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Luck is more important than technology


Sometimes I see the cutest guys with the most ordinary looking girls, more often it’s the other way around. There is some merit in Mrs Merton’s “So Debbie MaGee, what first attracted you to millionaire Paul Danies”, but that can’t account for all the odd couplings.

I regularly come across good ideas in the mobile phone business.  Those that succeed do so on good fortune and politics, not on technical merit. Perhaps the best example is IXI, a Bluetooth technology.

The politically clever thing about IXI was that it put the onus of writing the profile on the people who needed it most – the companies who made the Bluetooth peripherals. Imagine that I’ve bought a Bluetooth toaster which can print text messages. Perfect for, well, I don’t know what but it’s an example.

Unfortunately when my phone was produced the toaster didn’t exist so the profile isn’t incorporated in the phone. Even if it had existed it’s unlikely that it would have been seen as something that merited the time, cost and effort of including it in the phone and testing it.

With IXI the technology sorts the problem out. When the phone is paired with the toaster the phone recognises that it doesn’t have the right profile and so goes to the IXI server with a data connection and downloads the right profile. The first time the phone meets the toaster it’s all a bit slow but after that everything is tickerty-boo. Everyone is happy. The phone manufacturer because there is no need to fill up memory with every obscure profile. The peripheral device manufacturer because they can get their devices better supported and the networks because there is a little data charge which earns them a few cents and fewer calls to customer services which cost them a few dollars.

IXI showed their technology at Cannes a couple of times and even had it in a Samsung and Telit phone. There was a more ambitious version called the PMG which allowed all the bits like the screen, keypad and a watch to be connected to the GSM module, but IXI as a Bluetooth idea failed.

Yet other ideas which are no more cute, such as T9 predictive text has been runaway hits. In the cold light of hindsight it’s easy to see that T9 was a winner but there are loads of predictive text systems: Lexicus, Zi, Eatoni and only one T9.

Similarly Wildfire, the best voicemail system the world has ever seen, failed and SpinVox, which is great and clever, but no less complicated than Wildfire is going from strength to strength.

It would be nice to point a finger at the networks. Things failing are usually their fault, but Orange and Wildfire aside, it’s generally not the case. T9 succeeded not because it was great, but because Don Davidge did an amazing job of selling the software to the handset manufacturers. Most importantly he gave it to Nokia free. That doesn’t guarantee they will use it Nokia suffers more than anyone from Not invented Here, particularly when looking at user interface tech, so some of it has to come down to luck.

Luck and perseverance.  Those mismatched couples are together because someone has been kissing a lot of frogs and it doesn’t always end happily ever after. It is dispiriting but if you are a small technology vendor you can’t rely on the brilliance of the product to get any sales. You are going to have to get lucky. Trying lots helps the odds but too many products have failed through no fault of their own.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here.


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