PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

The monopoly game
August 2001

I haven’t ranted about Microsoft’s abuse of its dominant position in the PC software business much lately – the US Department of Justice did that pretty well last year, and Microsoft has been in wound-licking mode ever since. Of course, the real irony is that the whole issue of PCs as the dominant device has become clouded by the matter of the emergence of the frenzy for internet devices where connectivity has become the core concern, and where the Windows/Intel axis has been quietly sidelined by the march of ARM processors powering fancy phones and PDAs. Microsoft’s response to the DoJ problem was for Lord Bill to pop off and decide to work on something called “Hailstorm” which is an effort at monopolising information and its delivery that should make the original distraction of Bill’s effort to corner the market in Windows and web browsers seem pretty tame in comparison. 

However, information delivery across a jumble of networks may be the buzz for the get-rich-quick investment banking brigade, but most of the technology business is presently in a state of confusion, with mightily jumbled agendas caused by the unpredictability of who is getting what bandwidth these days. In other words, do you develop online services for people who are allegedly getting 500kBits downloads, or stick to the 56kBit that is almost universal. Well, actually, better make that 38kB, because when did you last see a 56k modem connect reliably at 56k..? Look at the big sites like Yahoo and see if you can guess where the big operators are laying their bets..? Correct, 28k8 is about the benchmark. We are a very long way from broadband for all, and so there is no point in developing services that require broadband unless you are prepared to find ways to be involved in the guaranteed delivery of the required broadband, because you cannot assume anything about you users’ access abilities. 

Services that make assumptions about access to broadband are pretty much kidding themselves, because reality is that reliable end to end broadband is probably 3-5 years away even in places like the US and the UK. At moments like this, I always like to remind us all that BT took around 14 years to get ISDN to anything like widespread availability, just in time to be upstaged by the hype of ADSL. And whilst the EU is keen to fiddle with most things in our lives that really count, like the measurement of bananas, the progress towards arguably more essential elements of the information age such as common telecom connectors and standards, is typically pretty much nowhere.

The one thing AOL/CompuServe has always done well is reach around the world with its dial-up network access, and I am one of the many who put up with the unpredictable speed of connection to the likes of CompuServe/AOL, for the certainty of at least some sort of connectivity whilst on the hoof. When the European hotel operators have done their best to avoid providing a suitable phone socket for guests, and I find myself using an Orange phone with IR link to access the local access node on the AOL network. Heaven knows what this is costing, because the Orange billing advisory service doesn’t work when you are overseas. However, monopolies are all very well, but cartels are even worse, because although you might imagine the cellular market is laden with competition, it appears that competition is limited to some agreed areas only, and the role of the handset makers in this needs close examination. For example, the only way you will find out what damage you have done to the bill by using the handset and the IR link to the notebook when in Spain, is “when the bill is produced” according to the Orange call centre. So before we go all weak kneed about the 3G high speed mobile phone service that promises to stream TV to you at £1 a minute (busting for that, are you?) I have a few other things for the cartels of mobile phone operators to sort out… 

  1. Phones that have interchangeable batteries and chargers. It would be a miracle if just Nokia managed to produce 2 phones that had he same attachments and chargers.
  2. A service that worked in Liverpool Street Station.
  3. A service that didn’t drop out 5 times in 20 minutes on the M25
  4. A service that displayed the call cost in real time on the display (don’t kid me that’s not possible you clowns)

The cellular operators will all bleat that they have been bled dry by paying daft sums for their 3G licenses, but I don’t care, it’s their own fault for taking too long to get into the GPRS services (2G5) that introduce the options for packet switching charges, as opposed to the outrageous circuit switching billing techniques that should have been retired with the last of the non-electronic exchanges. Many observers believe that 2G5 does 95% of what the users anticipate that will do with 3G, and it should be cheaper – as long as the operators are not allowed to subsidise their 3G follies with charges elsewhere. Cellular operators have managed to ream their subscribers for the long enough with services that don’t work reliably, and I have a suspicion that when the cellular companies start to fail, as seems likely, that the AOL/Time Warner behemoth might just be ready for the fire sale. And then we’ll have some really interesting issues of monopoly to consider that will make Microsoft’s machinations with web browsers seem like very small beer indeed.