Our friends here in Australia are by and large not Internet Visionaries or Serial Entrepreneurs or Multimedia Wizards; they’re ordinary people with ordinary jobs; not only are they good people and good company, but for me educational since I’m getting a civilian’s-eye view of the technosphere.
To start with, they think broadband is expensive, and to the extent they really need it they can get it at work; so homes are WiFi-free and a lot of Internet is still dial-up. Since this doesn’t work for me, I’ve been taking the train into town to plug in (I recommend eLounge on Elizabeth street, pretty well right across from the Flinders Street station).
This isn’t an “Internet Café” really; it’s high-quality connectivity paid by the hour for people who need it, sitting in rows of booths. So it’s quiet and intense. I eavesdrop shamelessly on my neighbour’s screens. One guy is reading a lengthy profile of the handsome owner/chef of a Northern California restaurant. A woman is emailing: “Been too long miss you bubs”. Another is taking notes from a list entitled “What We Look For In An Employee”. An all-male trio is looking for a place to stay for a few months in Amsterdam. At any one time, one person is pounding text into the Net for every two or so that are reading. Everybody is working through their browser; nobody is working any other way.
We all know that, all over the world, huge numbers of people are facing the Net, pushing and pulling bits and pictures and words and dreams; but in this room you can really feel it happen, it’s not too hard to multiply the scene by a few hundred thousand in your mind.
I get to and from the Net joint by train. The stations and tracks are from the Nineteenth Century, but most of the trains themselves are pretty modern, and the system for selling and checking tickets is unobtrusively automated, Just Works.
A city with a comprehensive train network is better than one without; Vancouver falls short on this, and while we’re working on it (noisily and disruptively, in my neighborhood) we’ll never catch up with the sunk investment, probably worth tens of billions in today’s money, enjoyed by places like Melbourne.
It’s OK to be a Pod Person on a train. When you’re motionless in a public place among strangers, retreating into the music seems civilized; a row of airplane seats though creates a semiprivate space where conversation may be in order.
Some of the people on the train just sit and stare. A few read, everything from serious books to the cheery/trashy commuter tabloid. Others are Pod People. Others text; I’ve gotten comfy with texting on this trip, since using my Canadian mobile for conversation is unreliable and expensive. I have to wonder, though, why every, repeat every, mobile device doesn’t come with a Gaim client.
Are all these people riding the trains potential iPhone customers? I don’t think so, because they’re just not gonna pay hundreds of dollars on top of their regular phone bills; and I don’t see any reason why an ordinary mobile phone shouldn’t be able to do most of the groovy iPhone stuff using mostly the current architecture on the current network.
The big barrier holding back today’s mobile devices from being what they have the potential to be isn’t the network technology or the battery technology or the handset technology, it’s the narrow vision of the network operators, who think they come out ahead by owning the whole relationship.
Of course, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the iPhone will have open APIs that let me write code that makes phone calls and opens arbitrary Net connections and does anything with the handset/cell-net/Internet combo that I can imagine. But I have trouble seeing Cingular going there.
Yes, in case it’s not obvious, I think the network operators ought to open the devices and open the APIs and open the network and specialize in bandwidth-provisioning and billing and just bloody well get out of the way. The Net would be more useful and they’d make more money.