Untethered angst

As providers do everything they can to make sure your cell phone becomes a product-shilling device of the first order, CNET News.com's Ben Heskett asks if this is what the supposed wireless revolution has wrought.

3 min read
The flyer promoting the "New NSync Hotline Fantasy Phone and CD-ROM game" sits on my desk, mocking me.

It seems kids can now use a phone--it is unclear whether it has a real connection to a network or just plays preprogrammed voices--to listen to the voices of their favorite teen pop stars of the moment. The point, however, is clear: Wireless has arrived as a means to market to the masses.

As a News.com article pointed out earlier this week, wireless network operators and Web-based content providers are trying to do everything they can to make sure your cell phone becomes a product-shilling device of the first order.

As further evidence, Disney signed deals with Hong Kong-based carriers Hutchison Telecommunications and CSL to populate phones with Mickey Mouse screensavers, logos, ring tones and other content from the Disney vault.

Is this what the supposed wireless revolution has wrought?

Wireless technology--and the ubiquitous cell phone--was supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate. Sure, there are problems now, but just wait, pundits have said. Companies have predicted one billion cell phone users will soon stomp the terra on planet Earth.

And in the United States? Oh, we're behind the rest of world (particularly Japan), but just wait until these advanced networks show up that can deliver video, allow you to easily send e-mail and pictures to friends, and play games with yourself, proponents gush. Now, it seems, these high-bandwidth networks can also be expected to send us video marketing messages. If you thought that ad on television was bad enough, wait until it appears on your Nokia phone.

Granted, at the end of the day, everyone needs to make a buck. Evidently, with billions of dollars--in some cases--spent on expensive licenses for precious high-capacity wireless spectrum, some wireless network operators have no qualms about turning their customers on to a variety of marketing schemes. This, even before wireless--especially in the United States--has proven to be the multimedia nirvana so many pundits have claimed it to be.

This could be the gimmick that comes back to bite many companies who venture down this path. When a technology is still in its nascent stages as a medium, is that really the time to pull the trigger on commercialism? Heck, I'm just happy when I can get a decent signal in my own neighborhood in San Francisco.

Then there's the navigation on a Web-enabled wireless phone. I don't get it, it's a hassle and if ads are part of the "experience" I won't use it. I don't need some scrolling text promoting "X10"--whatever that is--to go with my baseball scores.

And we haven't even addressed the most significant question: Will all of this work? While schemes to offer location-based message ads--so that when you drive past the supermarket you can find out what's on sale--may actually have some use, I can't imagine any sort of random introduction of ads to your cell phone being anything less than a nuisance.

The junk mail I get every day on my computer is a constant source of frustration. Imagine how angry you might be when something akin to junk mail clogs up your wireless phone connection?

Let's face it: For all its problems, wireless is cool. No longer do we have to wait by the phone to connect with someone, we can take it with us. For the benefit of the average consumer, however, it would be nice to keep reality on the same planet as the hype that surrounds further enhancements to wireless technology.

Purists have long complained that corporations have already ruined the wired Web. These same companies may want to think about this as we head toward an untethered world. Consumers still have a hard time figuring out the Internet, but that "off" button seems pretty easy to handle on a wireless phone.