Summary: Europe's cellular phone system is far superior to that in the United States. However, telephones will not be the platform for the mobile Internet. Given this, Europe's advantage may in fact be an obstacle to real innovations, as France's experience with Minitel shows.
Some analysts claim that Europe will be the leader in inventing and implementing the mobile Internet . The reasoning rests on the fact that cellular telephones have dense penetration in many European countries. When mobile access is part of everyday life, innovative services are more likely to be launched, both because people think of them and because a market exists. Thus, the reasoning goes, Europe will lead the Internet's next phase in the same way that the United States led the Web's first phase.
There is some value to this claim, and it is certainly true that Europe leads the U.S. in the quality, availability, and widespread use of cellular telephony. The American cellular network is a national disgrace . For proof, we need look no further than the fact that it is often impossible to get a dial-tone on Highway 101, the main freeway in Silicon Valley.
However, what these analysts fail to see is that mobile innovation will come from rejecting mobile phones, not from having lots of them around. On the contrary, a high penetration of mobile phones will likely lead innovation astray, causing companies to miss the bigger opportunities provided by more suitable devices. It's a scenario not unfamiliar to Europe, as a look at France's experience with Minitel shows.
Brief History of Minitel
Minitel was France's main online system from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. Although an i-minitel version is still around, Minitel basically lost to the Internet.
In 1989, Minitel was the largest online service in the world, with seven million subscribers among France's 59 million people. It provided 25,000 online services, ranging from the pornographic (so-called "rose" services) to the pragmatic (a payload-finding service for truck drivers). Minitel could offer so many services in part because it had a working micropayment system: fees were simply charged to the user's phone bill.
Despite such impressive early achievements, today Minitel is a dead end.
What went wrong? Minitel was a proprietary service. It used special terminals with small screens and lousy keyboards, had laughably slow connection speeds (1200 bps), and was run by a telephone company that was reluctant to grant users access to open Internet services. Sounds like WAP , doesn't it?
Still, in 1990, reasonable people might have looked at Minitel and proclaimed France the likely leader in future online services. At that time, U.S. services were small and fragmented. The following year, however, the Web was invented. A few years later, Yahoo was launched, as was Amazon.com and many other U.S.-based websites that currently dominate the Internet. Because of Minitel's success, French inventors and online entrepreneurs focused their attention on a doomed system, making most of them late-comers to the Web.
Mobile Phones Must Die
To assume that cell phones will be the foundation for the mobile Internet will likely lead people down the Minitel path of doomed investments and missed opportunities with real innovations.
Telephones are ill suited for mobile Internet access for many reasons:
- Their brick-like form factor is dictated by the distance between the human ear and mouth. Design for data-rich interaction is better achieved with a less elongated form factor.
- The keypad dominates too much of the surface area. An Internet device should allocate close to 100% of its surface area to the screen to maximize the amount of information and user interface it can show.
- A numeric keypad will always be a poor device for entering anything except phone numbers.
- Multi-modal designs that integrate visual display with audio and/or voice commands are awkward because they force users to transfer the handset between the ear and a viewable location. Even the current primitive touch-tone services are painful to use on a mobile phone.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Several use a deck-of-cards form factor , including the Palm Pilot, the PocketPC, or the Blackberry. Of the three, the PocketPC may win because it allocates the biggest percentage of its area to viewable screen real estate. At the same time, the Blackberry's QWERTY keyboard is surprisingly pleasant to use compared with the poor handwriting recognition we are currently offered. Of course, future devices will likely have better handwriting recognition, and pen input will likely solve many mobile-device problems, since the pen can also be used to directly manipulate on-screen interface widgets.
How to handle voice calls? Use an ear-plug with a dangling microphone. Many cell phone users already employ this style of hands-free calling.
What about the tactile feedback of numeric keypads? Is that not a superior way of entering telephone numbers? Yes. However, in the future there will be very little need to key-in phone numbers . Almost everyone you call will likely have their number in
- your address book (which will be on the device);
- an email, with contact info in the footer;
- a web page or other Internet-accessible site; or
- a directory search that you can launch through the device's visual interface.
In each of these cases, you will simply tap the person's contact card to initiate the call. The need to manually enter 10 seemingly-random digits to make a call will be rare.
Clearly, for the future of both mobile Internet and mobile voice communication, telephones have no benefits and many downsides. The telephone has served us well for 100 years. It is time for it to go.