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Data in Motion

February 14, 2005

By Peter W. Huber

PRINTER FRIENDLY

Most of the time the revolutionary new package started out as a curiosity. Five years later 50 million Americans couldn't live without it on their desk.

Most of the time we don't even know what to call the progeny of technological fusion. So we make up portmanteau words, which then collapse into acronyms--PC, PDA, DVD. Or some marketing department cooks up a name like iPod or Treo, to convey the idea of much cool stuff packed into a small space. And every few years several separate technologies reach the point where a product that packs them successfully together defines something altogether new. That point has now arrived for pocket-size boxes and high-speed wireless data services. This market is going to be huge. Providers of suitably configured hardware, bandwidth and content are going to prosper.

One could say that the PC itself was the first real triumph of digital repackaging. Few of us spend any time crunching numbers, but we still call the box on our desk a "computer," because in 1946 two smart guys built a 30-ton electronic monster to compute the trajectories of artillery shells and nothing much has changed since then, except that tons have been repackaged as grams. As Apple and IBM first grasped in the early 1980s, size and packaging can make quite a difference.

Microsoft prospered doing much the same with software. Windows 95 was nothing but a new skin that made the PC accessible to ordinary users; MS Office offered the first really well-integrated package of four core office programs. The PalmPilot successfully moved key elements of this functionality from the desktop into the pocket--nothing fundamentally new there either, but for the fact that the old stuff was now highly portable. Back on the desk, Netscape provided the first good interface with remote servers running the protocols of the World Wide Web. Pocket-size cell phones emerged around 1996, and Qualcomm's pdQ 800 then merged the cell phone and the Palm. Time and again the digital landscape was transformed by a product that did nothing new at all; it just did two or more old things for the price of one, twice as fast, in a package one-half the size.

Most of the time the revolutionary new package started out as a curiosity. Five years later 50 million Americans couldn't live without it on their desk, in their pocket or in the dashboard of their car. It had become a fixture of daily life, and we could only dimly remember how we had once managed without it.

A few weeks ago I got an early chance to play with Verizon's VX8000 whatchamacallit. It looks like just another fancy phone. But, powered by the company's high-speed data network, it can download and run video news clips, sports and weather on demand or dispatch personal versions of the same from its built-in camera and videocam. It does fast instant messaging, e-mail, chat rooms, general Web-browsing and interactive games. If you're stranded at O'Hare late one night and are looking for a live poker game, you can find one here. This gadget will end up carrying far more data than voice.

It's hard to say for sure whether the current version will fly right off the shelves, but that's almost beside the point. I started out skeptical, but carrying it around for several days, I found myself flipping it open far more often than I had expected to. Then I found I was wishing for an even faster connection, more video content, a slightly bigger screen and a better link to my PC. But the hardware, connection speed and suitably packaged video content will evolve fast now that Verizon has put its muscle squarely behind the platform. Meanwhile, this is the first serious shot at a package of this kind for the U.S. mass market, and it's priced to sell. Verizon's existing wireless voice customers will pay about $200 for the new handheld unit and $15 a month for unlimited high-speed video and data access.

Yes, it's easy enough to confuse the bleeding edge with the leading edge. The Sony Betamax failed; its tapes lacked enough capacity for a full-length movie. Apple rolled out the Newton much too early; Palm waited until the under-lying technology had advanced enough to make the PDA worthwhile. Several much-touted game-box ventures flopped before Sony and Microsoft developed the hugely successful PlayStation and Xbox. But the fusion of handheld computer and high-speed wireless connectivity is compelling, and the technology is ready. In these circumstances companies with patience and staying power are all but certain to profit handsomely.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/columnists/free_forbes/2005/0214/126.html

 

 
 
 

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