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Finding a new mountain to climb

January 4, 2011

“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

My Niece very bravely played hostess to the family over New Year at her place in Crystal Palace – a hilltop suburb of London that gives excellent views of the city skyline.

The NTL/Arqiva transmitter near Croydon - one of a number of amazing structures and facilities I was privileged to visit and, on a few occasions climb, when I worked for the company in the 1990s

I know the area quite well from my time in the broadcast industry in the early 1990s as it is home to two significant structures that have played key roles in broadcasting history – not just in the UK, but worldwide too. On the site of the original Crystal Palace stands the Crystal Palace transmitting station and a few miles down the road stands the Croydon transmitting station. I visited these stations quite a bit during my early days with NTL as they were often a focal point for the demonstration and launch of new digital broadcasting and telecommunication services . It was always fascinating to get an inside view of these amazing structures and the operations centres that sat beneath them and also to talk with the engineers who maintained the analogue services and were key to developing and implementing the new digital ones.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, my experiences working for Lucent’s mobile/3G operations at the beginning of the century echoed those in the broadcast industry as it was during those pioneering days when there were many possibilities with what the technology could achieve but some very big mountains to climb to get there .

So, sitting in my Niece’s front room after the New Year’s celebrations were done and dusted, thoughts turned to what all those activities had led to 20 years on in broadcasting and 10 years on in the mobile web.

In front of me was a brand new 42″ LCD High Definition TV that my Niece had got for £200 courtesy of her brother’s staff discount at Best Buy which, given its proximity to the London transmitters, was displaying a pin sharp digital picture via its in-built Freeview receiver from a signal picked up by a tiny indoor aerial. Now, if I’d said to those broadcast engineers and service managers 15 years ago that their work would result in this type of viewing experience within 20 years they’d probably have just laughed, as many were sceptical about the future of digital TV . Added to which, the early MPEG encoding and decoding technology needed housings the size of large kitchen appliances, plasma screens cost about £15,000 and high-definition took up immense bandwidth. Likewise, the web was in its infancy back then and the idea that you could connect a computer games console, control the almost ‘photo-realistic’ action with hand/body movements and compete with someone the other side of the world in real-time would have seemed even more fanciful than getting a bunch of digital TV channels delivered to your front room.

On the arm of the chair was my HTC Desire, buzzing discretely as new emails, tweets and text messages arrived. I had used this device a couple of days earlier to navigate the route to Crystal Palace from an unfamiliar direction - the in-built GPS combined with Google Maps had worked a treat. It also gives me instant access to my Spotify based music collection that I can add to via the web at any point and stream it into my ears or, via bluetooth, to other compatible devices like my adapted car music system. I can get instant access to my web-based photo collections at any point as well as all of the ‘social media’ interaction I could ever want or need. I haven’t felt the need to use a separate stills or video camera since getting this device as both in-built capabilities are more than adequate for those needs. I can search the web via voice and have been able to access and use the majority of websites quite easily, even updating sites via content management systems on a few occasions.

Thinking back, my colleagues in the Mobile Internet development teams at Lucent certainly believed that all of things were possible but the types of Location Based Services, mobile web access and mobile commerce ideas I was helping them visualise and promote 10 years ago didn’t take into account game changing devices like the iPhone or the exponential rise of Google and being able to access the types of web service it has popularised on the wired web in equally, and in some cases more, compelling ways on a mobile device. Understandably, in the wake of the dotcom bust, there was massive scepticism about the future of 3rd Generation mobile technologies.

I believed in the digital broadcast revolution. I believed in the potential for 3G. I believed in the web’s ability to deliver and support these services too. The dreams, determination and hard work of many past colleagues have been realised and, in many instances surpassed by the developments over the last two decades – the mountains they faced at the outset of their quest have been conquered and now many follow in their footsteps.

Some 200+ bodies lie uncollected on Mount Everest - as well as a lot of unsightly garbage

This reminds me a bit of the ultimate real-world climbing experience, Mount Everest. Since it was first conquered in 1953, the routes to the summit have been well trodden and what was once a pristine environment untouched by mankind is now littered with the bodies of those who tried but failed and also by the garbage of all those who have tried – successfully or not.

So what about new challenges? Even bigger mountains as yet unconquered and not yet well explored or littered with endeavour? Clearly, there are potentially many ‘green’ opportunities out there and plenty of untrodden routes but unlike the digital broadcasting revolution, 3G and web technologies, the size and shape of the mountain is still shrouded by cloud. We know it’s big but we can’t yet get a good idea of its shape or, indeed, if it has a summit and where it might be.

Perhaps a very big mountain that can be seen but not yet in enough detail to reach the summit, is ‘the Internet of things’ - that ‘smart grid’ run by machine to machine communications. Like digital broadcasting, 3G and the development of ‘human focused’ web technologies, it definitely has purpose and tangibility to it and strikes me as an environment ripe for surpassing expectations over the next decade.  My car, for instance, is a dumb, disconnected unit that damages the environment and doesn’t help in any way to improve it.

In the same way I sat in my Niece’s front room during the New Year break, marvelling at the progress of entertainment and communications technologies over the last 10 and 20 years, I can certainly imagine myself travelling around during the Christmas and New Year celebrations in 2020 thinking just how much we underestimated what could be achieved by ‘the Internet of things’ and how much it could contribute to helping us define and climb those even bigger, but shrouded, mountains of CO2 emissions, climate change, energy crisis and population growth.

Right – just off to get some new climbing ropes and crampons :)

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 4:49 pm

    I came across http://twingz.com (the Twitter for things) recently

    Still, no shortage of unclimbed mountains :)

  2. January 4, 2011 5:10 pm

    Thanks Simon – Twingz looks interesting

    Yep – loads of unclimbed mountains out there – just hope we don’t end up littering them too much with garbage or indeed dead bodies in the bid to climb some of them

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