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A number of small companies also had great ideas but were too early to market and have since departed the ranks of the wireless industry

What Could Have Been

Monday, August 27, 2007

I wonder what the wireless world would be like today if some of the products and services that were launched too soon and failed, or were never launched at all, were introduced today? As an example, a few years ago, we were hired by Intel to present our ideas on "active content"―content that is smart enough to retrieve information for us without having to use a browser and search for it ourselves. One of my partners, Barney Dewey, and I in a half-day consulting session presented and discussed our ideas with an Intel team based in Portland, Oregon.


A few months later, we were asked to attend another meeting of this group and they showed us what they had developed. They had taken our ideas, refined them and added some really interesting twists specifically designed for the corporate world. The demo they presented was based on a flight from Portland to San Jose. The flight was cancelled, the traveler was notified on his phone and a list of alternate flights was presented to him. These flights all met the Intel criteria for flight costs. He selected a new flight, it was booked in the background and then an email was sent to his customer, his admin and to Hertz to inform each of them that he was on a different flight, his new arrival and the time he was expected to be at the customer's location.


Needless to say, we were really impressed with what they had done in such a short period of time. However, the "powers that be" at Intel at the time did not see the value in what this group had developed, asking how it would sell more chips. The group tried to find outside funding or a way to spin the product and code off but were unsuccessful and, as far as I know, somewhere within Intel's Portland facility, this code still is sitting on someone's desktop computer going to waste.


Next on my list is the joint venture between Microsoft and Qualcomm that was called Wireless Knowledge. Wireless Knowledge was charged with empowering corporate America with wireless access including secure wireless access to their own information, email and applications. At the time the company was founded (August 7, 2000), wireless networks were not capable of the data speeds we have today, nor did we have the choice of devices and security software we have today. Wireless Knowledge fought a valiant fight, re-invented itself a couple of times and then quietly disappeared. I have to wonder what would have happened if it had been launched in August 2006 instead of August 2000.


Then there was the telematics venture between Qualcomm and Ford Motor Company that was begun in July 2000. Called Wingcast, it was to become a comprehensive provider of telematics services to global consumers. The press release stated, "The new company will work with the leading industry hardware, software and content providers to offer state-of-the-art, in-vehicle applications to consumers." This venture burned through an undisclosed amount of cash and then faded into the background. In today's market with OnStar available only in GM vehicles moving forward, this too could have been a great opportunity had the technology we have today been in place.


A number of small companies also had great ideas but were too early to market and have since departed the ranks of the wireless industry. And then there are the data-only networks that were in place starting in the early 1990s: RAM Mobile Data, ARDIS and CDPD running on cellular networks. All three networks had slow data speeds but were able to efficiently deliver email, work orders and other information to field forces in text form. Unfortunately, they were early to the market and they did not realize how important voice is when it comes to making money. However, one bright spot in all of this was the invention of the BlackBerry by RIM. It ran first on the RAM network and later on ARDIS as well. While it was probably launched too early, it did change the wireless world and how we receive our email wirelessly today, and there can be no doubt that RIM has become a very successful company.


Why all this nostalgia? I guess it is because there is a new generation of companies coming on the scene and more great minds coming up with new ideas to make wireless better, easier to use, expand the capabilities of what we have today and business models are once again changing. Regardless of whether Sprint and Clearwire will be successful with their WiMAX deployment (the jury is still out), their ideas about how to bill customers will stick in this industry. It won't be long until billing is tied to the individual and not the device.


It doesn't matter who wins the 700-MHz auctions in January, the outcome will change our wireless world forever, and the Internet and wireless will become even more entwined. Personally, I don't think that is a good thing. I believe that if the visions of the companies I mentioned had caught on and succeeded, people would understand that it is not about searching or surfing, it is about quickly and easily accessing information.


There are many pioneers out there still, and I hope most of them succeed. But I also hope that those who think of wireless as becoming simply an extension of the Internet, and everything that implies, will realize that there are better ways to get to the information and entertainment we want and need.


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