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A kind of magic

1/2/09

Before he was famous the magician Derren Brown used to do close up magic tricks at parties and corporate events. I met him a couple of times and he could read me like a book.  So I asked him not how to do the tricks, but what makes his tricks fail. He said the people he most worries about are not those watching closely, but those chatting in the corner of the room half watching. They don't get misdirected by the details.

That's the trick to knowing where mobile goes next . The “What will win, WiMax or LTE” battle won't be about technology. It will be about looking at what is going on in the right way. Standards wars used to last years. The great Betamax, V2000, VHS war left a lot of consumers with useless hardware and a bitter feeling.

But more recently it's become clear the raw technology isn't particularly important. It's about who supports it.

The fairly quick abdication of HD DVD in favour of Blu-Ray meant not too many people are stuck with the wrong format.. What powered the Blu-Ray victory was Sony having the movies and the PS3 getting into enough bedrooms.

We saw a similar victory in Ultra Wide Band (the successor to Bluetooth), this started as a battle between Motorola and Intel on a technology basis, but when Cambridge Silicon Radio which makes the majority of the Bluetooth chips in the world backed Intel it was Game Over for the Motorola flavour.

This trend from “The market decides”, which penalises the consumer who jumps the wrong way to “The industry decides” where a critical mass of companies in a semi-democratic way is ultimately better for everyone. GSM is perhaps the poster child for this where sharing IP to build a standard has worked to everyone's benefit.

Of course it can go wrong. Apple tried to licence the Apple OS and quickly recanted. IBM didn't think the PC would come to much and everything was out-sourced. Today Apple does really rather nicely from the personal computer market and IBM is no longer in that business. But from a consumer point of view the defacto standard of the PC (no-one set up an industry standards body to define home computers) did rather well for them and allowed an eco-system to grow and flourish.

So understanding the technical benefits for WiMax and LTE are valuable but they will not crucial to the outcome. Traditionally a mobile standard has been won by having Nokia and one other major player on board. Nokia can’t do it alone: HSCSD, Visual Radio and Nokia Picture messaging were all attempts by Nokia to go it alone that failed. The super-SMS standard EMS was tried by a number of manufacturers with Nokia and that failed too. Bluetooth was Nokia and Ericsson (well, perhaps the other way around). Nokia and one other makes for a success.

As Derren Brown would appreciate it’s not the hand of cards that matters, but as is so often the case in poker, who is holding the cards which dictates the winner.

 

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