Ms. Rantybabble and the phone company

I work as a product manager for a consumer software company. Like my customers, I don’t necessarily care about technology for its own sake. I don’t feel strongly about Java over C++, or Unix over XP. I just want make it easier for people lucky enough to own mobile gadgets to find the nearest place to eat, shop, or see a movie. My tools are language, images, pestering, and my limited common-sense.

Text-messaging on a mobile phone is unpleasant, but when my mother learned that it cost 80 pence to call my sister at peak time compared to 10 pence to send a brief message, she learned to hunt and peck on a phone keypad. If my industry can provide her with technologies like T9 (which tries to complete words automatically based on the statistical frequencies of letter combinations), wonderful. If the hardware people can design a better keypad, better still. But in the short run, we hardware and software designers are at the mercy of the people who decide that these are the messaging alternatives available to her, and that one will cost eight times as much as the other. And sometimes it seems those guys take their cues from chicken entrails, Miss Cleo, or, worse, the deadened consensus of the 45 people in their weekly marketing meeting.

Here, for example, is how one major US carrier lets consumers know that their phones can do more than make voice calls or dial up the so-called wireless web:

iDEN Update gives you the power to personalize and enhance your phone. You can download the growing list of Java� technology-enabled applications, update the phone features and program your phone with the latest software enhancements.Downloading applications and features “Over-the-Air” is easy. Click on the Applications and Features buttons below to view what is available for your phone. This exciting new technology enables you to download applications “Over-the-Air” using this website and a few simple clicks on your phone. Use the Minimum Requirements Wizard to find out if you can get applications and features “Over-the-Air”!

I call this Mystery Meat Marketing. Why in the name of Scott McNealy should I be interested in ‘Java Apps’ (which is exactly how the phone menu item reads)? Why is “Over-the-Air” such an exciting concept that it requires air-quotes and weird adverbial dashes and capitalization? How many approval loops did this drivel crawl through? Here are are my “Over-the-Blog”� alternative descriptions for this wonder technology:

Get a cute ringtone.
Play a primitive but entertaining golf game while standing on line for the ATM.
Get traffic information while you’re driving (in case you don’t have a radio and you’d like to risk death by squinting at an 8-line screen while on the freeway).
Deal with email from your phone.

Is it important to me that any of these are Java� technology-enabled applications that I can download “Over-the-air”? Do I look like I have a pocket protector jammed up my ass? We don’t want 1/8 inch drill bits. We want 1/8 inch holes.

Here’s another snippet of deathless tech-marketing prose from a different carrier :

See The Demo!
Still skeptical? Check out the demo and you’ll see how awesome this new BREW technology is. And how it lets you download and run cool applications (such as enhanced-graphic games) right on your BREW-enabled phone. Check it out … and you’ll be sold!

Uh, that’s okay, thanks. I ate already.

Making technology work is not difficult. Nor is making software easy to use—it just takes empathy, humility and perseverance. The really hard part still, it seems, is teaching big-company geeks and bureaucrats how to tell their customers why our work is worth their time and money.

NOTE:(c) 2001-2002 All Fights Deferred (as Caterina says). These opinions in no way represent the views of my company.