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The Letter M

Say the word, and you'll be free

By Annalee Newitz

LIKE A mentally unstable business development executive, I've become dangerously obsessed with M. I think it started a couple of months ago when I saw one of those Volkswagens covered in corporate iconography for some now-defunct dotcom that was called something like M-fast or M-comm or M-zoom. The car had been splattered all over with images of old-fashioned radio towers shooting out these little lightning bolts that were no doubt supposed to represent streams of information freed from their wires and allowed to roam the universe as happy, floaty, electromagnetic waves.

For those of you who don't read advertisements on cars or the technology headlines from CNET or whoever is currently feeding content to your portal of choice, M stands for "mobile." You know, as in mobile phones, mobile networks, mobile devices. It bears no relation to the 1931 Fritz Lang movie of the same initial, which stars Peter Lorre as a freaky guy who murders children. And yet every time I see the initial M in front of some other semimeaningless term like net or biz or whatever, I think of Peter Lorre's bugged-out eyes and that black trench coat he wraps around the tiny victims of his twisted, homicidal desires.

Of course, since wireless technologies are the proverbial next big thing, I'm seeing Peter Lorre's crazed eyes everywhere. And when I glanced at the glossy cover of a new magazine called M-Business, I thought briefly that it was an upscale version of Soldier of Fortune. Murder-related paranoia aside, I think my main problem with this orgy of M is that it's just such an obvious advertising gimmick. It's like when everything was "clear" or "crystal" in the early 1990s--clear deodorant, Crystal Pepsi. Just slap another letter onto your product's name (which is possibly already an acronym) and suddenly you've got something new. In fact, it's M-new!

Sure, it's true that certain kinds of mobile devices are genuinely new, and in some cases wholly unrelated to previous kinds of industry. Global positioning devices are a genuinely "new" thing--at least for us lowly consumers-- as are the low-heat chips being developed at Transmeta for handheld devices. But by and large, M smacks of post-dotcom desperation. It used to be that just putting that dotcom at the end of your business name was enough to lasso a cool 20 million. Now, in desperation, we're looking for a new miniword that can bring extra money into old technologies. We've gone from E-biz to M-biz and the only thing that's changed is that I won't need to buy printer cables or phone cords anymore.

Fred Wood, a business developer at M-Business and part of the magazine's original launch team, wrote me, "The magazine is a necessity for the growing mobile economy because of the constant changes that are occurring at every level and in every part of the industry, from service providers (Sprint, AT&T, Verizon) to software developers (OracleMobile, Phone.com, IBM) and from device manufacturers (Handspring, Sony, Motorola) to standards bodies (FCC, WAP Forum, ITU)."

Although it's understandable that Wood and his colleagues want to help define the M-market, the companies and standards bodies they're covering are not exactly new on the scene. They're just the same old powerful companies and developers who are now starting up M-divisions so that they can churn out products that match the flavor of the moment.

Unlike the heady rush of the early dotcom days, when there were genuinely new names and faces attached to the cash and power, the M-era is less about starting brand-new companies or markets and more about retooling the old ones to whip consumers and investors into a frenzy. Sick of Oracle.com? Try OracleMobile! Did your dotcom die? Maybe you can join our team of M-biz wonks and make your web portal into a WAP portal!

Every advertising trend has its seductive lure, however, and M is no different. Dotcoms once promised us a shiny future of nice, clean postindustrialism driven entirely by mental labor and pure information. And these days M sweeps us away in dreams of a world in which we are not enslaved by the huge bales of wires that hem us in at work and clog the power strips plugged into every available outlet in our homes. Wires bind us to unwieldy machines which cannot move; wires seem to keep us tied into the repetitive motions that cripple us. But M can set us free. Oh M! Oh humanity!

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who wants an m-vibrator.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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