MEME 4.03

In this issue of MEME:


MEME's epidemiology.

Dinner in Rome on the 19th of May.


8:30 am, mid-April, standing on the platform of Track 3, waiting for the Times Square shuttle to take me to Grand Central Station. About six hundred people are queued up, clustered in blobs along memorized spots where we know the subway doors will open. Most are just standing. Some are reading the morning papers. I'm downloading email through a metal ventilation shaft in the ceiling. I point my wireless modem like a diving rod toward the breeze coming down from the street above. I can see people's feet criss-crossing the grate. If wind can get down here this way, I figure packets of data can too.

I spent a month toting around an eight ounce wireless modem, which strapped on to my five ounce Palm Pilot, which serves as a hand-held date book, address book, and now Internet mail reader and Web browser. Built by Novatel, the Minstrel modem sells for US $399 and was released in late March. I received a review unit, and, with little expectation, attached it to my Palm Pilot. I was suspicious of the device's claims-- that it could receive and send Internet packets at 19 kilobits per second using what's known as CDPD, or Cellular Digital Packet Data network, maintained by AT&T.

CDPD, in principle, is far better than a traditional cellular telephone system when it comes to sending digital signals. Because the networks sends information in packets, as does the Internet, a persistent link isn't needed. In other words, to use a CDPD modem you don't make a "phone call" the way one does when using a land-line telephone. A CDPD modem only communicates with the network in rapid bursts at the moments when data is either being received or sent. That means it's a lot less expensive, and lot easier to have many people using the network at once. In AT&T's case, they offer unlimited monthly CDPD use for around US $50, a price far below US $4,750 which is about what AT&T would charge to run a cellphone for 43,200 minutes a month-- the equivalent of "unlimited use" in time. So what happens when you strap on a wireless modem to a Palm Pilot and access the Internet? You get a peek at the way many of us will experience cyberspace by 2000. Much as the Web unleashed a multi-billion dollar global industry and new cultural forms, so too will cheap, ubiquitous wireless datastreams, what I call Cellspace.

When the Times Square shuttle pulled in, I'd received sixteen email messages from all over the world. Sated in between two commuters on the bench, I paged through the messages using MultiMail Pro, a program that takes up about 79K of memory. Transferring to the Uptown 6 train (I was off to my dental hygienist, for a bi-annual teeth cleaning), I found another seat and began replying to a few messages. Getting off on 77th street, I reemerged on Lexington avenue and tapped send. A few seconds later my messages were routed onto the Net, and to their final destination.

In the waiting room, the one copy of the New York Times was being read by an elderly woman. I tried to shoulder-surf, but she sensed my parasitic intentions and demurely tilted the page out of view. Fine. I tapped on HandWeb, the Web browser on the Pilot, and entered the Times' Web site. A click later, and I was reading the paper too. At sixty cents a day, the Times adds up, and reading it for free this way felt different in way that reading the paper at my computer, sitting at my desk, never had. I was on the move, reading the paper the way papers are meant to be read-- between moments during the day, here and there, on the street, in a cafe, or wherever you are. The pilot's tiny screen felt surprisingly intimate. I held the Times close to my eyes, maybe 10 inches away, just as I do when reading a paperback book. Best of all, the Pilot stripped out all the banner ads and graphics, leaving me what mattered most-- the words, just the words.


Technological breakthroughs don't come from "eureka" moments in the lab. Breakthroughs come from incremental change, often in ways few can predict. Mosaic, a group-hacked piece of software coded by students at the University of Illinois in 1993 flipped the Internet from an obscure research network into the global phenomenon we have today. Lotus 1-2-3, in the early 80s, flipped the home computer from a hobbyist's toy into a tool for work, propelling millions of PC sales. The Palm Pilot, in 1996, flipped the Personal Digital Assistant market, from a clumsy obscure niche, into a mainstream platform. None of these inventions, taken on their own, were profound ruptures with the past, instead they served as catalytic engines, bringing together several currents of innovation into a new, powerful direction-- a breakthrough. The Minstrel is no different. Taken on it's own, it's a somewhat clumsy, ungainly piece of hardware-- a little too big, a little too hard to configure. But, much as Mosaic was, it's just the first generation, and it points to the arrival of a new system.

When I came home later that day (with extremely clean teeth), I headed for my laptop, picked up the phone, and was about to stick the plug into my computer when I thought-- why tie up the telephone when I can use the Pilot? So I logged in again, and downloaded new messages. "Look ma-- no wires!'' I thought, happily, flopped on the couch, Pilot in hand. This is the way the Internet was meant to be used-- whenever I want, wherever I want-- not tethered, stuck in some room, unable to move. What happens when you get mobile? Well, one thing is certain, it's going to make a whole bunch of unknown people millionaires, eventually. Maybe a few billionaires too. It's also going to create new hybrid forms of media, with all the attendant creativity, exploration and excitement that comes with a new territory of the mind


All of you hungering for the Next Big Thing, here's the business plan. She who steals it first, and gets venture capital, wins. I'll come to the launch party, and you get to pay my airfare (or subway, if it's in New York).

In its first iteration, Cellspace appeals to the "early adopters"-- those high-end gadget freaks and technophiles open to spending the time and money to experience a new technology. For instance, a company called Sierra Wireless in partnership with Reuters, has created a Cellspace service called MarketClip which provides real-time financial information-- stock prices, news-- through the Minstrel modem. For TK $110 a month, you can receive this data stream. Assuming you're managing a suitably large portfolio of stocks, $110 a month may be money well spent. More importantly, services like these are seeding a new pool of users-- people who will expect even more wireless services over time. Two other companies, GoAmerica and JP Systems, provide another innovation: wireless access to corporate Intranets. So, for instance, a corporate customer with a large mobile sales force can issue Palm Pilots to their employees and use these devices to coordinate schedules, contact lists, and the delivery of company documents on the go. Imagine a company, say Xerox, giving their salespeople thousands of these devices. You now have, in computer-jargon, a large "install base." Adding new functionalities is an obvious next step.

Imagine a travel service in Cellspace: one stop shopping for all your peripatetic needs. Say you arrive in Phoenix, Arizona on short notice. You want a map of the area, a list of hotels with prices, a guide to restaurants, and the schedule of tomorrow's departing air flights to your next stop. A company that can provide all this information in one place will find a ready audience. Do a deal with Zagat to get all the local restaurants in major cities; hook up with StreetAtlas USA, a mapping program; partner with OAG, a company that provides world-wide airline timetables; sing up a company providing hotel price information; another company for movie listings and times. Fuse these together, and your traveler has instantaneous access, the moment she steps off the plane, to everything one needs when arriving in an unknown city. Charge $9.95 a month for unlimited use. It's a killer app for our go-go globe where everyone seems to be traveling these days.

Business aside, what about the new entertainment and art forms that might come out of this? Already we have an extraordinary shareware and freeware movement exploding around the Palm Pilot, with a critical mass of applications being created by programemers througout the world. This sort of innovation will migrate to the wireless side as well, as the Pilot becomes an entry port to the Net.

This week I returned my demo modem to Novatel. I'm actually going to Phoenix on Sunday, and I have no idea how to get to my hotel. I'll figure it out the old fashioned way: call the hotel from a payphone in the airport, spread out my rental-car map on the passenger seat, and try to keep my eyes on the road while reading. And on the way there, I'll be thinking about how much easier it would be if I could hook into Cellspace, with my little glow-in-the-dark co-Pilot helping me find the way.

MEME's Epidemiology

As MEME approaches its third birthday, on August 5th, 1998, I've been asked how it's growing. For those of you who are curious, I've enclosed the latest subscription statistics, broken out by geography. MEME witness close to a 50% growth spurt, from approximately 4,500 subscribers to 6,300 after an article I wrote for Wired on list-publishing came out in April. For those of you interested in reading the story, which describes my experiences publishing MEME, you can access it at

Here is the subscriber information:

*  Country                  Subscribers
*  -------                  -----------
*  ??? (10)                           1
*  Anguilla                           1
*  Argentina                         22
*  Australia                        216
*  Austria                           16
*  Bahrain                            1
*  Belgium                           25
*  Brazil                            27
*  Brunei Darussalam                  1
*  Canada                           263
*  Cayman Islands                     2
*  Chile                              1
*  China                              1
*  Colombia                           3
*  Croatia/Hrvatska                   3
*  Czech Republic                     4
*  Denmark                           17
*  Fiji                               1
*  Finland                           13
*  France                            45
*  Germany                           93
*  Great Britain                    199
*  Greece                            15
*  Hong Kong                          7
*  Hungary                            7
*  Iceland                            2
*  India                              2
*  Indonesia                          5
*  Iran                               1
*  Ireland                           18
*  Israel                            25
*  Italy                             55
*  Japan                             20
*  Korea                             14
*  Latvia                             1
*  Lithuania                          3
*  Luxembourg                         2
*  Macau                              1
*  Macedonia, former Yugoslavia Rep.  1
*  Malaysia                           9
*  Malta                              1
*  Mexico                             8
*  Netherlands                       66
*  New Zealand                       46
*  Niue                               2
*  Norway                            24
*  Pakistan                           4
*  Paraguay                           1
*  Peru                               7
*  Philippines                        1
*  Poland                             4
*  Portugal                           9
*  Romania                            2
*  Russian Federation                 5
*  Saudi Arabia                       5
*  Singapore                         26
*  Slovakia                           2
*  South Africa                      23
*  Soviet Union                       1
*  Spain                             19
*  Sweden                            49
*  Switzerland                       22
*  Taiwan                             9
*  Thailand                           2
*  Tonga                              2
*  Trinidad and Tobago                1
*  Turkey                             4
*  USA                            4,816
*  Ukraine                            1
*  Uruguay                            2
*  Venezuela                          6
*  Yugoslavia                         5
*  ???                                7
* Total number of users subscribed to the list:   6325  
* Total number of countries represented:            73  

And a final note, I will be in Rome, Italy, from May 17th through May 24th. I sent a private note to the 55 MEME subscribers in Italy, proposing we get together for dinner on Tuesday, May 19th, location and time to be decided. If you're going to be in town that week, and want to join in, send me an email at

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MEME is published by David S. Bennahum. Duplication for non-commerical use is permitted. Contact me if you have questions. Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at