It's 3GSM time, and a flock of British journalists are taking to the skies. I join the migration courtesy of O2, which has hired an entire hotel — if you will, an O-tel [No, I won't, if you don't mind. - Ed. ] — for the event. It is early on Sunday morning and I'm not at my best, but to give the company its due it has the decency to send a cab to haul my mortal remains to the airport.
A melancholic chap, rough around the chin, all distressed features and distressed leather jacket, picks me up from the Goodwinsery. It's a long drive to Gatwick, and there's not much chance of restful silence throughout. Inevitably, I break under interrogation and reveal I'm going to Barcelona for a mobile phone show. "Yeah?" he says, his saffron-ringed eyes queasy in the rear view mirror. "I gotta problem."
Mmm. Know what you mean.
"I'm on pay as you go with Orange, right?" Right. "I signed up for this text service, and now it keeps sending me messages that cost me a quid fifty to look at. I keep topping up the phone, but it's all gone by the time I've made a coupla calls".
"You can just text STOP back to the shortcode."
"Tried that. It shuts up for a bit, then starts again."
"You should let the regulator know. What's the service?"
I do my best to merge with the back seat while staring out of the window. As we're driving through Croydon in the rain, this does nothing for my mood.
Monday 13/02/2006 — Morning
I have dealt with the problem of hundreds of PRs asking me to meet their EMEA business development managers by ignoring most of them and setting up a very few meetings with people I'm actually interested in meeting. This plan falls at the first, as the PRs for those meetings promptly rearrange them and with a tedious inevitability manage to make them all clash. So it's Plan B – select targets of opportunity and dive in out of the sun.
My first big meeting is with O2 itself, which has tastefully chosen 0830 for its rearranged briefing, thus neatly eclipsing my 0930 with CSR across town. This is a reasonably massive affair, at which we learn that everything is going well with the Telefónica takeover, that the 3G network is 'holding up really well' as users move over — I get that from other people about other networks as well, so it looks like the engineering side has matured. Some talk of new roaming tariffs (thank goodness) but no details. If you want to know what O2 will be doing in the UK for enterprises, look at what Telefónica has been making a success of in Spain where its been rolling out managed telephone services for offices.
There's the occasional insight into how operators see their world. 3G, for example, is seen as having a 20-year payback, which is an astonishingly long term view perhaps engendered more from necessity than initial vision. That it will have that sort of life span, though, is more likely — GSM is around fifteen years old and probably slap-bang in the middle of its useful existence.
Other aspects of the briefing echo what will turn out to be big themes of 3GSM itself. HSDPA is gearing up rapidly; mobile TV is making an exhibition of itself but is more of a gamble than perhaps people are letting on, and IP, IP, IP everywhere. In particular, multimedia and instant messaging over IP is coming faster than expected. WiMax is not.
And then its out and off to the show to register.
First impression of 3GSM itself is that it's huge and nobody knows where anything is. In the company of silicon.com's Jo Best, I am directed by an attendant to registration in a far-distant hall. There, we find that press registration is in fact half a mile away, roughly where we started from. That's the theme for the next hour, as we try to come to terms with eight halls, five different sorts of map that bear little relation to each other, 50,000 people in pan-European business attire (why do the Spanish wear so much corduroy?), and a press room that we eventually track down at the back of the most distant hall. It is heaving. There is no network access — and, shortly afterwards, there is no power. There are hotspots: Netstumbler counts 42 shouting like crazy at once, which is rather more than the exhausted spectrum can cope with.
I contemplate running away to join the circus. Jo edges away nervously.
Instead, I run back to the hotel where I meet Grahame Riddell, head of music for O2. Now, it must be said up front that O2 is playing a good corporate game in getting music delivered over mobile, making the right sort of investor-pleasing alliances and looking at the market in a professional manner. It is not Riddell's fault that I'm already run ragged by the first morning of 3GSM and the inner punk rocker is alive and kicking. Our opening conversation sets the tone — we're chatting about Barcelona's reputation for having some of the most aggressive and effective pickpockets in the business. Some rumours said that around 300 crimes were reported during the show, not including the Microsoft briefing.
Riddell: "It's almost like an industry, you know, they're that organised" Me: "Yes. They should legitimise it, like mobile roaming charges." Riddell: "That's an interesting statement."
We regroup, and start again. As he goes through the spiel of how O2 is working with Clear Channel for live music, and sponsoring a Brighton band called The Upper Room because the marketing message from their company — Sony BMG — is so well aligned with O2's strategy, and how the new opportunities for merchandise over handsets are exciting, the punk inside me is screaming "Clear Channel? It killed music radio in the US. Don't you know that? And Sony BMG? SONY? Rootkit Sony? What the hell are you doing with these corporate personifications of the anti-music?"
However, I feel that vocalising this would not be entirely professional. Riddell says all the right things about building communities where word of mouth builds excitement over new music, and supporting those users who find out the good stuff as well as those who rely on the first sort to guide their own explorations, but I can't shake the horrible feeling that it's all about control. Listen to new music, but it's going to be the corporate's choice of music, stuff that is approved and registered for passage through the system.
You've found something good? Tell people about it, but for God's sake don't send them the music itself. Download a suggestion but no, you can't put it on your iPod. It's all a subtle perversion of how I keep my love of music alive, which is digging out the stuff that isn't already flowing through the corporate veins, which doesn't fit any marketing expectations, which doesn't have a dollar of The Man's moolah on its back, and passing it on as best I can to others who still feel the joy.
That's what makes music work for me, music that says nothing matters but itself, not the ability to play a 30 second clip on an approved device that offers me the opportunity to buy the T-shirt. And it matters more to me than I can rationally explain. That is not O2's game, nor from a responsible corporate perspective can it be, but it seeks to assume the pretence that it is and that also matters more to me than I can explain.
There's far too much going on to fit into one diary. In swift succession, I learn that the Adult Content area is a pale shadow of previous years — "Last time, there were dwarfs with silver platters of fruit on their heads!" says one excitable chap — and that Oracle has a chocolate fountain on its stand. Already bewildered by the notably psychedelic aura of Barcelona, I start to fantasise about chocolate-covered midgets running through the show halls.
It is in this frame of mind that I make my rearranged meeting with CSR – Cambridge Silicon Radio, as was– and try to focus on Bluetooth. Fortunately, the punk rocker inside me is sleeping off an encounter with last night's major discovery – in Barcelona, happy hour lasts from 2200 to 0200 – and all the good people from Cantab have to cope with is the internal engineer wireless geek.
It is a good meeting, although it starts slowly when my interviewee seems less certain of the physics of making wireless chips than he is of business development. CSR's efficient PRs quickly rustle up a chap with a doctorate in persuading radio waves to jump through hoops, and we're off. The company is adept at making Wi-Fi and Bluetooth work together, which is exactly what mobile phone companies are slowly realising they want. It has some smashing low-power tiny tech that is edging towards cognitive radio, which is going to be the big story in a few years time, in that it can sense what's going on around it and adjust automatically to the conditions. Some of that in the airwaves of 3GSM would be most welcome.
We then leave the briefing room to go to the demo booth. "Can't go in quite yet," says the PR, "We've got the Duke of York in there". And so they do – he's nodding sagely over a prototype board. Aha! That explains the excited rumour of earlier in the day that "Prince Andrew is coming out," which to my shame I misinterpreted in quite a different way.
On my way back to the press room, I'm phoned by Graeme 'Scoop' Wearden, who's holding the fort back at ZDNet HQ. "Something about an IP DAB phone. Can you get back to me on that?". Seconds later, a passing PR stares at my badge and says "Rupert! Come and see my client. They've got the BT IP DAB TV phone." I cannot ignore an acronymic call from fate like that, and swiftly relocate to the TTP stand.
TTP is another Cambridge company: they've done the software engineering on the Windows Smartphone that BT is launching today. It does indeed do IP, but purely in the service of delivering mobile TV — still, it's a good story. There are plenty of prototype phones from the BT Movio trial, but no sign of the new one. "Can I see it?" I ask. "I've heard a rumour that Steve Ballmer is going to pull one out of his pocket in his keynote later." "Oh, that's just a rumour," says TTP, "but we can't show it until we get a call during the keynote, so we don't steal Ballmer's thunder." Which I think is a fairly strong rumour, so after chatting amiably about the internals of the phone I wander off with a promise to come back later.
Later, I'm back. My friend on the TTP stand has indeed got one of the new phones in his hand — as rumoured, so it went — but he's looking a bit concerned. "Er," he says, "You see, we've got a DAB TV transmitter in the back of the booth to run the demo and we had to install new software instead of the stuff that was driving the trial units. And the switchover is taking a bit longer than we'd hoped"
Fair enough, I think, and look at the phone. It is displaying a familiar error message, something about not having a licence to display this content. "Isn't that the Windows DRM telling you off for being naughty?" I ask.
"Er," he says. "Yes. We can do everything else, but not actually show the TV pictures. Would you mind awfully coming back later?" He's a good enough sport to let me take a picture of the device, and in the time it takes me to get back to the press room, scale the picture, get it back to the UK and return, he's fixed it. Turns out that the licence is sent to the handset via the mobile phone network, which he doesn't have access to, and he had to copy the file on manually.
In one way it's DRM doing its job — but in another, it adds to my not inconsiderable suspicion that it'll mess up and keep on messing up in interesting and annoying ways until we find a better way of doing it. What exactly is the value in a mobile-phone sized broadcast stream that needs protecting so badly, and from what is it being protected? It's not so much a sledgehammer/nut interface, it's a thumb-sensing sledgehammer with automatic guidance. Some nuts just ain't worth that much pain.
Tuesday 14/02/2006. Night.
At 3GSM, every night is party night — but Tuesday is the biggest of the lot. By now, the many UK trade hacks have formed into an ad-hoc team capable of draining the best-stocked bar dry in minutes and we set out to display our skills. We hit the Virgin Mobile party — all chocolate hearts and tapas — then on to the Orange bash, which is marked by a DJ and a green laser light show that homes in with disturbing accuracy on people's crotches. This is a bad omen, as I am to discover later, but for now I'm happy to admire the bar staffs' ability to build truly world-class G&Ts and the Orange head of media relations' extraordinary knowledge of every word we've written about them.
We finish the evening at Freescale Semiconductor's party. This is a spectacular affair fuelled by champagne and a performance from the Sugababes which commands the attention of a thousand drunken male suits through sheer technical ability and stage presence. Or perhaps something else. They even have the cheek to perform I Bet You Look Good On The Dance Floor, which, I'm afraid, I did not. A certain lack of coordination was further proven by my attempts to retrieve my bag from the cloakroom without my ticket, but all was well in the end.
We decide to walk back to the hotel, in the hope that the night air will clear heads desperately in need of clarity. As we traipse merrily down Las Ramblas, Barcelona's main party artery, I get a call on my mobile and as I chat away my companions put on a spurt and get about a block ahead of me. Now, you know those wildlife TV programmes where a lioness crouches in the long grass, waiting for a straggler to detach itself from the herd and get distracted by a particularly tender patch of grass…
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot some movement in a dark doorway to my left. I glance over, and see an apparition, a hideous hag whose true gender is very much open to debate. At that point, I am lost. She — he, it — locks my gaze, puts on a ghastly grin and launches herself out towards my unsteady path. I try to gesture her, him, whatever, away while continuing my conversation, but I'm like a Sopwith Camel in the path of a Sidewinder. Slam! I feel bony fingers clutch at my groin, and while I'm attempting to make clear my unwillingness to further participate I detect others slip skilfully into my trouser pockets. And then they're gone.
Luckily, I was prepared — there was nothing of interest in my trousers for my new friend as my valuables had been stowed carefully away elsewhere. And you may be thankful, dear reader, that brain-machine interfaces have not been perfected yet and I am unable to upload the mental pictures I still carry with me of the encounter.
There's no room to talk about the other pleasures of 3GSM — the Nokia party which set new levels of grimness, the GSM Association press conference where the CEOs of eight major network operators sat at one table and all I could think of was chocolate covered dwarves flinging custard pies in one co-ordinated attack, of the incredible inedible bananas in the press room, of sharing a rickety table with four gesticulating Spaniards who got so excited an entire cup of tea upended itself into my lap — but they never noticed, of the Samsung 3G phones that seemed to be playing ZX81 games, of Broadcom's plans to put high-definition TV on mobile phones… and the endless trekking from hotel to Metro to Hall 1 to Hall 5 to Metro to…
Barcelona's a nice city, I hear. I must visit it one day.