Technology for technology's sake?

In an announcement about its latest Web-enabled PDA platform, one big consultancy chose an interesting example of how it might be...

In an announcement about its latest Web-enabled PDA platform, one big consultancy chose an interesting example of how it might be used - e-wardrobes for women.

Patrick Bossert

Opinion

The argument goes like this: you are out shopping and see a fuchsia pink top you like. You consult your PDA and find, oh, you already have four of those. Never mind, what about this pistachio one? Will it match those cornflower-blue trousers you have? Why, yes. That is in the bag then.

Did the consultancy really think this might be useful? The unanimous response from women when presented with this scenario is that, even if they cannot remember which day of the week it is, they still know what is in their wardrobe. That particular consultancy recently changed its name, maybe out of embarrassment.

This prompted further research and, the story is usually the same: technologists (usually male) dreaming up scenarios of how their technology might be used by stereotyped non-technology-savvy people (usually female). There has been a rush by several companies, including Electrolux, Merloni, Matsushita and LG, to develop Web-enabled kitchen appliances. I am an avid user of innovative technology, but what use is it in my kitchen?

The bloke who thought the CD tray on his office PC was a cup-holder should be the user technologists test their visions out on. The gulf between technology marketing and what it delivers seems to be widening all the time, a problem illustrated all too well by the failure of Wap to catch on. The media and the manufacturers were both stung by their own wish-fulfilment, with little other than share trading, banking and football results featuring as interesting applications.

The thing is that Wap did exactly what it claimed it would do - there was nothing wrong with the technology, but a lot wrong with its application. And now it is happening with GPRS (2.5G) and UMTS (3G), the next two significant generations of mobile technology. However, this time even the claims being made about the technology are potentially misleading.

GPRS makes clever use of the GSM masts and frequencies so that they can manage data in a packet-based format instead of holding a dedicated circuit open for each connection. The claim for GPRS is that you get a 171kbps always-on, session-managed connection to the Internet, which will give you ISDN-2-like videoconferencing capability and more. Sounds good? Look behind the claims and the estimated actual throughput will be20-30kbps (see www. gprsworld.com) which is less than an ordinary modem and enough for, well, ordinary Web browsing.

So, prepare yourself for many more years of consumer confusion and disillusionment.

There are similar issues with most ADSL services - BT Openworld is not truly broadband at 512kbps. Microwave cellular and digital cable broadband roll-outs offer little more. Some services can be upgraded in the future, but nobody will commit to specific dates. NTT DoCoMo will soon add iMode to the mix.

The DoCoMo handheld devices will soon offer iMode-hosted Tamagotchis that link with with Sony Playstation games. But perhaps that's where the Japanese have found a true mobile killer app for the mass market.

patrick.bossert@kpmg.co.uk is head of e-strategy, at KPMG Consulting

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