Linksys asked me to talk about “the future of wireless” for its annual sales convention. I ended up talking about advertising.
Actually, its a mystery to me why the Cisco company wanted a European to talk to its sales staff in Irvine, Calif. At first, I thought it was the conspicuous spending.
You know: “Were paying him in pounds sterling, not dollars …” And then, when I got to my stopover in New York, I decided it was to cure me of grousing about how expensive wireless broadband is in Europe (the New York Hilton offered me a days connectivity for $165 while I was there).
But one of the main points of my presentation was about the role of wireless in media.
Theres a difference—a huge difference—between the way Europeans and Americans get their news. Actually, there are lots of huge differences, but one of the biggest is the cost of distribution.
Strangely, the actual costs of sending out a monthly magazine in the United States are higher than in Europe; but because of the huge circulations of American publications, that distribution cost is a small fraction of the revenue—because of advertising. Circulations in Europe are tiny by comparison.
Wireless looks like a great way of getting news to people—not in a few weeks time but immediately. And of course, if you can hook into the Internet, costs are very low.
What is at first a simple “cut the costs” equation suddenly becomes a rather different story once you realize that mobile devices arent anonymous. If Im selling you a widget and you look at my advertising on TV or on paper, I know almost nothing about you personally other than what group of purchasers you most probably belong to.
But if you look into my Web advert from your mobile device, I know a lot about you. I can, potentially, know exactly who you are, where you are and what retail outlets are within 500 yards of you.
Increasingly, I can link through mobile payments schemes and learn how much you have available to spend. And I can look at your browsing habits and e-mail (yes, I can!) and discover what youre interested in, right now, this minute.
Advertising with wireless ceases to be a case of: “In this socioeconomic group, there is a 3 percent chance that one of these readers will be in the market for a replacement vehicle in the next month, so lets run a car commercial.”
It starts to be: “Emergency! Billy Joe is on the corner of Roosevelt and Jackson, and hes looking into a Ford dealership! Tell him about the new Chrysler!”
?”> The future of wireless is going to be the future of privacy. And its starting to be apparent to me that people dont mind sacrificing privacy.
Oh, yeah, sure; they say they do. What they mean, though, is that they dont want their neighbors to know what they do behind the curtains. When it comes to commercial stuff, spyware is OK as long as it doesnt slow down their PC or change their browsers home page. And if it means they dont get advertisements for stuff they dont want, they say its really great!
But why does wireless do this more than the Internet?
Its simple enough. As wireless becomes more and more pervasive, the information you need to carry with you becomes less and less.
A hundred years ago, if you went for a picnic, you took all of the food you would need. Today, the same stretch of beach will have a dozen concessions ,and all you need is your credit card. Same for foreign travel: I used to spend significant mental effort on buying and organizing travelers checks before leaving home. Today, I know I can walk up to an ATM in any city and get local currency.
Today, people think its cool to carry 20GB of music around in a small white box. With truly ubiquitous high-speed wireless, why bother? I sync all of my addresses to my PDA before leaving, but if I could browse to my home PC, what would be the point?
I carry a PC with me on vacation—not because I like to work on the beach or in the mountains, but because I like to unload my holiday snaps from the digital camera. If there were wireless in the camera, however, Id store every picture on my blog right away, together with a little automatic, GPS-created note of where I was and what time it was.
But 100 years ago, when Henry Ford gave us the power to provide our own transport, the future of the automobile wasnt just high-speed travel. It was (although Henry Ford didnt care) the future of the traffic jam. Similarly, the future of wireless is interference.
Weve given the general public the power to create their own wireless environments. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I wonder what people will be saying about our foresight in another decade, never mind another century.
And what will it do, really, to advertising?