While flying over the Nevada desert following a west coast trip that included a stop at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco and WirelessOne in Las Vegas, it struck me that wireless technology is moving through the classic technology lifecycle (a.k.a. hype-cycle) that the folks at the Gartner Group identified some time ago.
As Figure 1 illustrates, the lifecycle begins with excitement and anticipation at what a new technology can accomplish. As early implementation approaches, however, overzealous marketers fuel the initial excitement up a slope of inflated expectations. Hopes are raised beyond what the technology can realistically deliver.
When the initial rollout falls short of marketing promises, expectations are dashed and technology acceptance falls into a trough of disappointment and disillusionment. Then, with the hype machine quieted, the technology gets down to business, moving up a gradual slope of enlightenment and steady progress.
Figure 1 The lifecycle of new technologies.
This was the progression followed by handheld computers in the 1990s. The Apple Newton, initially greeted with great fanfare and enthusiasm, ended up an object of derision mainly due to its inability to accurately interpret handwriting, not to mention its bulk. Many doubted whether handheld devices had any future at all. Of course, this was only temporary—until 3COM's Palm Pilot set the standard for the nascent PDA market. The rest is history.
Wireless: From Disillusionment to Enlightenment?
Wireless appears to be following a similar path to technology acceptance. Initially heralded as the next great technology for expanding the scope of the web, expectations for wireless rose sharply as marketers proclaimed the coming of WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) as "the Internet in your hand." Telecomm carriers paid enormous sums to capture this market. Auctions in the UK and Germany garnered winning bids of $35 billion and $46 billion, respectively, for licenses to deliver third-generation (3G) 2 Mbit/sec bandwidth.
In 2000, WAP phones and services rolled out in the UK with great fanfare, only to end up a colossal disappointment. Like the early Newton, WAP was unable to live up to its hype. The "wireless Internet in your hand" was far from what mobile users encountered. What they found instead was a painfully small screen, a user interface requiring dozens of keystrokes to accomplish even the simplest of tasks, and bandwidth on the order of a frustratingly slow 1980s modem.
Like WAP, 3G networks have been more hype than reality. The early rollout of 3G, scheduled for mid-2001 in both Japan and the UK, has been put on hold. Although 3G's rollout has been hampered by technical difficulties, a compounding problem remains the mountain of debt assumed by many European carriers for spectral licenses. British Telecom (BT), for example, is now reeling under the weight of its debt, not to mention the dotcom collapse. Standard & Poors and Moody's Investors Service recently downgraded BT's debt rating.