Duidelijk: One morning on Lac Leman with Anton Valk circa 1998

Back in 1998 I was working in Holland as liaison between the joint venture that AT&T had at the time in Europe and our largest multi-national clients. We met four times a year in different locales where we would showcase the local country’s telecom infrastructure and how it was meeting customer’s needs.

Autumn in Geneva; Swisscom gave out Swiss Army knives at our plenary dinner announcing they were ‘cutting prices.’ A burly British CIO shouted from the crowd, “so, what is the meaning behind the corkscrew?” Hardy, har, har.

The crowd was always a tough one. We had to present our technical partnering the next day and, as usual, we had brought in Mr. Anton Valk to give that preso.  Anton was our go-to technical person. He is a well-educated and articulate Dutchman who headed up our Network partnership team. He also looked the part. He sported curly Einstein-esqe hair, glasses and a perpetually confused look on his face when anyone was asking him a question as if he was pondering all the possible answers to ‘Can you please pass the salt?’.

Quite by chance I met him early the next morning in front of the hotel. I was going for a walk to see the city and he had the same thing in mind. I remember the conversation as if it was yesterday. I asked him about his job. He told me he was excessively busy and really needed to spend more time with his kids. He explained that his wife was dead and going out-of-town was a huge problem for him…one which he faced more and more frequently. We passed along the quay and crossed the river to the old part of town. Anton admired the beauty of a baroque church. ‘I never get to do this kind of thing’, he said, explaining that business travel was never usually pleasurable for him. I admired the boats on the lake and waterskiers.

We got talking about another colleague who we both admired. We struggled for words to describe the man who so effortlessly ran his department and his business within the corporate structure. Everyone seemed to like him. He is ‘duidelijk,’ I finally said.

Mijnwoordenboek defines the Dutch word “duidelijk” as: distinct, obvious, clear, bright, evident, manifest, done, transparent, flagrant, luminous, clarifying, cooked, clear-cut, clear as daylight. 

Clear? Or as the Dutch say: ‘As clear (duidelijk) as a piling above the water.’

Maybe not.  But Anton at once understood and agreed. Anton smiled as though he was just let in on a secret that he had no interest in sharing. The traffic was starting to build and the cafes were opening on the quay. The day was dawning over the alps. The meeting would be starting soon and we knew we had to head back. A breeze arose off the lake and we walked in silence. Trees were beginning to change color and rustle more restlessly in the breeze. I could smell autumn and closing my eyes I could see the fall trees in the town where I grew up.

About two weeks later Anton quit his job and took a new one where he did not need to travel as much.  I went to his leaving party. His office was a disaster as always, but he looked very happy. He shook my hand and wished me the best with my career.  ‘Duidelijk’, I thought. Very duidelijk.

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Waiting for Vesuvius…at a safe distance

Back in 79 A.D. a lot of people were up to their normal daily routines when the volcano known as Vesuvius blew. We know this because in the towns below some of the less fortunate were entombed in ash in the midst of eating a meal, doing business or walking the dog. There were signs that something bad was looming. Pliny The Younger  wrote what he saw first hand from the safety of a ship in the Bay of Naples and recounts that some chose to leave the city just in case. As a side note, Pliny the Elder died at the seaside in the ensuing eruption.

Since the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona a little while back I have been sitting in my own Bay of Naples waiting for a sort of eruption. At the meeting, Mobile carriers hinted that a collision course between the end of unlimited data plans and the rapid build-out of corporate consumer mobile media apps might require an industry change. Some hinted that potentially corporate mobile apps providers may need to pick up the tab for the data transferred to consumers while those consumer are using that corporate app. It is akin to toll free 800 service form the 1970’s where the company being called picked up the tab for the call. Toll free service was extremely successful in the days prior to the internet and email. In any event a model such as this for mobile data offset consumer reluctance to use a corporate app for fear of overrunning their monthly data plan allotment of kilobytes.  To put it in perspective, imagine if you started paying per byte for you fixed-line and wifi internet connectivity. How would it change your on-line behavior? You would have to consider whether streaming Netflix at the end of the month would now have a surcharge if you were over your monthly allotment of viewable bytes.

I started heading to the dock for a ship after I heard the initial rumblings. I expected dialog from media companies building bandwidth intensive apps, consumer groups and industry bloggers. But, for the most part, life went on as normal in Pompeii.  It seems to me that the smoke is still building on this one and the day of the pyroclastic melting-hot gas flow is not far off.

I think the sooner the carriers and B2C corporate app providers begin talking about this, the better. Specifically, streaming media companies need to be on the vanguard.

As things stand we are waiting for the big show. Some are still wandering around the streets of Pompeii tending to their normal daily lives. But others are making their ways to the ships. They are talking about what it all means and how the world will change. Either way the sparks will be flying. I guess it just a matter of when.

Fielding 4G LTE Questions at Briar Vista Elementary School

Last week I signed up to talk about my career at my kid’s elementary school. I knew right away I was in trouble when I saw the red fire truck in the parking lot with children gathered around it. Luckily, I had put a new touch phone in my pocket before I left the office so at least I would have something to draw interest.

I lit in to my spiel about how the world cannot go round without sales people and the many talents needed to be an effective salesperson. I emphasized math and correct spelling while visions of some of the best sales people I have ever known who are hopeless at both danced in my head. 

Maybe it was the shiny black device, but hands went up almost immediately. “Is this a 4G?”, “Is this device LTE compatible?”, and then, “Does your company really have the fastest 4G LTE?”  I was stunned. I field these kinds of questions all the time, but answering 8 year olds demanded a little additional consideration, and, frankly, I was a little off kilter. How did these kids know so much about digital mobile signaling?

It had to be all the advertising. 

Rewind to a conversation with one of our corporate advertisers a week before. He was scolding me for using so many acronyms when I spoke to him and asked me to just lay out my ideas for him in simple English. He continued by saying that our industry relies too heavily in highly technical acronyms and that we should all start to do our part to eradicate them. His mission was to do that in our advertising.

I am not sure if we will be able to put Pandora back in the box. When third graders are peppering you with questions about LTE, there are no simple answers and an artistic campaign like the ‘painted hands’ that AT&T used a few years back may be a wide stretch for these kids whose diet has been a steady ingestion of technical specifications.  Nevertheless, for those familiar with the Pandora story, thankfully ‘despair’ never got out of the box. We were left with ‘hope’ despite all the swirling acronyms and reiterated grandiose technical claims about network speeds and coverage.

I think it is time that the entire industry does an about face on chipping away at the competition using statistics and graphs. What ever happened to old-fashioned service? Or what about innovation? The public usually gives a lot of breathing room to companies who are innovating or providing an extra layer of service even if they do not get it perfect the first time around. Just ask Apple.

I hope you can relate. With a classroom full of kids all up to speed on the virtues of things like ‘4G’ and ‘LTE’ the very creative fiber of our country is at stake.  I wonder how the conversation would have been different if the advertising messages were different? What kind of wonderful and creative new technologies could these kids be dreaming about and carrying in their heads as they grow up to be the next lab technician, salesman, or…fireman?