'Content is starting to eat itself'

Arthur Goldstuck’s new book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Going Wireless, delves into wireless communication in South Africa. As the head of the World Wide Worx research organisation, which studies mobile communications, he answered 10 questions for the Mail & Guardian Online about the book, issues relating to wireless communication and his favourite gadgets.

1. Why did you write this book? What do you want readers to do with it?
Anyone who is trying to get more out of their mobile technologies and wireless technologies [would buy or read this book]—if you bought a phone or a laptop and want to make it more productive; or anyone who wants to buy a phone, or a laptop, or a PDA [personal digital assistant], but doesn’t have a clue where to start. 

In the same way as I did in [my previous book] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet, [I put in some history] to understand what technology can do; it is incredibly useful to know where it came from.
People tend to be alienated by the sudden arrival of seemingly dramatically advanced high-tech. 

Just to put it in context: it’s been a long time coming. In fact, the first cellphone technology emerged in the late 1940s, but the first cellphone was produced in the early 1970s and only in the 1990s the cellphone arrived in our hands.

That gives you a clue to the fact that it’s all not so dramatic. The impact is big, but the arrival hasn’t been as sudden as we tend to imagine.

2. In your book you say: “It is highly likely that even 3G will not set the market alight in the first year of its availability in South Africa.” Can you give a reason for this? Will 3G ever set the South African market alight?
It [3G] is very expensive and not very reliable in terms of strength and availability of signal. It is in the early stages of its roll-out; it has only been around for a year. Brand-new communication technology can’t be expected to take the market by storm if it requires a high earning base and high levels of literacy as well as access to associated technology like laptop computers.

3G in itself doesn’t enhance the cellphone experience, but it can eventually enhance the internet experience. In a three- to five-year time span, we might see 3G becoming a standard tool that is accessible to most users. This does depend, of course, on there being a reason to use it in the first place. There is no point in technology for its own sake.

3. What do South Africans want or need when it comes to wireless?
They want to be more effective in their communications. As simple as that. It is the same all over the world. Individuals will say they want to be able to work from a coffee shop, but that still falls under the same comment. Almost any use you can think of for wireless will fall under that description.

4. Can you explain the biggest problem around wireless internet in South Africa?
Infrastructure is probably the biggest issue. Over time it will be overcome, but it does require investment in resources and expertise, both short-term and long-term.

It’s like internet access: it is now available almost everywhere in South Africa where there is a phone line or a mobile network. Ten years ago, access was an issue that had to be addressed, access was limited and there was room for a guide that said where you can get an internet connection. Today there is no point in that. We are at the same stage with wireless technology. Right now, it is useful to have a directory of hot spots. But in five or 10 years’ time, it will be pointless, because hot spots will be everywhere.

5. What about the security, cost and speed of wireless internet?
For the security of data, one has to take basic precautions. As hot spots become pervasive, hackers will start looking for ways of hijacking people’s data.

It will be an arms race between software developers and hackers in terms of creating safety for users and hackers trying to break through. But generally speaking, the old rules apply. You have to keep anti-virus and firewall software up to date.

And on the phone, with a 3G phone in particular, you must check the security precautions available for your specific phone. The one element that is already a threat is Bluejacking. But that requires simple common sense. You get a Bluetooth request and common sense is just to not accept it [the invitation].

Cost is a major issue in going wireless; 3G as well as others are still expensive. In the wireless world, speed comes at a premium, which is justified only by business benefit. For the ordinary user, the costs of a simple wireless connection are not justified.

Speed is there, some of the times on some of the networks. 3G doesn’t give you the speed it promises. On the other networks, you have to pay for a faster connection. In the next couple of years, speed is no longer an issue.

There is a new technology called WiMax that allows for speeds of up to 70 megabits per second. Future versions will be even faster. It is as close as you can get to real-time communication: being streamed from a video server somewhere, videoconferences that are of TV broadcast quality; and software downloads that are instant. It will make a huge difference on what we can do on our computer.

6. Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or WiMax? What should the consumer choose?
Wi-Fi has a longer range, up to 100m. If you put a few Wi-Fi access points, for example, in a hotel lobby, the entire hotel lobby area becomes a Wi-Fi [hot spot]. You can put them on each floor and the entire hotel becomes a Wi-Fi [hot spot]. It is relatively inexpensive compared to previous equivalent forms of providing high-speed internet access.

Bluetooth works best on a cellphone and Wi-Fi works best on a laptop. From Bluetooth to Wi-Fi is another order of magnitude, from 10m to 100m. But WiMax is of another magnitude, it goes from 100m up to a 30km radius to access high-speed internet.

Wi-Fi is a connectivity tool, where WiMax is more a communications tool.

It remains to be seen [if WiMax will overtake Wi-Fi]; Wi-Fi may become the backbone for WiMax hot spots.

If individuals are allowed to connect to a WiMax network in an unlimited way, then Wi-Fi can well become redundant. Chances are the two will co-exist, but maybe Wi-Fi will give way to something even newer. It takes a long time for technology to disappear, especially when it has a significant uptake.

7. Why don’t you expect computers themselves to disappear into the cellphone? Will there forever be two separate devices? Don’t you want a cellphone with camera, MP3, DVD, CD writer, e-mail, internet, Bluetooth and the likes?
It is not about two separate devices, but two separate purposes that don’t work together. A computer is a working tool, it’s a workstation. Your cellphone is a communications tool. You can’t carry a computer around with you. You can’t manipulate spreadsheets on a cellphone. It is as simple as that.

It is not a question of what can be invented; the question is what you use it for. You don’t want to produce lengthy articles on a cellphone screen.

All the attempts to make a cellphone or a PDA behave like a computer are very short-term adaptations: like plugging a portable keyboard into your PDA or cellphone.

What I do expect to see is far greater interoperability and interaction between cellphones and computers, so that we can effortlessly move content and communications from one to the other.

8. The book features a couple of guest writers, like Simon Camerer, the marketing executive of Cell C. Do you share his vision of the future of mobile technology in South Africa? (He predicts a 2010 Soccer World Cup experience where one buys an online ticket to go to a game, a handset gives one the right route, there are “find parking messages” and video streaming on car-park safety, an MMS that contains one’s ticket and so forth.)
The reason that this chapter is in the book is because it is such a compelling vision on the one hand but also such a natural outcome of what is developing right now in communications technology. The question mark over that vision relates not to a technology but to the willingness of the people on the ground [organisers of such events] to embrace the vision.

This is already possible. It improves organisation, it improves the movement of people in traffic and it increases security. Members of the public will use this because it makes their life easier.

The key is that it must all work seamlessly. Think of something like buying a plane ticket online and then choosing an electronic ticket. All you have to do is go to the check-in counter and give them your reference number. And it works. Why shouldn’t it [the World Soccer Cup example] work? It all depends on what organisations want to do, how they want to utilise technology for their customers’ benefit.

9. Don’t you think that there eventually will be an information overload with all the SMS possibilities you promote in your book? Do we really want all of this? And what will the impact on South Africa be?
Firstly, there already is an information overload. The purpose of reviewing all the possibilities in my book is not to promote them, but to explain where they fit in and to give a picture of what is available at the moment.

I fully agree we don’t need all of this as individuals, but every individual has different needs and acquirements and will choose the information that they want out of them.

A lot of people think they are now incredibly well informed, when all they really have is more useless information than the next person.

But on a serious note, it means that as time goes by, more and more people will have more and more choices in accessing information. It is a good thing for the individual, but it becomes a complex issue for content-based organisations like newspapers. They have to fight even harder for people’s attention.

I remember a band in the Eighties or Nineties called Pop Will Eat Itself; that title was very appropriate and it’s very relevant to the content world, because what I see now is content starting to eat itself.

We have all the news media trying to create content channels for cellphones that will end up undermining the ability of the core media platforms like newspapers to attract readers’ attention.

The Mail & Guardian has always been a special animal in this regard. What they [other core media platforms] have to work towards is the technique the M&G Online perfected in the Nineties: to use online media to enhance and market the print product. It was always treated as the poor relation by management, but it was probably instrumental in sustaining the brand M&G.

10. With what kind of gadgetry do you have a love affair?
My absolute favourite technology, and the one that still dazzles me, is the USB drive; because it allows for instantaneous backing up, copying and moving of data from one device to another.

Wireless gives you the transferring ability without the backing-up ability. Laptops give you the mobility without the portability: you can’t stick it in your jeans pocket and you can’t run around with it. Every computer has a USB drive and no USB drive today needs any setting up. It just works.

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