YEARENDER: Everything's free in the palm of your hand - at what cost?
Dec 21, 2007, 7:50 GMT
The picture shows an iPhone before the start of a legal dispute over the distribution of the iPhone in Germany at a regional court in Hamburg, Germany, 29 November 2007. Vodafone challenged competitor T-Mobile\'s plan to sell the new iPhone in connection with a T-Mobile contract only. EPA/Kay Nietfeld
San Francisco - Software programmer Joe White has been coding in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years - long enough, he says, to make him highly skeptical of every newfangled invention that claims to change the world.
But he could barely contain his excitement in early November when he called a reporter to break the news that he was holding the holy grail of media in his hand.
The amazing device turned out to be none other than an Apple iPhone, the breakthrough communications gadget that combines a mobile phone, internet device and music player into a sexy black handheld tablet.
But what made the device so special was what White had installed on it. White was one of more than 2 million people to download a copy of Orb Networks MyCasting service which enables users to stream anything on their PC - music, videos, photos, even internet content - to any other internet-connected device, be it PC, mobile phone, or game console.
'This is the future. It's not web 2.0, it's web 3.0,' shouted White, waving his iPhone in the air as it played a Mozart symphony being streamed directly from his computer. 'This is all the content you want wherever and whenever you want it. Not at some point in the future. But right now.'
This awesome combination of streaming technology and smartphones is just getting started. According to research firm NPD group, Americans bought about 4.2 million smartphones in the third quarter of 2007. That represents 11 per cent of the 38 million phones sold and a roughly 180-per-cent increase over the same period in 2006.
With an estimated 2 billion cellphones in use around the world and more than 1 billion being sold every year, the iPhone hardly has the segment to itself. Nokia is already selling touch screen phones that many experts believe are better than Apple's.
Internet powerhouse Google is also flexing its muscles, announcing an open source phone technology called Android together with more than 20 partners in an ambitious attempt to reshape the cellphone industry and allow handy mobile devices to access the internet as easily as personal computers do. It also plans to allow users to store all their data on Google servers and stream it to any device just like Orb.
While that may make device manufacturers swoon and tech junkies drool, there are some serious downsides, points out Jaron Lanier, a highly regarded computer scientist and web pioneer.
With millions of songs, TV shows and movies zipping around from device to device there really is no way for established content creators to ensure they get paid for their work, he says. Who's going to invest millions of dollars in movies or music albums if most people get them without paying?
Once upon a time, Lanier dismissed such concerns repeatedly and urged content creators to come up with another economic model. Now he admits 'I was wrong. We were all wrong.'
'How long must creative people wait for the Web's new wealth to find a path to their doors?' he complained in an op-ed piece in The New York Times. 'We could design information systems so that people can pay for content. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.'
Another worrying aspect is that the internet is simply not wide enough to accommodate the exponential growth in bandwidth use. A November study by US analyst firm Nemertes Research found that without an extra 57 billion dollars in infrastructure investments above those already planned, the information superhighway could become clogged with data by 2010, forcing broadband users to revert to dial-up modems.
Then there are the intangible costs of living in a world where everyone is connected 24/7 - where digital and virtual relationships are replacing direct face-to-face exchanges.
'We're at a fascinating moment in technology development,' says analyst Tim Mullen. 'There's no doubt we are on the verge of a huge leap forward that will bring many benefits. The question is what will be the social and lifestyle costs.'© 2007 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur