One of the fun parts about following cutting-edge telecoms technologies is trying to work out which ones will become as ubiquitous as, say, television sets, and which ones will never make it out of the R&D lab.
Take the Yubi-Wa (FingerWhisper) phone prototype that NTT DoCoMo was showing off at CommunicAsia last month. The product of DoCoMo's biological signal-processing lab, the FingerWhisper uses bone-conduction technology, which works by converting voice to vibration through an electro-mechanical actuator and then channels the vibration through the bones in your finger.
Put country simple, you can hear the person calling you through your finger if you stick it in your ear.
Which, of course, is where DoCoMo starts losing people.
Does it work‾ Yes it does, and it's genius-level tech, but it comes at the expense of walking around with your finger in your ear. Consequently, I don't expect DoCoMo to sell too many FingerWhispers in the next 50 years.
Conversely, there are technologies that seem like a no-brainer - sure-fire winners that fulfill an immediate demand and should prove staggeringly popular. Take Connexion By Boeing. The premise couldn't be simpler: broadband access on airplanes, either via an Ethernet jack or Wi-Fi. Can't miss, right‾
Apparently it can. And it has. Two years after commercially launching the service on a number of airlines, Boeing last month confirmed reports that it's considering selling off Connexion or possibly even shutting it down completely, due to lack of sufficient uptake.
No sure-fire winners
The news is somewhat surprising in the sense that there was little wrong with the actual technology behind it. This comes from personal experience - last year, I spent an hour in Hong Kong airspace on a Connexion test plane accessing the bandwidth-hungriest content I could think of - Flash animation sites, 18MB Japanese TV video clips, MP3s (legal ones, of course), streaming audio/video. I even uploaded 600KB photos taken on the flight onto a Flickr account and my personal blog. It was no different from using a Wi-Fi hotspot on the ground, although a fellow journo who tried Skype reported some latency.
But in the end, it didn't matter how well the technology worked.
Part of Connexion's problem is undoubtedly tied to the general state of the airline industry, especially in the US. Even before 9/11, the airline business was in bad shape. Afterward, so many airlines were watching their budgets, and the expense of outfitting a commercial jet for broadband wasn't worth the expense for most of them.
However, I suspect an even bigger culprit was the pricing - $29.95 is steep by anyone's standards, even if it's a long-haul flight. Connexion tried different pricing plans but clearly not enough passengers felt it was worth the expense. Even BlackBerry addicts would balk at paying a minimum $10 to check their email on a flight that lasts a few hours.
It's also fair to suggest that Boeing missed a few other details in terms of flight culture - such as the fact that frequent flyers naturally expect inflight entertainment to be included in the ticket price. There's a reason Cathay Pacific doesn't charge a premium for its personal TV service. Also, laptops with screen sizes 12 inches and above are awkward to use in coach.
That said, Boeing's experience with Connexion doesn't mean that inflight broadband is the equivalent of sticking your finger in your ear - not when everyone's making plans to spread broadband's reach into the public space.