Sprint chases the Pokemon crowd

Japanese kids hooked on downloading ring tones and playing games have cell phone makers looking for the same success in the United States. But Sprint is rumored to be having troubles in that department.

5 min read
I came home late from a heavy round of rumor-digging this week and found my 12-year-old son Vermel huddled in a corner with the lights off.

I was initially worried, but then I saw the telltale glow in his hands. "Game Boy, eh?" I asked. "I thought you gave that up years ago."

"Don't be silly, pop," he said, straightening up and showing me the mobile phone he'd been putting together from catalog parts for the last month. "This is the future. I've got a satellite connection direct to Japan. I'm playing mini-Quake here."

Word is, Sprint PCS could use a little of that 12-year-old savvy. Skinformants tell me the cell phone company has been stumbling as it tries to build Java software that will allow it to add games and other applications to cell phones.

A key vice president in charge of the project has left the company--not long after a demonstration of the technology at the JavaOne trade show failed almost completely, attendees say. No word on where the project manager has gone, but a Sprint operator confirmed he was no longer with the company.

Like most of the other big mobile phone companies, Sprint is putting its weight behind Java as it moves toward fast Net connections for cell phones. Everybody in the business looks toward Japan, where kids with Pokemon backpacks apparently spend hours a day downloading ring tones and playing games on their phones. It doesn't happen much in the United States, but the phone companies hope that putting Java in their networks will help them offer better software and attract more customers.

Plenty of developers have popped up to provide applications, as well as the kind of back-end magic that makes all this work behind the scenes. Sprint, however, has worked to build several parts of the Java infrastructure itself, including a critical component that shuttles applications between the network and the phones.

A Sprint representative denied that the Java project was troubled, pointing me to a Web site full of tools for Java developers. I took a look at it and decided a cup of real coffee was more my style.

Piracy on the high seas?
I got a call from Darrin Etcovitch this week, who said he had recently been a DJ on the "Disney Magic" cruise ship.

I warmed to his story, especially when he let drop his place of origin--my own dear Quebec. Je me souviens! Something about his expletive-free conversation made me suspicious. But calls to Disney confirmed he was who he said.

Etcovitch had a few choice words to say about Disney's campaign against digital piracy.

Disney CEO Michael Eisner has been one of the most strident voices calling for legislation that would prevent people from copying CDs or movies and from trading them online.

But on the ships "Disney Magic" and "Disney Wonder," each owned and operated by Disney employees, Etcovitch said he and his co-workers routinely copied music. They had time in their official schedules dedicated to it and had equipment specifically set up in their studio to do it, he said. They'd used Sony MiniDisc equipment, recording from CDs to minidiscs. But people also used personal computers--either their own or the ships'--to copy music.

The staff kept a large supply of blank CDs and minidiscs on hand for this purpose, he added.

As a rumor, I figured this was pretty juicy stuff. Piracy on the high seas, back where it belonged. And right under the nose of the chief mouse himself.

"This comes as a surprise to me," said Disney Cruise spokesman Mark Jaronski, who said he'd talked to the cruise line's entertainment director. "In no way, shape, or form is that ever advocated."

Disney has a policy of creating any music mixes for its boats or theme parks at its entertainment headquarters in Florida, Jaronski added. The company scrupulously pays royalties to the appropriate licensing bodies, including the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and their international counterpart, Performing Right Society (PRS), when the ships are in international waters.

Can you say "Moo"?
On a lighter note, I was watching television this week and realized that the talking cow's voice in Gateway's new TV commercials had an uncanny resemblance to my third-grade teacher, Mr. Vine. I talked to the company to see if there was any connection (there wasn't), and why they'd made it a man in the first place--last time I checked, cows were female, while bulls were decidedly masculine, after all. Was a little gender bending happening on the farm?

Nothing so subversive, the company explained. It was simple advertising logic. Gateway had tested children, men, women and cows with British accents before settling on the male tone, a representative said.

I wondered out loud what the bovine purists would think. What were we teaching les enfants innocents? I asked. Gateway simply reminded me that most cows don't talk at all.

Museum of Greed
Finally, I discovered that a breath of history has settled into the atemporal streets of Silicon Valley's corporate parks in the form of a transient little gallery across the street from Juniper Networks, dubbed the Museum of Greed.

David Abramson's Museum of Greed Curator David Abramson, a former Juniper public relations executive, says he's dedicated to showing just how destructive corporate greed can be. It's not just a coincidence that he set up his plywood-backed exhibits--which include a $500 million bill with a Juniper executive's face on it and a 12-foot neon colored "Greed Street" sign--across the street from the successful start-up.

Abramson says he joined Juniper after a decade at 3Com on the promise that the company would contribute pre-IPO shares to charity. They did not, and he kept making a stink. Not long after the IPO, he was let go, he says. He filed a lawsuit for breach of contract, but a few weeks ago he set up his new project in hopes of shaming the company and making employees think.

"The idea is, if you would lie to your own employee...what else would you lie about?" Abramson said. "Art has a way of breaking silence and complacency."

Juniper declined to comment on Abramson's artistic endeavors.

I'm greedy too--for rumors. Send me yours.