Guide The Economist - 10 March 2001

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He was persuaded that it was never too late to learn and turned out to be a remarkably able student.

In his remaining five years he became a celebrity in the United States. Television programmes were made about his life. He was awarded honorary degrees by two universities. A school was named after him. Literacy, or rather the lack of it, can be a touchy subject in countries whose people are materially rich but may have difficulty in constructing a decent sentence. A test of simple numeracy was included by the OECD , which involved the reading of a timetable, unfairly say some, realistically say others. So here was the improbably-aged Mr Dawson. If he could at least learn to stop signing his name with an X, surely those young slackers could make more of an effort to cope with the hard stuff.

Such was the theme of Mr Dawson's philosophising in his appearances at schools, universities and, most importantly, on television. He was born in Texas, whose rapid development as an agricultural state in the early 19th century had been based on slavery. George Dawson was the grandson of a slave.

So, as well as becoming a teacher's pet, Mr Dawson was taken under the wing of black reformists. He obliged them with tales of a harsh life. When he was ten, he said, a friend of his was lynched. You could not trust the white man, he said. Along with educationalists and reformists, George Dawson was adopted by what might be called the long-lifeists, an important group in the United States.

To get to a great age is an accomplishment; to do so and remain clear minded is a bit of a marvel. The long-lifers' heroes are the likes of John Glenn, who circled the earth at the age of 77, and Goya, who was still painting rather well at Mr Dawson, its choice for October , catalogued a life of continuous manual labour, starting at the age of four as a farm hand. It had some variety. He had worked in the gangs that had laid railways in Texas; he once travelled to Canada to see what snow was like.

He had tamed wild horses.

Does this line predict America’s next recession? - The Economist

He once played baseball professionally. He had outlived his four wives, his four siblings and two of his seven children. But his experiences did not offer a clue to a reliable elixir anxiously sought by long-lifeists. Even his diet was ordinary: a beef sandwich for lunch, fish for supper.

He seemed to have reached a great age more by luck than scheming. The sight of Mr Dawson on television, looking fit and wise, aroused mixed feelings among Americans. For the rich, long life has come to be regarded as the new human right. The United Nations itself lists longevity as one of the criteria for determining quality of life. Instead, they face a chicken-and-egg situation.

There is no point in their launching an innovative service unless handsets to support it are available; but until such a service has been launched, manufacturers have no reason to produce handsets that support it. This explains why, for example, handsets with colour screens are still a rarity in Europe, though they are commonplace in Japan. Colour screens make phones more expensive, and consumers will not pay more for them unless there are compelling services that use colour.

No such services exist, so nobody buys colourhandsets, so there is no reason to develop colour services. Even so, it should be possible to make the Japanese model work in other countries. But its attention is currently concentrated on getting 3G off to a good start in its home market, so its plans to launch i-mode elsewhere have not got very far yet. Besides, the real reason for i-mode's success is not so much the technology as the business model. By giving content-producers a means to charge users, i-mode ensures that there is plenty of content available; indeed there is a growing waiting list of content-providers awaiting DoCoMo's approval for their sites.

That wealth of content attracts users who, in turn, attract more content. The result is a virtuous circle. Another important factor is the management of expectations: users understand that i-mode is different from logging on from a PC. I-mode or no i-mode, the use of phones to send short text messages has grown explosively.

Depression

The Japanese call them oyayubizoku the thumb tribe , but the sight of people walking down the street frantically clicking at their handsets has also become a familiar sight in many other countries, notably in Europe and some parts of Asia. Some schoolchildren, forbidden to use the phones in class, have taught themselves to input text by touch alone, so that they can send messages while keeping their phones hidden.

In the Philippines, the country where text messaging is most popular, the use of the technology by protesters is credited with helping to overthrow the country's former president, Joseph Estrada. Normal text messages are limited to characters, costing an average of 10 cents each to send, but text messaging can be used to do more than just send quasi-telegrams to other people.

Premium-rate text messages can also be used to request new ringing tones and logos. In Finland, it is possible to buy soft drinks and chocolate bars from some vending machines using text messages. In some Scandinavian countries text messages can be used to pay parking or car-wash charges. Increasingly, text messaging is being integrated with the Internet to allow messages to be sent to and from websites or desktop PC s.

WAP 's failure has a number of causes, not least an excess of hype. An infamous advertising campaign launched in Britain by BT Cellnet used fancy computer graphics of a digitised figure whooshing around on a surfboard. The reality of accessing the Internet from a mobile phone, users soon discovered, was far less glamorous.

WAP , which displays cut-down web content on phones, is painfully slow: just establishing a connection takes up to half a minute, and downloading anything requires the patience of a saint. There are numerous WAP versions that are not fully compatible.

But worst of all, there is very little content, because there is no way for content-providers to charge for it. Operators collect a per-minute fee for WAP usage, and some of them pay content providers to produce material to encourage traffic, but there is no virtuous circle of the i-mode sort. WAP is crap, goes the industry refrain. But in essence the problem is the business model, not the technology, particularly now that 2. When it comes to the adoption of mobile data, the odd country out is not Japan but America. The United States and Canada are the only countries in the world where PC s are more numerous than mobile phones; everywhere else the reverse is true see chart 4.

America's enthusiasm for PC s, and lack of enthusiasm for mobile phones, is due to a combination of factors, but mainly to the relative prices of fixed and mobile calls. In Japan, expensive access to the fixed Internet drove users to mobiles; in America it was mobiles that priced themselves out of the market.

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Local calls are free, and PC s are cheap. Mobile phones, on the other hand, suffer the huge drawback that users are charged to receive calls, so Americans tend to leave their mobile phones switched off to avoid having to pay for unwanted incoming calls. Mobile network coverage is patchy and rates until recently were high.

So teenagers who want to keep in touch with their friends are given their own phone line, a PC and a dial-up account with AOL , the world's largest Internet-access provider. Soon they are happily sending and receiving instant messages through their PC s.

Their counterparts elsewhere in the world, in contrast, are brandishing mobile phones and sending text messages. Pre-payment, which originated in Italy to exploit a tax loophole, means that even people without bank accounts such as children can have mobile phones. It also enables users to control their spending. Sending text messages is cheaper than making voice calls, which helps to explain their success. But even in America, lower prices and better co-operation between operators are now helping text messaging to take off. Another oddity is that handheld computers, which are essentially cut-down PC s, are also far more popular in America than elsewhere.

These devices—notably Compaq's iPaq, and the handhelds made by Palm and Handspring—are far more expensive than mobile phones and lack wireless connectivity as standard, though they have bigger screens and more processing power. Americans widely perceive wireless-enabled versions of such devices, rather than Internet-capable mobile phones, as the logical means of accessing the Internet while on the move.

The split between America and the rest of the world is apparent in other ways, too. Because PC s are so popular in America, people there like to think of the mobile Internet as simply a mobile version of the PC -based Internet. This has fired their enthusiasm for a wireless networking standard called Wi-Fi coverage is spreading fast in many American offices, universities, hospitals, schools and airports, and its advocates claim that it could even do away with the need for 3G networks see article.

Joe Manget, an analyst at Boston Consulting Group, thinks American enthusiasm for Wi-Fi can be explained partly by another cultural difference with the rest of the world. In Europe and Asia, he notes, many people commute to work on public transport, and like to peck at their mobile phones while they are on the move.

Tough on the causes

In America, on the other hand, people commute in cars, which rules out the use of wireless handheld devices. Instead, they want wireless access for their laptops when waiting around in places such as hotel lobbies and airport lounges. Martin Dunsby of Deloitte Consulting points to yet another difference.

Biographical

Thanks to general enthusiasm for information technology, American firms are far more likely to have adopted customer-relationship management and enterprise-resource-planning systems which keep track of customers and inventory, respectively than companies in other countries, and now want to extend those systems to wireless devices. So in America it is the corporate market that leads the mobile Internet, says Mr Dunsby, whereas elsewhere it is the consumer market.

But whatever the differences, the fact remains that the mobile Internet, in one form or another, generates enthusiasm across the developed world.