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The mobile tail wagging the mobile dog

This week — or last week, to be exactly accurate — Ben is not entirely impressed with QR codes and constant change in the mobile industry. Over to Ben…

– – – –

The thing about things is, they change. Although this is not the first time I’ve started an article with a statement that wouldn’t sound out of place being slurred by a tramp – you can imagine him, pointing at you with his little blue bottle of turps – it is the first time I’ve felt obliged to explain what I mean. Things change, and always have done, and always will do. This causes problems for humans, who don’t like change, only ever really seeing it in negative terms. This is, after all, why they don’t call the buttfu*king of the planet we live on ‘Climate Crisis” or ‘Climate Emergency”. Change is bad, and universally understood to be so.

Fear not, though, because this is not going to be a vague missive about why we should all go out and be green and hug trees (at the eternal risk of wandering off the subject, I think it’s probably a bit late for that, and that we should actually all go out and nerve-gas everybody in the world [with the exception of you, me, the Impossibly Gorgeous Girl from Audit Services & someone else capable of making beer for the rest of us]) but instead is going to be a rather vague missive about why they keep trying to improve mobiles.

Because some of us rather like the way they are now.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that telephones were better when they were bakelite obelisks on people’s desks. I’m not saying that we should all still – as Alexander Graham Bell suggested – answer any & every call by saying ‘a-hoy hoy?”. I’m not a lover of the flat-world theory and I’m not proclaiming that things were better when bands wrote their own songs (though they were) or when we all did National Service (though they were) or when women didn’t have the vote (though they were). But what I am proposing, what I am supporting, is a view that once something’s already really, really, really good, do you absolutely have to try and keep ‘making it better?”.

Once something is 99% perfect then you should move on, and channel your enthusiasm to improve things in other areas where you can make sweeping progress, where it’s needed, instead of fart-arsing around rather pointlessly. The classic example of this is the Swiss Army Knife, a design that was pure genius until they tried ‘making it better” by adding more bits they thought we needed these days and ended up with this absolute monstrosity, which weights a kilo and could quite easily be used to stove in the skull of a charging hippopotamus (which is just as well, really, since running away would be impossible whilst encumbered with something this huge).

The point I’m trying – with my customary fecklessness – to make is that I’m a little worried that mobiles might be going the same way. Because, in these desperately modern times of ours, as there are less & less differences between price-plans, and less & less differences between networks generally, it’s more and more the case that it’s the bells & whistles on your handset that retailers tempt you in with. It started with the incorporation of cameras into phones, which was a perfectly logical step to make, but the trouble with taking perfectly logical steps is that you end up taking another, and then another, and whilst it all seems like a good idea at the time, pretty soon your logical feet have got logical blisters leaking logical pus all over the logical place.

Effectively it’s a problem that occurs when any area of endeavour suffers from a temporary glut of Big Ideas, and all of a sudden you’re forced to tweak instead of strive, rather like athletes who train their entire lives just to desperately try and shave another 0.0005 of a second off of the World Record when they could really be doing something slightly more useful, such as…well…anything, really, rather than mincing about in technicolour lycra. In the same vein, they’re now trying to…well. I’m not actually sure what they’re trying to do – so have a look for yourself.

Turning everyone’s handset into a portable scanner? To read little square barcodes, just so that a company can send you an advert? Why in the name of all that is desecrated and unholy would you want to do that…?

It’s the tail wagging the dog again. Strap me into a snugly-fitting canvas jacket, pop a tranquillising suppository up me and cart my spread-legged body off to the asylum if you think this is, perhaps, just slightly a controversial thing to say, but here we go: I don’t think we should be bending over backwards like this, just so that other feckless industries can turn mobiles into yet another way to spam people with adverts or ‘infotainment”. In fact, I think it’s taking the piss a bit.

So now’s as good a time as any to sit down, collectively, and have a bit of a think – we all do this with our own lives, every now and then, just to have a quick check on the status of things, and it might be healthy to just take stock. Where should mobiles go, what direction should they move in? They obviously shouldn’t be contaminated by this tacky crap, but should we allow our precious little toys to be fitted out with anything else at all…?

In a way it’s not really worthy getting wound up over, for two important reasons – the first is that, because of the way technology has a nasty habit of lurching out at you from nowhere, things change overnight and the whole picture shifts, so any pondering on the future of things is doomed to epic failure, rather like my attempts to impress the Impossibly Gorgeous Girl from Audit Services by using my previously fool-proof chat-up line about nerve-gassing billions of people. But the second is that, in the same way that change is bad, it’s also unstoppable, and to rail against it – no matter how much it annoys you – puts you right in the same league as King Canute in terms of general effectiveness. There is someone else, since Canute, that has tried to stop time moving, but he’s Michael Jackson, and you don’t really want to be associated with him, now, do you?

So I guess we’ll just have to put up with idiots for now. But if anyone wants to contribute to my nerve-gas fund, then just email me your bank details…


  1. The various 2d barcodes (gumspots. semacode, etc) are a low-cost, dense (you can’t RFID every ad in a newspaper) low-power (I’m in ur GPS eatin ur battery) way to link physical objects or locations to live data. Off the top of my head, a few reasons you’d want to do that:

    * Put a barcode on your advertising that links to the lat/long of your store, so directions pop up in your customer’s preferred map software
    * Put a barcode on your advertising/business card that links to the latest version of your contact details, ready to be imported as a vCard. No more out-of-date contact details
    * Use the barcodes as tokens in location-enabled games
    * Asset tracking on the cheap
    * Spimes on the cheap

    Of course, the two universal truths of mobile apply here:

    1) You have to get the software on to the handset
    2) The Japanese are already doing it (I’ve got a Japanese business card with a QR code sitting in front of me right now)


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