I worked for a mobile telco in the days that mobile penetration was still measured in the low double digits. In only 3 years time penetration jumped over the 50% penetration level with the 100% level projected in the budget plans to arrive shortly after. If there ever was a high growth business, almost going rampant, it was mobile in those days…

At the BD & Strategy Department we were trying to get a grasp on what this development of mass adoption of mobile communications would bring for the business of mobile. With UMTS looming around the corner this was not irrelevant in relation to the business case for the upcoming auction of frequencies. We pondered about how this would change the communication habits of people and businesses alike and hence what consequences this would have for the usage of the projected networks.

Responsible people at that time were of the conviction that traffic would not increase on voice much more and had no clue as what the (IP) data-world would bring. Their Pavlov reaction was: “new services will bring in the additional “minutes” and MB’s let’s identify/find those services…”. (NB while basically extrapolating linearly the communication habits and within the confines of the operator skewed business models of that time),

I have been attending a series of meetings – brainstorm sessions, strategic off-sides, expert meetings, creativity sessions, you name it – with parties like Ericsson and Nokia and other mobile network operators – the big gorillas in (GSM) mobile by then – to find this holy grail of killer services… it is obvious by now we did not find any… let alone create any…

Obviously EOM’s, operators and providers were looking into (non existent) services that could be controlled by the network operator as to put a levy on the business of others and would be smothered by this attitude before becoming relevant business wise and traffic wise. At our department we foresaw, even then before IP in mobile really hit off, the possibility for arbitrage of the voice channel by IP driven data, as the price for voice relative to data was much, much higher. And apart from an artificially maintained technological divide between voice and data, there was no way to stop this arbitrage from happening somewhere in the future. Those insights were lost on the responsible people I worked with those days. (Today this has basically become the biggest thread to the operators…) But to be fair to them: maybe they would have been lost on me too if I where in their position and responsible for the bottom-line this quarter, my bonus being dependent on the results of the division at the end of the year and trying to secure the investments needed for next year to make my career’s biggest business transaction that will get my stock options sky high…

What does the above have to do with Collaborability, the main theme at Red Planet Dust?

With hindsight it is always (relatively) easy to see what has happened and what the significance of the introduction of a given technology has been. But to envision what is going to happen in the future it is much more difficult especially when it involves fundamental changes like the extension of our senses – basically a phone is the extension of your ears – and the reduction of our physical human limitations – a mobile makes us independent of location in relation to communications.

Mobile communications, both for voice and data has had a massive impact on our ability to collaborate. It has increased the amount of people (inclusion) in the network and – being independent of location – lowered the effort to reach the others in the direction of being “always reachable” (and now towards “always on”). It has increased the effective Reach of our network tremendously.

The telephone had been around for quite some time but had always been location dependent. (Do you remember? Or if you are to young even though this is not to far in the past: can you imagine?) To me the effect caused by the “independence of location” on the use of communications was – and still is -of another order of magnitude in importance then the “killer app” everybody was looking for as the driver for future traffic at that time. Or even the services like Whatsapp, YouTube, Facebook etc etc. that are now catching the headlines and are really “creating” massive amounts of traffic on mobile networks today.

Effects of changes, like mobile, impacting collaborability tend to spread over time without many people being aware of it while changing habits, expectations, and ways of living and working in a very profound way. The penetration of mobile was unprecedented in that period of time, the effects only started to really becoming prevalent when they were already so omnipresent that nobody noticed anymore. We, humans have difficulty experiencing long term developments.

One thing this story can learn is that the self centered company perspective, being very dominant in our societies, has a tendency to consciously limit others to increase the individual companies benefits or by teeming up to have an industry increase their hold on things (segregating voice from data on networks). In effect it is causing externalities to others. But even seemingly very dominant players with crucial positions in a value chain will be loosing their publican position given enough time.

Quoting Einstein:

Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.