Tuesday, September 24, 2002
On mobile communication
Brian Micklethwait of Samizdata writes:
I recently visited my sister Daphne and her husband Denis in western Wales. On the train from Swansea to Carmarthen I sat next to a mobile phone addict. Annoying, you may be thinking. A rant against mobile phones, you may be expecting. "I'm on a train. I am due to arrive at Carmarthen in seven and a quarter minutes, see you then. I am due in four and three quarter minutes, because we've been slightly delayed, see you then or soon after." - etc. But it was nothing like that. The guy was running an entire business from his train seat. He was responsible, it seemed, for about half a dozen building sites scattered all over the south of England, and to solve the various problems that were continually arising he had only so many good people, a few of whom were not at all eager to be doing any more work late on a Friday afternoon and had to be soothed and bribed. Thousands of pounds of work, if not tens of thousands, were being done from an office the guy kept in his pocket.
Much is made of the economic impact of the Internet, and this is now big and and will be more so. The application of computers in general to business in general proceeds rapidly. But one of the great economic success stories of the last decade has been the humble mobile phone, especially when applied by people without settled offices, and in countries without previously functioning phone systems. Getting mobile phones to work is not easy and involves much planting of spikes in the countryside, but it's a lot easier than putting wires and switching stations everywhere and keeping all that going without interruption. (Besides which, the Internet started to work even better when that too became pluggable into mobile phone sockets.)
I've read about the economics of mobile phones in books, and I recall reading newspaper reports about how mobile phones, although still then quite expensive, made the reconstruction of - and reintegration into civilisation of - East Berlin after the Wall had come down, a lot easier. One mobile in an Indian village entirely changes the rules of the bargaining war between rural farmers and the big crop buyers, because suddenly the village knows what others are getting for their crops. It's not only drug-dealers who use these things. But reading a book or newspaper is one thing; sitting next to the thing and actually listening to it is something else again, and this was the first time I'd really done this. (All the previous times it was idiot suburbanites telling each other they'd meet in four and three quarter minutes.)
I told brother-in-law Denis about this and he offered a recollection of being out with his son-the-BA-airline-pilot and a friend of his son-the-BA-airline-pilot who was a biggish cheese in the then struggling to emerge Ryanair. I think it was Ryanair; maybe one of the other cheap and cheerful airlines. Anyway, this guy was sitting at the restaurant deciding which airplanes should go where. ("Take 135 to Frankfurt, and divert 133 to Edinburgh, and then use 133 to do F52554, instead of the dodgy one, which can stay in Edinburgh where the maintenance people know it better, etc. etc. etc.".) That's somewhat off my main point, but since it was transport related...
So, getting back to my point, which is mobiles used on transport rather than merely to organise transport from a fixed spot ...: A particular form of transport isn't just nice because it's cheap or fast or comfortable; it's also nice if you can continue to communicate easily with the outside world while using it, in other words if you can continue with your life. The battles about drivers or airline passengers using mobiles are not trivial. That tube trains don't allow mobile communication if in their tubes, ditto. (Will that ever change? Do tube systems beyond London allow mobiles to be used from within the tubes?) [I thought it was because radio waves can't penetrate the tunnels. Mind you I suppose that is an argument for base stations (or whatever they're called) in tunnels - Ed]
But maybe, in the trains where you can use portables, there should be mobile and non-mobile compartments. So to speak.
PS: When I was polishing this I went all through it eliminating the earlier word "portable" and replacing it with more recent "mobile". An interesting nuance. Portability is effort. Mobility is automatic. When will portable but still serious computers, of the kind that don't oblige you to have another real one back at base, finally make it to "mobile"?