Friday, March 14, 2008

eComm - An Eclectic Snapshot of Communications

To describe the flavor of Lee Dryburgh's debut Emerging Communications conference this past week in a few words, I offer this vignette:

In the lobby internetworking philosopher Bob Frankston and Microsoft sociologist Marc Smith were talking about -- well I'm not sure what – when I overheard one of them say, "You have to have naturalism before you can have Darwin."

This is not your typical business conference conversation. And that's what makes eComm an interesting place to be. It's not the usual suspects saying the usual things.

Take IfByPhone CEO Irv Shapiro on the Mobile Phone Mashups panel Thursday afternoon.

In a crowd of folks who are certain that we will want to use that device we quaintly still call a "phone" for everything imaginable and as yet unimaginable, Shapiro is definitely something of an iconoclast.

He thinks that lots of people simply want to use a phone to…make a phone call. IfByPhone's business is expanding the phone's usefulness by doing smarter things with the call – not the device.

"If you use voice and touch tones you can reach 100 percent of devices – including rotary phones," he says. "I'm not proposing they read a newspaper on the telephone." But you can get a lot of discrete information from that phone call and do a lot of smart things with it – none of which require anyone to buy a $400 iPhone.

At eComm you could also catch Homebrew Mobile Phone Club co-founder Meadhbh Hamrick tinkering with his R-Phone ("our" phone) which looks like…a circuit board in a yellow box with a touch screen.

Hamrick started building his own mobile phones three years ago when "it became very obvious they [PalmSource, where he was a technical lead] weren't going to make anything I wanted any time soon."

So he started building his own open phone that could be programmed to do anything he wanted.

"I was building it at the time I came to the 30th anniversary of the Homebrew Computing Club," he says. "And all of a sudden it started to make sense: They didn't have access to mainframes to they built their own. [in the same way today] People would have to pay a lot to get access to systems like Symbian. So decided to see if anybody else was interested in building cell phones."

It was only after the club has been meeting for a while that Hamrick had his Aha! moment about the commercial potential all this. People starting coming to the club, telling Hamrick that the phone was "just what I need" for some very specific, niche applications.

"The open software is key for niche markets," says Hamrick. "These are small communities, but high margin businesses."

Who knows? Maybe that niche gizmo could even make -- dare I say it? -- a phone call.

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