MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Making sense of wireless at Las Vegas convention

April 6, 2005
LAS VEGAS – Just took a quick stroll around the exhibition floor of CTIA Wireless 2006, one those conventions that couldn’t draw flies a decade ago, yet today attracts nearly 1,000 exhibitors and more than 35,000 attendees from 90 countries. Having covered an alphabet soup of conventions – from NAB and CES, to NATPE to VSDA – I thought this one would be little different than the others: a mix of old and new, with distinguishable product lines and interesting gadgets.
I came away more confused about the future of telecommunications than ever. The cacophony of signage, unfamiliar brands and techno-garble was overwhelming, but that’s par for the course at these shows. It was the palpable smell of consumer blood in the air that unnerved me most.
Anyone in the general vicinity of Hollywood knows that studio executives have begun to salivate over the potential for miniaturizing their products and sending them out for viewing on a screen about the size of a commemorative postage stamp from Cameroon.
Downloading music and audio-books to an iPod is a logical extension of listening to baseball games on a transistor radio. Be able to download TV shows and movies to an iPod, with any hope of retaining some sort of aesthetic integrity, is a fool’s dream. It demonstrates, once again, in how little regard the industry holds its intellectual properties.
But, the profit potential is endless. And, thanks to a compliant media – which, this week, bally-hooded Disney’s not-so-new idea for branded cellphones with parental controls – the content providers are guaranteed a free pass for years. The it’s-so-cool factor is so much easier to cover than the economic realities of progress. The continuing soap opera surrounding the launch of high-definition DVD is proof that gee-whiz gets the headlines, while postponements and price points are buried in the briefs.
If the CTIA gathering more closely resembles a gathering of car dealers than other such techno-centric events, maybe it’s because the product lines have names that would be ruled out in any game of scrabble. Who were all these companies, and what were they selling, anyway? Their prefixes and suffixes in the names offered few clues. Dozens of companies began with micro-, mobile- or digi-, while countless others ended in –cell, -less, and –tel, which leads us to believe that they’re dealing small objects. All offered “solutions,” “capacity” and “flexibility” to problems so obscure we probably wouldn’t notice if we dropped our Blackberry and stepped on one.
A century ago, automakers bestowed the names of their designers or founders to their product divisions. In the ’50s and ’60s, new models were required to live up to such names as Mustang, Impala, Firebird, Cobra, Thunderbird, Barracuda, Charger, Caprice, Bonneville, Sebring. Eldorado, Daytona, New Yorker … Edsel (OK, some didn’t). When Japanese automakers began to dominate the international market, the legend goes, they struggled to find words that had no meaning in any language — Celica, Camry, Altima, Integra — so as not to offend anyone by accident, and their American counterparts followed suit with Alero, Lumina, Reatta and Achieva.
It didn’t matter all that much, as most the cars shared similarly boxy looks, chassis, engine blocks, prices and warranties. Only obsessive consumers took the time to learn the difference.
The computer industry followed suit, with products that had meaningless names and incomprehensible technology. Only someone very learned could precisely parse the difference between Mac and IBM, let alone Dell and Compaq. Consumers looking only for an affordable and reliable appliance that could be used to connect them to the Internet, retrieve e-mail, play solitaire and download porn, often walked out of the local Best Buy with a system powerful enough to service most small businesses.
Unlike the even-larger Consumer Electronics Show, held each January on these same floors, the tens of thousands of geeks in attendance at CTIA weren’t as much interested learning the practical applications for such technology, as finding the ghosts in the machines and turning them into their personal slaves.
Wireless technology offers convenience, portability and instantaneous communication. The practical applications range from receiving phone calls and listening to hit songs, to watching “Desperate Housewives” on the subway and being permanently yoked to one’s employer, spouse or kids, no matter where they are on Earth. There are many more uses, of course, but what will make money in the future is what made money in the past: connecting customers to the Internet, retrieving e-mail, playing solitaire and downloading porn. Here, however, the house advantage belongs to many of the same service providers, who, until consumers got savvy, charged their customers extravagant fees for going over their allotted minutes-per-month.
For around $30 a month, home-bound customers can get unlimited access to the Internet and everything that links to it. One can play poker for hours, and not pay an additional cent for the privilege. Try that on a portable device, while on a cruise, and you’d better subscribe to a wireless service provider that offers unlimited access for a flat fee. Typically, though, consumers won’t recognize the best service package for their individual needs until they exceed the limits of the one they were sold.
As I type this entry in my hotel room here, I’m paying $12 a day to Cox for unlimited wireless Internet access. If I need to log in at the airport on the way home, and there’s a flight delay, I might be able to get away with a similar tariff from the facility’s in-house provider, but, a la carte, it’s something like $9 an hour.
Wouldn’t it be great if our home wireless providers were accessible wherever we went … or remote fees were fixed and common throughout the industry? Sure, but that’s not going to happen any time soon.
Conveniently, representatives of the FCC were on hand at CTIA, ostensibly to show their concern for the issues facing companies represented at the convention, as well as consumers. The agency tends to wave the flag at NAB, also held here in April.
Judging from headlines made recently out of FCC statements and actions, though, the commissioners are as clueless on how to protect Americans against abuses as everyone else. They’re pushing consumers kicking and screaming into the digital age, while obsessing over political footballs left over from the analog era.
It took the FCC three years to come to an agreement on how much to fine CBS for Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nipple slip. A postcard campaign orchestrated by right-wing conservatives, who tune into radio shows only to get offended, still trumps action over such issues as payola and media conglomeration. This week, the new leader of the FCC urged owners of huge newspaper chains to lobby their customers over the issue of cross-ownership, so he has a good reason to revive plans to turn our newspapers, airwaves and Internet into one giant phone company.
If the FCC thinks a lot on its plate in 2006, wait until nano-technology becomes a reality and some company no one’s ever heard of suggests that chips – or whatever the hell other technology comes along – be implanted in all children at birth. This will eliminate the need for any hardware, whatsoever, and allow the government to track a citizen’s every step and thought. Cool, huh?
More from CTIA, later … — G.D.

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon