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Number one in my list of All Time Favourite Powerpoint Presentations is Lawrence Lessig’s 2002 skit Free Culture. It’s a half hour, couple of hundred slide talk about the evolution of copyright law, and how, in Lessig’s view, the past acts to control the future.

I have been reminded of that point in recent weeks as I have recently been enabled for 4G networks on my Nokia phone. The truth is I didn’t really notice, and that’s because much of what I use the phone for has been designed for networks past.

To explain – most apps today, it seems, are designed for a world where network connectivity is both slow and intermittent. As such, they appear to make lots of very small calls for data from the network. The net result is that network bandwidth isn’t very important to performance, but network latency (in particular, the time it takes to make a request and receive and process the results) is. What that means is that the average app doesn’t appear to be much quicker on 4G than it was on 3G or even some of the faster 2G services like Edge.

However, do things that do require transfer of bigger blocks of data (downloading the contents of a Spotify playlist, or opening a big file attachment) and you are left wondering if the thing has registered your finger jab when in fact the operation has completed. It’s really that fast.

Which makes me think about the four elements of the past that are holding up exploiting of 4G in new and interesting ways:

  • that 4G is nowhere near ubiquitous yet, so we rely in many places on the old networks
  • that the network operators still have old models (and old data plans) for charging for 4G – at the moment it seems to amount to “Pay more to download the same amount quicker” – which is hardly an encouragement to experimentation
  • that we as users of mobile devices actually shape our behaviours on the old (or current) technologies. I don’t expect to do things involving downloading large lumps of data when on a non-wifi connection, so I tend not to.
  • that App builders have actually got pretty good at designing apps for our current technologies, and as such they don’t seem to make much noticeable difference on 4G. Streaming video is all well and good, but see my first point above… using your same meagre data allowance even quicker…

So there is an interesting circle of anti-innovation happening here, potentially. Until the networks really loosen up a bit on data plans, no-one on mass is going to adopt 4G for fear of massive bills, and for as long as there’s no adoption, no one  will be developing apps that will really exploit what fast mobile data connections might offer for the user experience of mobile apps (which means that without mass adoption the data plans remain a niche for the time being so remain high priced)… it’ll happen, but who knows when…

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