Mark Bridge writes:
Dumb pipes. The phrase infuriates many people involved with mobile phone networks. But what does it mean – and could it be the prelude to phones becoming dumber, too?
What is a dumb pipe?
Describing a mobile network operator as a ‘dumb pipe’ or ‘bit pipe’ is a harsh way of saying the service is being used as a utility to transfer data between a customer’s mobile phone and the internet. The network’s brand doesn’t really matter because consumers are focussed on what they can do, not their choice of supplier. We’ve seen it in the electricity, water and gas supply industries... and now it’s time for mobile telecommunications.
Of course, things aren’t necessarily that straightforward. Mobile telephony is young; in the last 25 years we’ve moved from analogue to digital, from first-generation through to 4G. Our mobile networks are still evolving. As reporter Trevor Gilbert pointed out earlier this year, we don’t ask “Was this water delivered over old technologies or is this 4G water?”
But, as mobile coverage approaches saturation and network operators form partnerships, there are far fewer differences between networks than when things started.
Mobile phone trends: from dumb to smart
The first portable phones needed a carrying handle, leaving little room for decorative design features. However, as phones began to shrink, it wasn't long before phone manufacturers began to introduce idiosyncratic design traits.
Sony’s CM-H333 handheld mobile phone – the so-called ‘Mars bar’ with its sliding earpiece and rippled battery casing – helped move mobile phone styling from purely practical to personal. Motorola had the ‘flip’, Nokia had the ‘slide’ and the Siemens Xelibri range settled on ‘bizarre’ as a differentiator.
Yet touchscreen designs of recent years have seen mobile phones starting to look increasingly similar. Monolithic slabs are becoming a staple of every manufacturer’s handset range. This year’s Mobile World Congress was dominated by changes inside phones – faster processors, better cameras, thinner, bigger, tougher – rather than new designs.
Everything looks the same
We now seem to be at a stage where top-specification mobile phones are good enough for almost anything. Photos from the built-in camera are good enough to be published. Videos from your phone can be broadcast. The music software is better than many dedicated players. Microphones include noise-reduction features for professional quality recordings. If you pick a ‘flagship’ phone from any major manufacturer then you’ll probably be able to do everything you want… and more.
As well as all this, downloadable applications are removing more of the differences between phones. You can run Angry Birds on a Windows Phone device – or an Android handset – or an Apple iPhone – or even an eBook reader.
It doesn’t really matter which phone you buy.
Inside, phones are getting smarter, not dumber. So why should this change?