Push to Talk Betamax

In the dark and distant days of the beginning of digital mobile telephony, I remember Orange had introduced a new phone that included the ability to send and receive SMS (text) messages. It also had a number of tunes you could pick instead of the standard ring tones, including the now famous Nokia Tune. I thought the Nokia tune was hilarious. Dom Jolly did too, it seems.  Nokia.  Remember them?

As part of a press junket, I remember being on a train heading to an open day for journos down in Bristol (the then base for Orange), where we would get to see all there was to see at Orange.

cenokiaI ended up sitting in a group of very old men who wrote about technology in some of the leading papers at the time. Some might argue that in order to encourage Orange to be portrayed in a good light, they had given almost everybody on the train one of the new phones for free, with a huge amount of free bundled minutes. Most of the journos had had their phones for a week or two before being gathered on the train to Bristol.

I watched as three very famous and respected gentlemen journos opposite me did that old person thing of discussing the new phone, with a snarl in their voices. The most outrageous thing in their mind was the fact that you could pick this ‘ghastly’ tune to play instead of standard ringing tones. “Why on earth would anybody want something like that. How ridiculous!” was one response.

Decades later of course, we’ve had a thriving industry that just provided mobile phone ring tones, and moved to a world full of anybody picking any mp3 or anything they want as their ringtone. At the time of the train journey I remember thinking it seemed like a fun idea, and why not, yet these chaps were adamant the public would only ever want “ring ring”.

The subject of this new fangled text messaging idea also came up. Again these guys convinced themselves that we would never need to return to text, which had been the basis of pager based communication before mobile phones, as, in their words, it was primitive and no longer relevant. My feeling at the time was that it had legs, and in a business environment sending data such as an address as well as talking to the person by voice made sense. I also mused that it could be used to say ‘I love you’ when it was inconvenient to try to talk. This didn’t go down well, and I could see on their faces that I was definitely an outsider with that sort of thinking. But, hey, these were the days before young people were the reporters on technology.

Within 4 or 5 years, of course, text was regularly used to flirt, arrange encounters, fight, or even dump partners. It had gone far beyond a simple ‘I love you’, and for a long while was the main element of cellular communication that was making money.

As we now watch the mobile phone become a multi-tasking device, capable of taking and editing videos, playing live TV, listening to radio from around the world, reading and writing e-mail, playing and editing mp3s and so on and so on as a full internet enabled device, whilst from time to time being used for voice communication, there’s one thing that’s never got enabled in the UK. For a very long time, I, mistakenly, thought it was going to be the next big big craze.

It’s called Push-to-Talk (or PTT). Texting as a craze in most of America was non-existent, prohibitively expensive to send and costing a fortune to receive. Another reason texting never caught on was because they had something better first, which was PTT.

To explain what PTT is, you have to think of an old fashioned walkie talkie. You press a button on your mobile, talk for a number of seconds, and through the speaker of your destination mobile phone, you voice blurts out whatever you just said. Now, to make it more efficient there’s a little delay between saying something and it coming out of the other mobile. It’s only a short delay, but during that time, everything you said whilst pushing the button was crunched up into a compressed data file, queued, sent as a ‘packet’ and then uncrunched at the other end. The person at the other end can reply using the same method. Obviously, each of you speak one at a time (like text or CB), it’s not ideal for a more complex conversation. Because this is using the mobile phone’s cell network then obviously, each handset can be anywhere. In theory, even in other countries.

The pricing structure was based on a daily or monthly flat rate in places where the PTT craze ruled. In other words you pay a fixed price and can PTT to as many other phones as you want to as often as you want to, a bit like Blackberry (remember Blackberrys?) Messaging (BBM). The system allowed ‘group call’ so you could say something once and it be heard by a number of pre-defined phones at the same time.

Anyway, my point is that this was enabled by the network operators in the UK, but not released for general use. Why oh why? Alas now it’s all too late.

In the world of mobile phone Apps there are a few that emulate the PTT experience, but they are not overwhelmingly popular (or overwhelmingly stable, to be honest) because PTT appears to not be a must have facility.

So, sadly the PTT facility that is a built-in part of the mobile networks, and the PTT Apps, are consigned to the same bin as domestic Betamax video recorders. I wonder what it would have been like to have had PTT flourish in the UK.