Here are some thoughts on where I think things are going in the mobile and content space.
Several crucial shifts in technology are emerging that will drastically affect the relationship between users and technology in the near future. Wireless Internet is becoming ubiquitous and economically viable. Internet capable devices are becoming smaller and more powerful.
Alongside technological shifts, new social trends are emerging. Users are shifting their attention from packaged content to social information about location, presence and community. Tools for identity, trust, relationship management and navigating social networks are becoming more popular. Mobile communication tools are shifting away from a 1-1 model, allowing for increased many-to-many interactions; such a shift is even being used to permit new forms of democracy and citizen participation in global dialog.
While new technological and social trends are occurring, it is not without resistance, often by the developers and distributors of technology and content. In order to empower the consumer as a community member and producer, communication carriers, hardware manufacturers and content providers must understand and build models that focus less on the content and more on the relationships.
Computing started out as large mainframe computers, software developers and companies “time sharing” for slices of computing time on the large machines. The mini-computer was cheaper and smaller, allowing companies and labs to own their own computers. The mini computer allowed a much greater number of people to have access to computers and even use them in real time. The mini computer lead to a burst in software and networking technologies. In the early 80’s, the personal computer increased the number of computers by an order of magnitude and again, led to an explosion in new software and technology while lowering the cost even more. Console gaming companies proved once again that unit costs could be decreased significantly by dramatically increasing the number of units sold. Today, we have over a billion cell phones in the market. There are tens of millions camera phones. The incredible number of these devices has continued to lower the unit cost of computing as well as devices imbedded in these devices such as small cameras. High end phones have the computing power of the personal computers of the 80’s and the game consoles of the 90’s.
History repeats with WiFi
There are parallels in the history of communications and computing. In the 1980’s the technology of packet switched networks became widely deployed. Two standards competed. X.25 was a packet switched network technology being promoted by CCITT (a large, formal international standards body) and the telephone companies. It involved a system run by telephone companies including metered tariffs and multiple bilateral agreements between carriers to hook up.
Concurrently, universities and research labs were promoting TCP/IP and the Internet opportunity for loosely organized standards meetings being operated with flat rate tariffs and little or no agreements between the carriers. People just connected to the closest node and everyone agreed to freely carry traffic for others.
There were several “free Internet” services such as “The Little Garden” in San Francisco. Commercial service providers, particularly the telephone company operators such as SprintNet tried to shut down such free services by threatening not to carry this free traffic.
Eventually, large ISPs began providing high quality Internet connectivity and finally the telephone companies realized that the Internet was the dominant standard and shutdown or acquired the ISPs.
A similar trend is happening in wireless data services. GPRS is currently the dominant technology among mobile telephone carriers. GPRS allows users to transmit packets of data across the carrier network to the Internet. One can roam to other networks as long as the mobile operators have agreements with each other. Just like in the days of X.25, the system requires many bilateral agreements between the carriers; their goal is to track and bill for each packet of information.
Competing with this standard is WiFi. WiFi is just a simple wireless extension to the current Internet and many hotspots provide people with free access to the Internet in cafes and other public areas. WiFi service providers have emerged, while telephone operators –such as a T-Mobile and Vodaphone- are capitalizing on paid WiFi services. Just as with the Internet, network operators are threatening to shut down free WiFi providers, citing a violation of terms of service.
Just as with X.25, the GPRS data network and the future data networks planned by the telephone carriers (e.g. 3G) are crippled with unwieldy standards bodies, bilateral agreements, and inherently complicated and expensive plant operations.
It is clear that the simplicity of WiFi and the Internet is more efficient than the networks planned by the telephone companies. That said, the availability of low cost phones is controlled by mobile telephone carriers, their distribution networks and their subsidies.
Content vs Context
Many of the mobile telephone carriers are hoping that users will purchase branded content manufactured in Hollywood and packaged and distributed by the telephone companies using sophisticated technology to thwart copying.
Broadband in the home will always be cheaper than mobile broadband. Therefore it will be cheaper for people to download content at home and use storage devices to carry it with them rather than downloading or viewing content over a mobile phone network. Most entertainment content is not so time sensitive that it requires real time network access.
The mobile carriers are making the same mistake that many of the network service providers made in the 80s. Consider Delphi, a joint venture between IBM and Sears Roebuck. Delphi assumed that branded content was going to be the main use of their system and designed the architecture of the network to provide users with such content. Conversely, the users ended up using primary email and communications and the system failed to provide such services effectively due to the mis-design.
Similarly, it is clear that mobile computing is about communication. Not only are mobile phones being used for 1-1 communications, as expected through voice conversations; people are learning new forms of communication because of SMS, email and presence technologies. Often, the value of these communication processes is the transmission of “state” or “context” information; the content of the messages are less important.
Copyright and the Creative Commons
In addition to the constant flow of traffic keeping groups of people in touch with each other, significant changes are emerging in multimedia creation and sharing. The low cost of cameras and the nearly television studio quality capability of personal computers has caused an explosion in the number and quality of content being created by amateurs. Not only is this content easier to develop, people are using the power of weblogs and phones to distribute their creations to others.
The network providers and many of the hardware providers are trying to build systems that make it difficult for users to share and manipulate multimedia content. Such regulation drastically stifles the users’ ability to produce, share and communicate. This is particularly surprising given that such activities are considered the primary “killer application” for networks.
It may seem unintuitive to argue that packaged commercial content can co-exist alongside consumer content while concurrently stimulating content creation and sharing. In order to understand how this can work, it is crucial to understand how the current system of copyright is broken and can be fixed.
First of all, copyright in the multimedia digital age is inherently broken. Historically, copyright works because it is difficult to copy or edit works and because only few people produce new works over a very long period of time. Today, technology allows us to find, sample, edit and share very quickly. The problem is that the current notion of copyright is not capable of addressing the complexity and the speed of what technology enables artists to create. Large copyright holders, notably Hollywood studios, have aggressively extended and strengthened their copyright protections to try to keep the ability to produce and distribute creative works in the realm of large corporations.
Hollywood asserts, “all rights reserved” on works that they own. Sampling music, having a TV show running in the background in a movie scene or quoting lyrics to a song in a book about the history of music all require payment to and a negotiation with the copyright holder. Even though the Internet makes available a wide palette of wonderful works based on content from all over the world, the current copyright practices forbid most of such creation.
However, most artists are happy to have their music sampled if they receive attribution. Most writers are happy to be quoted or have their books copied for non-commercial use. Most creators of content realize that all content builds on the past and the ability for people to build on what one has created is a natural and extremely important part of the creative process.
Creative Commons tries to give artists that choice. By providing a more flexible copyright than the standards “all rights reserved” copyright of commercial content providers, Creative Commons allows artists to set a variety of rights to their works. This includes the ability to reuse for commercial use, copy, sample, require attribution, etc. Such an approach allows artists to decide how their work can be used, while providing people with the materials necessary for increased creation and sharing.
Creative Commons also provides for a way to make the copyright of pieces of content machine-readable. This means that a search engine or other tool to manipulate content is able to read the copyright. As such, an artist can search for songs, images and text to use while having the information to provide the necessary attribution.
Creative Commons can co-exist with the stringent copyright regimes of the Hollywood studios while allowing professional and amateur artists to take more control of how much they want their works to be shared and integrated into the commons. Until copyright law itself is fundamentally changed, the Creative Commons will provide an essential tool to provide an alternative to the completely inflexible copyright of commercial content.
Content is not like some lump of gold to be horded and owned which diminishes in value each time it is shared. Content is a foundation upon which community and relationships are formed. Content is the foundation for culture. We must evolve beyond the current copyright regime that was developed in a world where the creation and transmission of content was unwieldy and expense, reserved to those privileged artists who were funded by commercial enterprises. This will provide the emerging wireless networks and mobile devices with the freedom necessary for them to become the community building tools of sharing that is their destiny.