BT's visions lack focus

BT's dreams of a future perfect leave the present tense

Futurology is a curious profession that combines science fiction, engineering, PR and astrology. Ian Pearson, polisher of BT's crystal ball, has certainly got the PR and sci-fi sides sorted out. His editor-friendly predictions of brains in boxes and information force-fields, of life freed from labour by tireless intelligent machines, seem very familiar to anyone who read Asimov, Brunner or Clarke.

That's not to say that these futures will not happen, although Pearson is more reticent about the tendency of those who control the technology to deploy it in their own interests rather than that of mankind. The question is whether BT is a suitable agent for such change.

Take Bluephone. This is a simple idea — one phone that works on mobile and fixed networks — that has been around for years in one form or another. BT is fast losing voice revenue to Internet and mobile telephony, so the idea of diverting some of that traffic back onto its own system is tempting. But the solution that BT is rumoured to be finally getting around to launching — one particular handset, a not terribly attractive tariff, you pay for the backhaul — is not the one that users would choose. A software component that ran on any phone and picked the best tariff out of a range of options would have immediate appeal to users. We won't see it.

Or take BT Broadband Voice. After years of being very cool on VoIP, BT finally decided it was the future after all — if the future includes VoIP calls charged at the same rate as ordinary switched calls, no voicemail, no unified messaging services and only indifferent connectivity. You don't have to be a futurologist to be able to concoct something more exciting — unfortunately for BT, other companies such as Vonage are doing just that.

It's good that big companies pay people to think big ideas. But claims to foresee the future need to be measured against the ability to perform in the present — and offering more services with better value for its customers would do BT much better service than any amount of digital dreaming.