Will iPhone save the (free) Internet?

Wifi and internet at all is a priviledge – but Free Wifi is something that in our modern society, and the society we’re set to become, needs to be treated as a right. When I started writing this, I was looking at the benefits we have yet to see (ubiquitous free wifi); in the week I’ve been offline with jetlag, the preceding benefits we already have that would make them possible – flat rate internet – are being ripped away from us, and . Both are understandable, but … yikes.

Casual, assumed, free internet access is now ubiquitous (even if the access itself isn’t as operationally ubiquitous as services assume). I can’t even access half my music collection any more unless I’ve got a wireless high-bandwidth connection available (Spotify). The other half lives on my MP3 player (iPhone) – but is static, unmeasured, unconnected, and unshareable.

This is a problem. Right now, sitting in San Francisco, the city of a thousand broken, crashing, low-bandwidth, pay-per-minute (min charge 24 hours) wifi connections, next door to Silicon Valley, a world center of innovation that only exists because the right infrastructure here and the wrong mistakes elsewhere allowed it to form, it’s particularly on my mind. SF is a great example of what will push the next Silicon Valley to happen elsewhere. A lot of people ought to be worried by that – and doing a little more about it.

In Brighton, my current (temporary) home city, the first repeated free wifi hotspots were set up – as I understand it – effectively as an act of charitable benevolence by “a couple of guys” (looseconnection.com/Josh Russell). They weren’t even rich, or old – just some kids doing something cool, and useful. Anyone could do this. Too few actually do. I’ve heard it suggested again and again (where are the mesh networks that were supposed to be ubiquitous 4 years ago?) by people in the UK – especially in and around Cambridge, in tech the UK’s closest replica of Silicon Valley – but always with excuses about why they aren’t doing it yet, aren’t able to until someone else does something else to make it easier for them. That’s crap. Just do it. Do it this weekend; what better are you doing right now?

Will Apple single-handedly save Wifi? Maybe. It could be the biggest gift of iPhone: that it finally turns the rest of the world on to building bigger, better, and above all FREE, wifi networks. Everywhere. Ironic, considering that’s exactly what will kill the fundamental device that drives the iPhone: the “cell” phone. Does anybody else remember that before we had cell phones we had hotspot phones, back when cells weren’t good enough, and were so expensive to use? So we go full circle, but this time with an ecosystem and a tech interconnection system (API’s, protocols, layers) big enough to support the worldwide rollout of such hotspots (well, and that’s what mesh was supposed to be about, right?)

But why would this happen? It doesn’t make sense … does it?

Skype is a great example. Sadly, it’s also overloaded with additional meaning that clouds the issue – because Skype is an internet app (good) that is mostly about phone calls (bad / confusing the issue).

Skype is now available on iPhone, and it’s a great, highly polished, iPhone App. It *works* (as well as anything can on iPhone – with the current version of iPhone Apple does not allow *anyone* to have their app listen for incoming connections and auto-start, so you can only “receive” Skype calls on your iPhone if you are not using any other app and instead are currently inside the Skype App.

But … the voice part only works over Wifi. This is the concession it took for Skype to be “allowed” on iPhone (NB: Apple allegedly forced the network operators to give away free / flat rate data in return for being “allowed” to sell network-locked iPhones; if Apple had also allowed Skype-on-3G/EDGE/cell network, then they would have caused people to stop paying call charges en masse. Although this is the natural future of cell phones, and everyone knows this, the network operators would probably assassinate Steve Jobs if he tried that today).

So, Skype is – effectively – a “wifi-only” application.

20 million devices cannot be ignored

But wait … there’s more. The iPhone platform has an installed userbase of almost 40 million handsets as of first quarter 2009 (yes, that’s only 20% less than the entire global sales PS3 and 360 combined; the iphone is already one of the top games consoles in the world; Sony (Computer Entertainment) is doomed, and Nintendo’s cash days are numbered, even though they’ll make loads of cash for the next 3 years – the DSi was defunct due to iPhone *before it launched*, so after those few years, the cashflow will drop off / vanish).

But … around half of those are not iPhones, but iPod Touch’s. This is very important to understand: the two devices are compile time identical, and *almost* feature identical. They are more similar than almost any pair of cell phones in the world, even ones from the same manufacturer. And by default all iPhone developers are writing code that runs seamlessly on the iPod Touch – it doesn’t (usually) “break” on iPod Touch if it uses an unsupported iPhone-only feature … rather, that part of the app silently is ignored.

So … nearly all those iPhone developers are actually also iPod Touch developers. Many of them deliberately steer clear of using iPhone-only features. Some of them (myself included) write their apps to cleverly detect whether they’re on an iPod Touch, and work around the limitations (it’s not hard – e.g. if I can’t upload scores to the game server because I’m on a Touch that isnt in wifi range, I save it and upload it next time the phone is online. As a bonus, this makes my games work “better” on iPhone when the iPhone has to go offline, e.g. when it goes on an airplane).

NOT “iphone App”, but “Wifi App”

Back to the point… There aren’t many Wifi-only Apps out there on iPhone … yet.

But there will be. More and more of them. And this summer, when Apple brings out the 3.0 update for iPhone, making ad-hoc discovery much easier (i.e. my phone will be able to auto-detect / find your iphone when they’re in the same room), wifi-local Apps will blossom.

A simple example: real-time fast-action games.

e.g. a Racing Game, that works like this:

  1. I persuade you to download the free version
  2. We each click on the icon on our own phones
  3. The phones magically discover each other, without either of us doing anything, within a couple of seconds
  4. We start playing a high-speed racing game – e.g. Need for Speed, or Midnight Club – over the local wifi network
  5. The net code works beautifully, there’s no lag, everything updates very fast and smoothly
  6. When we finish, the free version you downloaded pops up to say “you played with your friend because he/she had the paid version. If you want to play with different friends, one of you will need to buy the paid version. Click here to buy (one click, instant download)”.

All that is possible, and relatively easy, come summer 2009. You *can* attempt to do it over a 3G network, but it’s hard. But as a wifi-only app it becomes easy. Guess what’s going to happen?

The future of local free wifi

I predicted around 30-40 million iPhone* devices sold by now, and Apple’s 37 million official figure made me look clever (although admittedly it was only a 6 months extrapolation and a 33% error margin I quoted there ;)). I predicted around 75-100 million sold by the same time 2010, and I’ve noticed a lot of other people have come up with the 100 million estimate for 2009 since the official 37 million figure came out.

So, although I think it’s optimistic to expect 100m by the end of the year, I’m confident it’s going to be close. 100m wifi enabled game consoles sitting in cafes, restaurants, bookshops, trains, buses, hotel lobbies, city squares, pubs, etc.

Oh, and don’t forget – that iPod Touch, with no “network contract” to pay for, is a perfect gift for kids. Plenty of people have lined up to tell me that kids can’t afford them; the market research that consistently shows under 18’s as the second largest demographic for iphone* ownership suggest that’s an ill-informed opinion. So there’ll be a lot of those devices sitting in the hands of bored children / used to keep them occupied while parents are doing other things. And we all know how strong a child’s “pestering power” can be.

Monetize local wifi? Screw that; who can be bothered to monetize it when it becomes as essential a driver of custom to your store as having coke/pepsi/coffee on the menu (even though you’re actually, e.g. a bookstore…). Re-think how that affects the “monetization potential” of local wifi (hint: look to the already vast field of *indirectly monetized* Freemium / F2P for inspiration)

So, I’m optimistic. And rather than focus on how “iPhone is going to destroy the cell phone / network operator hegemony, and bring around fair pricing for consumers”, I’m focussing on how it’s going to usher in the long-envisaged era of high-bandwidth, low-latency, high quality console games and apps that focus on the local area. I’m happy with that: I’ve spent almost a decade learning how to make online games for millions of players where the core experience takes place in the local group, so I feel extremely qualified to do well out of this. What about you? What will you be doing with it?

2 thoughts on “Will iPhone save the (free) Internet?

  1. Andrew Crystall

    I’d watch for the development of local meshes using wifi, with external access via ISP’s limited to data not held in the local cloud. But, I’d not look in the UK, at least initially: the setup in terms of the law is frankly hostile to the concept. Germany or Spain is my bet.

    (It’s not only IP law, but libel law and a host of other laws which you become vulnrable to under the current UK setup)

    The concept of free wifi…well, I can’t see it. ISP’s do charge, even with schemes such as “Fon”. At the end of the day, though, there are going to be either walled gardens accessable by wifi, with limited protocols and likely heavy filtering, or there will be bandwidth limits and a (reasonably) “dumb” web, which simply sends and recieves with little filtering.

    Of course, the type of concept being pushed with the iPhone will work with either, so it’s largely immaterial to this particular…

  2. MMO

    I would buy an Iphone today if I had Wifi access everywhere in public. I guess I need to wait a couple of years for this =P.

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