MindBullets 20 Years


Trust and identities blur in a world without wires

Thanks for the information – but where did it come from? Mom says she got it from Google – so it must be true. In today’s fast-paced, connected world, the concept of a wire to connect your phone, tablet or media pod to the metronet is about as archaic as the telegraph cables that once spanned continents.

Now we routinely watch the World Cup, browse our blogs and get hot news flashes from Mom – all wirelessly. But did that personal message “Avoid the underpass and pick up some pizza” come from your spouse, or Gaggle, the spam kings of San Francisco?

We’re all connected now, but can we trust those connections? It all started with cellphones and wireless hotspots. Then Google got in the act and WiMAX made the metronet pervasive and almost free.

Now we can flip from traffic cams to video meets while riding the bus. And when you get instant alerts from your stock watch or forum buddies, you often accept them at face value. Well, who do you trust more – your mom or your favourite podcaster, who you’ve never even met?

ANALYSIS >> SYNTHESIS: How this scenario came to be

The wonderful world of wireless web networks
I was sitting in a conference session on September 11, 2001 when I got a voice mail alert from my mom. “They’ve crashed a plane into the Twin Towers, and they’re both burning!” The news was so unbelievable, so inconsistent with my view of the world at the time, that I had to verify it for myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust my mom, I just had to make sure; I found the nearest coffee bar with CNN and saw the awful reality for myself – it was true.
WiMAX has made the metronet pervasive. Now you can connect your phone or media pod to anyone, anywhere, whenever, as long as you are in range of the nearest hotspot. And you can virtually talk, browse and download for free.
But freedom comes at a price, and you have to accept the risks. You may get unsolicited messages via Bluetooth, trying to sell you the latest gizmo or trendy drink. You might get Skyped by someone you don’t know, but whose name sounds vaguely familiar. Or you might get an instant message from “Your Mom” that turns out to be a con.
Most of us are happy to take the risks and get the rewards of this new, untethered, connected, always-on lifestyle. Are you?

2003: Free voice calls on the internet
Skype makes it possible with free, quality software for calling from PC to PC on any decent internet connection.

Need the ‘net? Pop in to Starbucks for coffee and a download. Wireless network hotspots spring up at coffee bars, airports, restaurants, hotels and shopping malls. Although many of these require payment for the time spent connected, many others like Starbucks give free access to customers to draw the crowds.

Who’s listening to your free conversation or watching your casual browsing? Does it matter?

2004: Cellphones for Africa
Cellphones bridge the digital divide as millions of previously unconnected people in inaccessible communities get talking. As networks expand and prices decline it becomes commonplace to see everyone with a cellphone, from a barefoot skipper on the Red Sea off Egypt to a trader on the tarmac at Khartoum.
Even poor labourers and hawkers benefit from a cellphone, being able to sell their services or order supplies without a time-consuming and often fruitless journey. By the end of the year cellphones have changed the lives of countless millions, giving them access to resources and improving their ability to participate in economic activity.
Initially cellphones were banned from stock market trading floors. But the new personal technology, despite security risks, had caused a paradigm shift in the way people communicated, and became ubiquitous. Being globally connected also means you’re globally traceable and recordable.
Does your phone number or email address identify you uniquely? Do you want it to?

2005: 3G and personal broadband
3G rolls out internationally as the big players like Vodafone and T-Mobile start supporting consumer networks and handsets, as well as datacards that connect laptops to any 3G network at speeds close to DSL and cable modems, but without the wires.

The first city-wide metro networks are also completed, with cities such as Rio Rancho and Burbank claiming complete coverage of their municipal area with WiFi-compliant points. Google offers to cover the complete San Francisco Bay area, starting with its home town of Mountain View.

“For those of you that have been living under a rock for the last six months, metro-mesh is being promoted by its many boosters as a fast, cheap, and efficient way to provide broadband wireless connectivity for citizens, public safety officials, and municipal workers in cities around the world,” says Dan Jones of Unstrung. “Unlike typical WiFi hotspot deployments, wireless mesh systems don’t require point-to-point connections between the wired network and 802.11 access points. In fact, Mesh is much more like a team sport, where each wireless node receives and routes data to other radios across the network. In theory at least, this should make these networks easier and cheaper to install because they require just a few connections back to the wired network.”

Are YOU connected with personal broadband? Do you trust and rely on your sources, or are you plagued with spam and unsolicited messages?

2006: WiMAX? Why not?
WiMAX ‘canopies’ start to cover cities. Similar to a municipal wireless zone, the greater power and capacity of WiMAX can provide broadband coverage over a metro area to thousands of individuals from a single base station. Video conferencing by camera phone is not even a challenge – instant access to multimedia news and business information becomes the norm.

Microsoft has now made the decision to move from a ‘product’ to a ‘service’ model for its software. It is banking on ‘free’ communications and a pay-as-you-go model in the face of competition from Google and OpenOffice.

Is this the business model for the future?

2007: Media pods go mobile
Call me on your iPod. Apple joins the wireless world with a metronet version of the video iPod.
xMax makes high speed data transfer possible over metro distances with ultra-low power consumption. Self-powered and privately funded xMax access points mushroom all over urban areas. Like Skype, it proves impossible to regulate – Pandora’s box cannot be closed again.
What happens to the music, movie and games industry when broadband wireless communication becomes free? How long is the half-life of these companies? What about traditional news media?

2008: We’re all connected now
CNN loses audience share as people get all the news they want and trust from their connected camera phones, and each other. ‘Reality TV’ becomes real-time reality, beamed from a camera phone, somewhere, to you.
But is it real? Can you trust it?
Will this signal the revival of the brand – trust becomes the core element of a winning brand, but trust in the information? How do trusted brands protect themselves from brand ‘terrorism’?

2009: Metronet the universal carrier
Wireless is now the dominant communications medium. Copper wires have been replaced by optical fibres and digital radios. Amazingly there are fewer outages as backup routes are prolific and not as easily disrupted by physical factors. The network almost heals itself.

WiMAX dominates the licensed, formal sector of data network providers, and is generally regarded as the preserve of carriers, operators and ISPs. Newcomer xMax is the Skype of wireless data systems, operating under the ‘noise floor’ and making informal, peer-to-peer, unlicensed and telco-avoiding networks affordable and easy. Ultrawide-Bluetooth and sensor programs complete the picture.

It’s uncannily like the ‘sub-ethernet’ in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If you are in an urban area, you just press ‘Send’ and the message – picture, invoice or whatever – goes. And your messages get received, no problem.

But if it’s so easy to communicate, what are the risks? Does this herald a new age of crime – identity theft, industrial espionage? How do we find the universal identifier – individual and corporate? Will your email address become your ONE identifier, as with PayPal?

2010: Is that really you, Mom?>
Or is it My Google calling? How will you know ‘they’ are who they say they are? What will be the role of avatars? Who will be the new ‘personality hackers’?

Will all governments and businesses switch to use your preferred identifier such as email address or ‘Global Social Security’ number instead of account numbers or names? Once you are responsible for your own medical and financial records, who will you trust to look after them?

How long will it take for all players to realize the critical importance of a universal ‘most trusted’ standard? What damage will be caused before this happens? What about the risk of personal relationships going wrong for the wrong reasons – how do you trust a partner again? Will six degrees of separation become four…or three…or two?

Who will solve these problems, and at what cost? Will this lead to a new software boom – identity filtering software and digital identity spotters? Will we all end up paying for the solution?

There are many questions. Some of these will be explored in future MindBullets on this theme. Do YOU have a question to add?

Warning: Hazardous thinking at work

Despite appearances to the contrary, Futureworld cannot and does not predict the future. Our Mindbullets scenarios are fictitious and designed purely to explore possible futures, challenge and stimulate strategic thinking. Use these at your own risk. Any reference to actual people, entities or events is entirely allegorical. Copyright Futureworld International Limited. Reproduction or distribution permitted only with recognition of Copyright and the inclusion of this disclaimer.