Cory Doctorow (the EFF) Interview, part 2

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More from Ewan's interview with Cory Doctorow from the EFF. We're looking at the phone networks, data costs and what's wrong with Cory's P900.

Continuing our interview with Cory Doctorow (you can find part one here), Outreach Co-ordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Cory Doctorow signing his BooksSmartphones and the Networks

Just after moving to London, Cory switched over to the P900 and had a merry old time actually getting a contract. (read it on Boing Boing, Cory's Blog) Now he's settled in with it, what does he think of it?

"It's a great phone, but I'm scared to do anything with it." For a man toting the fastest PowerBook ever made, and completely in touch with the electronic world, this surprises me. "I'm largely scared of doing any of the advanced things on my phone mainly due to the cost. And by the cost I mean the ridiculous per megabyte data pricing everyone in Europe seems to have. In the States I had a simple data phone, nothing fancy. But with it I had a $50 a month unlimited data plan. A true unlimited plan, not an unlimited plan until you reach 10mb of Wap Data. Because it was flat rate, it meant that I could take risks and chances with services. I would play with the phone and see just what is possible, because I knew I would never get stuck with on of those bills where you go 'Shit! How did I spend £100 looking up the football scores?!?' So that's scared me off."

Surely flat rate pricing would lose the networks money? "Not necessarily. Back in the old days of AOL (America Online) they had a 'price per minute' to dial up AOL. But they didn't have enough modems available because people were spending too much time online. So they raised the cost to encourage people to use the service a bit less. But it didnít work very well, as most users still held to the same patterns of usage. With the added problem now that they were losing more users than before at a faster rate, and the high per minute cost wasn't attracting new customers. The bottom line was they now had even less money to spend on new modems and phone lines."

"So they tried something radical and introduced flat rate 'all you can eat' pricing. While the long-term users still stuck to the same patterns as before, AOL attracted a huge number of new customers who were risk averse. But now they knew what their monthly bill would be, they could go online, experiment, and not be scared. AOL made more money on a flat rate than per minute billing. This is something we see more and more as the mental barrier of 'take a chance' is pulled down."

"In the mobile world, there is an enormous amount of risk aversion in the customers, and this is because of the per kilobyte pricing of data services. There are virtually no freeware applications out there (or if they are they're hard to find), and the networks are so expensive even someone like me is afraid to use them. I do nothing with the P900. It's a pain in the ass carrying my Mac Powerbook around with me, but I can usually find Wi Fi if I really need it. It's not worth taking the risk of being billed an enormous amount of money if I can do it for free with my laptop simply by waiting five minutes."

"Until there is flat rate data pricing in Europe for data, you will find a huge number of people with smartphones that make no use of them, or ever find out the cool things it can do."

Cory's Solution

My old Warrant Officer had a simple rule. It's no good just stating a problem to me, if you come to me I want to hear a solution as well. Does Cory have a solution beyond "give us flat rate data pricing?"

He does, and it goes something like this. More competition.

"If I had a non-profit grant (and I mean a big one), then I would start work on a Co-operative Mobile Phone Company. We'd start in London and offer one thing. Flat Rate SMS. As long as you pay your monthly Co-operative Fee, you can send SMS for free. And we wouldn't need to build transmitter towers over the city, we use what's already there. We've got a GSM license along with the grant, and now we'd write some Open Source Software that Co-op members could flash onto software-defined Wi-Fi points with open firmware. So people could get the update to their Wi-Fi box on a Broadband connection. Wi-Fi powered handsets could then use these Wi-Fi Hot Spots as they wander round London. Software on the handsets would check for Hot Spots as you go about your business. When it finds one, bang, all your SMS messages are sent, and you pick up any SMS's waiting for you. It's not instantaneous, but it would wok. And people would want to use it because they would know exactly what they are paying every month."

"Then the networks see competitive pressure unlike anything theyíve seen before. Their only choice, much like AOL's competitors, would be to offer a similar service. Once we get that ubiquity, we can offer GPRS data over the same access points, when you're in range. Then move onto Voice over IP for long distance calls. As we get build more and more services, we turn those mobile services into internet services. And we move on and repeat the exercise in other cities."

I Want My Phone To Do This...

Even in this short time with Cory, it's obvious that once you get him onto a subject, he's able to talk a lot of common sense on ideas that initially seem way out there (after all, a wireless network community taking on Vodafone?). So I turn to the P900 he's scared to use and wonder if there's anything about the phone he'd change.

"I want it to always show me the time, even when the keylock is on. When I press a button I want the screen to light up and show me the time. I donít want to press another button to unlock it, then see the time, then relock the keypad."

"I want an on the phone billing ticker, showing me exactly what something has cost me, what my monthly bill is. With all the technology in my hand at with the networks this shouldn't be difficult."

"I'd like to be able to use long distance calling cards to be integrated into the contacts and dialing software. If I input the Calling Card phone number in a dialog, and the magic pin code I scratch off the card, then the phone should be able to intercept any "dial this number" and route it through the Calling Card.

"Finally they really need to work on the handwriting recognition system [CIC Jot]. I made an entry in my calendar for this meeting today and copied down your phone number. So I look this up when I had some trouble finding the place, highlight the text, and tapped edit to cut and paste it so I can dial it. But when I tapped, it thought I was trying to enter a dot and overwrites your phone number. And guess what. Undo doesn't work!!! They need to work on the hotspots on the screen and make sure anything is reversible.

Cory, it's been a lovely interview, and I'm sure our readers will think the same. Thank you.


Boing Boing, A Directory of Wonderful Things.

Cory's Hompage,, for eTexts of his novels.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The All About Symbian Guide To EBooks.