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Crave Talk: Mobile phones aren't rocket science

If portable gadgets are speeding towards the future, how come the networks are shuffling backwards into the past?

I had a geek dream come true at the weekend. I'd borrowed a T-Mobile MDA Vario II from's mobile phone supremo Andrew Lim, so I could experience the state of the art in portable communications technology. Initially, 3G Web access worked so well that it compensated for the clumsiness of Windows Mobile. The screen and keyboard of the Vario were so good they helped me forgive the mayfly lifespan of the battery.

Things came to a zenith during Sunday lunch. There in the pub, next to the papers and a pint of Pedigree, the Earth span silently in space. I was watching live video from the cockpit of the NASA space shuttle. The video was relayed at full speed and in perfect colour via satellite, NASA HQ, the Internet and 3G. It was, by any legitimate measure, impressive.

And the most impressive part about it wasn't the global network that made the pictures available, not even the technology that had thrown the Shuttle and its occupants into orbit and was keeping them alive up there. No, the single most startling thing was that T-Mobile had let it happen.

You may not have noticed, but mobile operators hate the Internet. I used to think it was because they see it as a threat to their revenue, because it relays information much more effectively than they do for a fraction of the cost. I don't think that any more. I think it's because it highlights their cloddish idiocy.

Take those moving pictures from space. It took me one click to get to Google, eight keystrokes to enter NASA TV, and one click to choose a video stream. That was it.

The day before, I'd been at a wedding. I'd taken some pictures and a short video on the same phone and wanted to send them to friends. Much faffing later, and some of the friends had got messages with no pictures, some had got no messages at all, and I had a pile of MMSs sitting in my outbasket generating snide little errors about incompatible destinations and retries. Pictures from space to any device on the planet -- easy. Pictures from my 3G phone in Oxford to 3G phones in London -- forget it. Which bit of this equation are the mobile network operators responsible for? Correct.

But it can't be about revenue, or the operators would have at least arranged that the MMSs be transferred between networks. I'm equally baffled by T-Mobile's insistence that if I'm ill-mannered enough to use IM or VoIP on their 3G system, I'll be thrown off all my accounts. If they had working alternatives, it would still be the height of brutish closed-minded ignorance to impose such restrictions -- as it is, they're all that and an Imperial measure of stupidity heaped on top.

If anything, the basic services offered by mobile phone companies are going backwards. Last week, my son was in hospital 400 miles away and the only connection we had was text messages. He got mine, but I didn't get his -- until today, when they appeared in one big, confusing batch. I phoned him up -- he was back at work -- to find that lots of his friends and relatives had experienced the same baffling hiccough.

Text messages are around 160 bytes. I was getting the equivalent of a hundred of those every second from the Shuttle. If I'd paid for them at text message rates, I could probably have afforded to visit the flight deck myself. Yet the mobile phone companies couldn't deliver five in a week.

Until they prove they can offer the most basic services with some degree of reliability, the mobile operators do not deserve the right to tell us and regulators how unfair it is to reduce roaming rates between countries, or why data deserves to be charged at wallet-imploding levels. The technology is lovely. It's the nuts at the top that are holding the whole thing back. -Rupert Goodwins