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.



Contributions

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From: Melburnian (Jan 11 2007, at 17:41)

Fascinating as a resident of Melbourne to see the city through your eyes... The privatised Melbourne train and public transport system is widely despised, endemic refusal to purchase tickets met by the appointment of large numbers of jack-booted thug-like ticket inspectors. Privatised to two seperate companies who bought two different types of trains, one company since reneged and sold out, the other one still runs at a loss and is reimbursed by the government. For the majority of Melbourne's 3 million, the one true god is the private motorcar.

Home broadband here is a joke, download and upload limits, expensive, and "service providers" who either massively charge once you're over your monthly limit or throttle you back to dial-up speeds. Software developers in the US/Canadia don't seem to get it and just keep on writing packages that expect 100% connectivity, low latency, and infinite bandwidth.

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From: David Coldrick (Jan 11 2007, at 20:58)

Don't agree with you on the iPhone thing, Tim. I recently started using an iMate Jasjam that came free with an $80 contract with Telstra, as have several of my mates at Sun. And the jasjam costs about as much in aus$ as the iPhone costs in USD. So I imagine that the iPhone will become available in the same way.

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From: Paul Kopacz (Jan 12 2007, at 04:40)

It seems that you are not wrong:

http://apple.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=07/01/12/0430200

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From: PJ (Jan 12 2007, at 07:48)

> 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.

See http://www.openmoko.com/. Release date is currently February.

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From: William Newman (Jan 12 2007, at 12:37)

I agree the providers "should" get out of the way and people would make more money, but I see two problems.

First, even when it really is in their interest, it can be hard to convince people that it's a win to stop screwing the other guy . With open competition, price discrimination is often not a win, but a businessman who can see how he's screwing the customer can be hard to convince. (Similarly, a customer who delights in how a policy screws businesspeople can be hard to convince that in fact it turns out to be bad for customers too; see, e.g., various flavors of price controls.)

Second, it's not necessarily in their interest. In an openly competitive market, it is generally unwise to try to price discriminate very much, since it takes only a small minority of price nondiscriminators to drive home that price discrimination is a bad idea by eating everyone else's lunch in progressively larger niches. In noncompetitive markets, though, this doesn't hold. With enough barriers to entry (or in some other cases, like under the weird cross-cutting incentives for universities who get much of their income not from tuition prices but from grants and alumni donations) price discrimination can be a stably successful strategy.

My (casual, somewhat dated) impression is that long-haul telecom is sufficiently open that price discrimination mostly won't be stable (except perhaps to the extent that it]s imposed by law, e.g., fixed taxes on services like voice communication), but that the last mile is not sufficiently open, and price discrimination can flourish there. It still seems to be the case that very few firms enter the last mile business, even in niches, or perhaps "especially in niches": it's so much fun having to make your niche service so exactly like the existing service that you comply with lovingly crafted regulations on a zillion things like 911. It will be interesting to see whether in the last mile the relative carte blanche for active regulation in the public interest will be sufficient to make your dream come true. As a basically-libertarian (and as an ex-Nortel-er, so that I got to hear even from nonlibertarians that "our customers' core competence is lobbying") my triple guess is that (1) sadly, we'll continue to see lots of price discrimination and that (2) ever so inexplicably, it will recognizably be stronger in heavily regulated last mile than in long-haul, and (3) I'm only slightly more likely to get rich by investing in an upstart last-mile telecom firm than I am by investing in an upstart medical professional certification association to compete with the AMA. But alternatively, hopefully I can remain openminded enough that when events prove me wrong I will learn something...

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From: Ben Finney (Jan 13 2007, at 20:05)

I'm a regular commuter on Melbourne's public transport system. I'm glad for the mix of (mostly) polite fellow travellers, and don't begrudge any of them their distraction of choice.

So long, of course, as they're not intruding their distraction into my mental space. The Pod People are all well and good, but a great many of them have the volume turned up loud enough so that it scratches at my attention. I find this to be *far* more irritating than, say, a couple laughing together, or someone talking loudly on a mobile phone.

The thing that sets the Pod Person apart from the loud talkers is that they are apparently oblivious of their noise. Those headphones that do such a good job of putting nice noises into your ears do so at the expense of screechy, tinny treble noises cast into the air all around you. This is exacerbated by the fact that most Pod People have steppend onto the vehicle from a much noiser environment, where they have turned the volume up to compensate, and then don't consider their quieter surroundings when they get on board.

While many Pod People don't have their volume turned up so it's in my ears, many do; and while many of those will turn it down if asked politely, the majority are far enough away that I can't even see them, let alone positively identify which one it is.

It's nice for you that you can isolate yourself in a private audio environment; please make sure, though, that it *is* private, especially when transitioning from one environment to another.

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From: Denton (Jan 14 2007, at 21:53)

Although I spend most of my year in Austin, TX, my wife is from Melbourne. I've probably walked by that lounge a dozen times (CBD Melbourne), but haven't stopped there. I agree - Aussie's won't be fighting each other to get at the iPhone. Your description of the internet access there is apt, too. Strangely, though, I don't quite miss it when I'm there. I think you're on holiday down there now - I doubt you're missing the wifi/hispeed at the moment ;p

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From: Aidan Kehoe (Jan 17 2007, at 09:08)

<i>I have to wonder, though, why every, repeat every, mobile device doesn’t come with a Gaim client.</i>

For lots of the world, that’s like asking why no IM client does SMS. In some markets, SMS was cheapest and most available first; in North America, IM had that spot.

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From: Matt Estes (Jan 25 2007, at 01:15)

I agree entirely about opening the mobile phone networks. I'm currently working for a company developing a niche app for the utility industry for field work. The biggest thing holding us back has been finding a phone/JVM combo that works for our needs. So far, we're just running it on a PDA until we can find a phone that works.

While the market for our app is not huge(maybe 5000 power utilities in the US), I can imagine the combined market for similar vertical apps is huge(especially considering the "first mover" to open up would probably get all the cell phone business from small and mid sized companies using such vertical apps).

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