

Sales had boomed in the run-up to 2000, and January saw each of the UK's four cellphone companies -- One2One, Orange, Vodaphone and BT Cellnet -- boasting big increases in customer numbers. With new Internet and mobile data service due, 2000 was expected to be a great year for the mobile industry.

However it didn't work out quite like that.

WAP certainly failed to impress. Back in February it was difficult to avoid adverts claiming that Wireless Application Protocol was going to change the world, make your life easier and simpler...

It didn't.

By June the WAP bubble had burst and the inevitable "WAP is crap" headlines abounded. Its crime was to be slow, inconvenient, oh and um... over-hyped.

The big debate then became whether the standard will be ousted by Japanese rival i-mode -- especially once the company behind it (NTT DoCoMo) opened a London office.

But if WAP didn't catch on, the British public took text messaging to their hearts. The GSM association expects that 15 billion SMS messages will be sent worldwide in December 2000 alone, up on a previous forecast promising 10 billion.

So popular was the practice of sending short, often cryptic messages to another phone user that special dictionaries were produced so that people could make sense of them.

April saw mobile network providers involved in some serious financial action as they fought over 3G licences -- which would let them build high-speed mobile networks capable of streaming real-time video to a mobile phone. Governments across Europe were seen as the real winners, with the UK's 3G auction raking in £22.5bn.

No sooner was the UK auction over, but analysts were declaring that such high costs would cripple operators, a point raised again by the Bank of England in December.

Some experts believe that consumers have to wait until 2004 to buy "intelligent 3G smartphones" which will support location-based services, Net access and video conferencing, and that these devices will cost over £200 to start.

In the meantime, mobile manufacturers released some rather exciting devices in 2000.

Ericsson's R380 smartphone combines the functions of a GPRS phone and a PDA. Mobile devices are expected to converge in this way in the future and the notion was reinforced when Microsoft announced its Stinger platform.

Handheld manufacturers such as Palm and Handspring launched plug-ins that gave phone-like functionality to PDAs.

Children constitute a high proportion of mobile phone users in the UK. To capture this important market, manufacturers launched phones which could be personalised by users -- with clip-on covers, and customisable displays.

As anyone who travels regularly on a busy train will testify, individual ringtones were very popular in 2000. Yourmobile.com, one of several Web sites that provided ringtone versions of pop tunes and film themes attracted the attention of EMI's legal department.

The question of whether mobile phones are safe, or pose a health risk to users, was raised again and again in 2000 without actually being resolved.

In August a US neurologist issued a £530m lawsuit against Motorola, claiming that his brain cancer was caused by the use of a mobile phone. Motorola denied the accusation.

The UK government ordered an independent enquiry. In May the Stewart Report concluded that while there was no evidence that mobile phones posed a health risk, there was "the risk of a risk". It also concluded that children would be at the greatest danger if such a health risk did exist.

The Department of Education and Employment (DfEE) responded by advising schools to discourage children under 15 from using mobiles.

One of the highlights during this whole debate was the government's spectacular U-turn over whether hands-free mobile kit reduced radiation emissions from mobiles. In August e-minister Patricia Hewitt declared that hands-free kit reduced radiation and was therefore safe.

By November the Consumers Association claimed that in fact using a mobile kit more than tripled the amount of electromagnetic radiation emitted by a phone. By December the government and no doubt a red faced Patricia -- "I consider myself an expert y'know" -- Hewitt conceded that it was not certain whether hands-free kit protected users from radiation.

While mobile manufacturers say no evidence exists to prove that mobile phones cause any pathologies, many scientists aren't convinced.

In October, New Scientist claimed that a Motorola engineer had admitted GPRS would never achieve the data transfer speeds promised -- because the amount of radiation emitted would exceed European safely guidelines. Motorola denied it, but refused to allow ZDNet to speak to the engineer concerned.

Motorola was slammed for being obstructive and irresponsible.

And, writing in The Lancet UK scientist Dr Gerard Hyland insisted that the low-intensity, pulsed radiation used by mobile phones induced potential unhealthy brain behaviour. Dr Hyland also accused the mobile phone industry of taking advantage of the uncertainty over safety issues.

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