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The Impact of Mobile Technology

Who could have predicted that Apple's iPhone would forever change television and democratize the way the nation receives its news and information? Who could have predicted that Twitter would become a major force in world politics?

I certainly couldn't have, and suspect even the inventors of these technologies had no clue what they were unleashing when they were working in the lab. Yet, new technology has a way of sneaking up on us, causing unintended consequences.

That certainly happened to me in the 1970s and '80s, when small-format video was taking off. Most of us believed then that it would change television for the better—taking power away from the major studios and networks and making it accessible to the people. We were very wrong!

The first Betacam, which I owned, enabled "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" in 1984. Enough said about that. Let's just say low-budget television producers gained entry to the production game, but the people didn't. Unfortunately, low-cost commercial television programming hasn't improved very much since then.


Yet, some 30 years later, change has come. The new iPhone 3GS, launched on June 19, democratizes video much more than the Betacam ever did. It enables anyone with about $300 in their pocket to become a TV producer with a potential global market.

That's because the new iPhone takes 30 fps VGA video, as well as still images with a three megapixel camera, and allows the video to be edited and then sent directly to YouTube or a Web site for global distribution. All from the mobile phone itself.

Janis Krums, a Florida-based blogger, tweeted this photo taken by an iphone of the U.S. Airways plane that crash landed in the Hudson River in January. ©Janis Krums This technology is not totally new, but the sheer number of iPhone 3GS users—which sold more than a million just in the first weekend—has the potential to infiltrate the planet with roving video cameras.

This has the opportunity to democratize electronic newsgathering like nothing ever has before. Citizen journalism will rise dramatically! But I've now learned my lesson about expectations. I no longer believe easy access means television will get better.

However, the door will now open to a few very lucky and smart people who witness something special and have the skills to report it to the world. With the current meltdown of the commercial news media, we should be pleased with this alternative. Perhaps we'll begin to get video of genuine breaking events, rather than lame "live at 11" standups in front of crime sites.

The older iPhone already broke news earlier this year when Janis Krums, a Florida-based blogger, tweeted an iPhone-made photo seen around the world. It was of the U.S. Airways plane flown by Capt. C.B. Sullenberger that crash landed in the Hudson River in New York City. Krum was there first and beat all the so-called professional media.


The other amazing new technology is Twitter, a social-networking tool that at first appears to be as frivolous as "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous." But, in Moldova in April and in Iran in June, the micro-blogging service of 140 character phrases has proven to be a truly revolutionary tool.

When hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the official results of the presidential election in Iran earlier this summer, Twitter was used to help Iranian citizens get information out to the world about the chaos that erupted there.

The Iranian government banned foreign reporters and blocked or shut down various modes of communication including phone lines, satellite dishes and even text messaging. But Twitter continued to work in the cat-and-mouse game between the government and the protesters.

iPhone 3GS now features video capture and editing. Twitter was used to direct the public and journalists alike to video, photographs and written material related to the protests. Each "tweet" was tagged with "#IranElection" so that users could find them more easily.

The technology was also used in Iran for denial-of-service attacks against key government Web sites, including those affiliated with President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Using embedded URLs in e-mails pointing to the government sites, hundreds of users initiated a continuous stream of page refresh requests to overload them.

Another tool available via Twitter is called bandwidth raep (bwraep), which is also a sort of denial-of-service attack. This attack works by bombarding a Web server with fake requests to serve up content-heavy images. Tweets also circulated that offered information on where to find malware capable of initiating so-called Ping and Syn flood attacks, which are designed to overwhelm servers with an incessant flood of useless requests.

In the days after the Iranian election, Twitter became so important that the U.S. State Department requested the company delay its scheduled site maintenance so as not to interfere with the activities of the protesters.


"When we worked with our network provider yesterday to reschedule this planned maintenance, we did so because events in Iran were tied directly to the growing significance of Twitter as an important communication and information network," wrote Twitter co-founder Brad Stone in a blog. "It's humbling to think that our two-year-old company could be playing such a globally meaningful role that state officials find their way toward highlighting our significance."

On a side note, in the month of May alone, Nielsen Online found that Twitter grew faster than any other Web site when its unique visitors rose almost 1,500 percent year-on-year to 18.2 million. Facebook ranked first in May, its fifth straight month as number one, with 75.4 million unique visitors, an increase of 190 percent over May, 2008.

Only a year ago, few could have predicted these dramatic technology shifts that have essentially moved control of video production and distribution to the masses, and placed such powerful organizing tools in the hands of ordinary people.

But both have occurred almost simultaneously with the economic collapse of organized commercial media outlets. It's clear we are in for a wild ride as radical technological change continues to transform the way we communicate with each other.

Frank Beacham is an independent New York City-based writer. Visit his Web site atwww.frankbeacham.comand his blog

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.