Bluetooth’s Missing Suitcase

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Remember when Samsonite launched the Bluetooth suitcase? No, well, that’s not surprising, because they didn’t. This week’s WSJ.com column is (subscription only, I’m afraid) the first in a series about finding stuff in the real world. I started with a hunt for the Bluetooth suitcase, first announced in 2002 (and weirdly, still up on the Samsonite website):

I got all excited five years ago when Samsonite announced a suitcase that used Bluetooth, a wireless technology more commonly used to connect cellphones to headsets, to carry data about the owner and alert him or her if the case was moved. Hooray, I thought: Now we’ll all know where our luggage is. Unfortunately not: The Samsonite Hardlite never saw the light of day for technical reasons, although the company says it’s still looking at other ways to identify and secure luggage.

This is about as close as we came to the idea that the wireless technologies we now take for granted — Bluetooth, WiFi, infrared, cellphones, GPS — would actually help us stay in touch with the important things in life, like our stuff. Which is a shame. I would love to be able to ping all the Bluetooth gadgets in my house via my cellphone and know where they are. One Bluetooth headset has been missing for years.

I then take a look at what’s available. But what intrigued me was: what happened to the Samsonite case? This is what Samsonite PR came up with:

It seems from what I can gather this collection was in the end not launched. The reasons seem to be quite numerous – the cost to the consumer would have been significant, a lot of mobile phones were not compatible with the technology at the time, and today would still require additional memory.

Another person I contacted had this to say:

Basically the project did not make it to the market because of several reasons.

About 10 pieces were made for field testing, but there were issues on the standardisation. At the time Bluetooth technology was still at an early development stage and not yet standardised, so for a product to be able to ‘talk’ to another wasn’t that straight forward and obvious. Therefore after the field testing it was decided that the benefits for the consumer just weren’t sufficient. At the moment there are no plans to resurrect the project.

Which I found interesting. To me, back in 2002, the suitcase made all sorts of sense. Bluetooth, cellphones, missing suitcases: who wouldn’t have gone for something like that? But Bluetooth has always been a bit of a devil when it comes to anything other than really basic connectivity. Even Mac users have been heard to complain of connecting Bluetooth devices to their laptops.

Would today’s Bluetooth be able to cope with with this kind of concept now? Is it already doing so? Or would security concerns — how long would it take before someone puts together software to reprogram the data on a Samsonite suitcase so it gets diverted to Luang Prabang?

Is That a Virus on Your Phone or a New Business Model?

This week’s WSJ.com column (subscription only) is about mobile viruses — or the lack of them. First off I talked about CommWarrior, the virus any of you with a Symbian phone and Bluetooth switched no will have been pinged with anywhere in the world.

CommWarrior isn’t new: It has been around since March 2005. But this isn’t much comfort if you find yourself — as a lunch companion and I did — bombarded by a dozen attempts to infect our phones before the first course had arrived. So is CommWarrior just the thin end of a long wedge? Yes, if you listen to the Internet-security industry. “I can personally assure you that mobile threats are reality, and we have to start taking our mobile security seriously,” says Eric Everson, who admittedly has a stake in talking up the threat, given that he is founder of Atlanta-based MyMobiSafe, which offers cellphone antivirus protection at $4 a month.

But the security industry has been saying this for years about viruses — usually lumped together under the catchall “malware” — and, despite lots of scare stories, I couldn’t find any compelling evidence that they are actually causing us problems beyond those I experienced in the Italian restaurant.

For reasons of space quite a bit of material had to be dropped, so I’m adding it here for anyone who’s interested. Apologies to those sources who didn’t get their voices heard.

Symantec, F-Secure Security Labs and other antivirus companies call FlexiSPY a virus (though, strictly speaking, it’s a Trojan, meaning it must be installed by the user, who thinks the program does something harmless). “In terms of damaging the user, the most serious issue at the moment is commercial spyware applications such as FlexiSPY,” says Peter Harrison, of a new U.K.-based mobile-security company, UMU Ltd.

Not surprisingly, however, Mr. Raihan isn’t happy to have his product identified and removed by cellphone antivirus software, though he says his protests have fallen on deaf ears. “We are a godsend to them,” he says of the mobile antivirus companies. “They are fear-mongering as there is not a significant problem with viruses in the mobile space.”

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Phones Aren’t About Telephony

Skype is a powerful tool because it’s found its way into the hands of people who need it most — ordinary folk. Now it and the companies that make devices to use Skype on need to understand that it’s not about telephony anymore, if it ever was. It’s about two or more people sharing each others’ presence. Now we need the products to make that happen.

I was chatting with someone last night, a gent in his early 60s from LA, who should have retired but decided to take on one more project, in Hong Kong. He was in two minds about it because it would mean a year away from his wife, but he was persuaded because he knew Skype would keep him in touch. Of course it could be any VoIP tool, but the point here is that Skype was the first to cross the threshold into this market because it was easier (and worked better) than all the others at the time. Now the guy can chat with his wife every night and being apart is bearable and not making him too poor.

But he was still using it as a phone: Call the other person up, chat and then hang up. Had he ever thought about just leaving the line open, I asked him? Why would I do that? he replied. Because it won’t cost you anything, and then you’ll hear the sounds of home, which in a way is what you’re really missing. Your wife banging around in the kitchen, the kids arguing, a dog barking, the sound of the wood pigeon in the garden (OK, that’s more my memory of home than his. Not sure they have wood pigeons in LA.)

I then realised that actually there would be a great line of products here. Wireless devices that you could place around the house, outside, some that are just microphones picking up sound, and others that also serve as speakerphones, so his wife can just wander around and, when she wants to, chat as well. Of course, a Bluetooth headset might do the trick, and maybe there are some wireless handsets that might work. I’ve done a quick search and not found any obvious candidates. Most seem to assume you want to use Skype as a phone. But Skype is not really about phones anymore. It’s about presence — on one side, showing other people whether you’re available, etc, and on the other, allowing you to teleport yourself to the person you’re with without the old restrictions of the phone: cost, the structured nature of phone conversation, having to press a device to your ear.

Manufacturers, it’s true, are beginning to wake up to the idea that we don’t use our devices in the way, or the place, they’re designed for. Take the percushion pillow phone, for example, which finally solves that problem of trying to have a conversation with someone while you’re trying to get to sleep. That’s a good start. Now lets see devices that use sound and vision to make anyone, including my new homesick friend, to really feel they’re home.

A Communicator Killer?

I tend to think of the Nokia Communicator (aka The Brick) as a somewhat retrograde device, popular to folk who haven’t quite caught up with the shape of things to come (aka The Smartphone). But Indonesians and Germans don’t agree (link to a podcast I did on the subject for the BBC), using the Communicator in such large numbers that Nokia tends to focus most of its promotional energies in those two countries. This may explain why a German company is about to launch a Communicator lookalike: the HandyPC.

Tony Smith of The Register reports that Berlin-based phone maker ROAD GmbH has announced the HandyPC, a clamshell device based on the Linux operating system and Trolltech’s Qtopia GUI. It’s a quad-band GSM/GPRS/EDGE device with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on board too. No date has been given for when the product will be sold, or how much it will cost.
 

Linux-based HandyPC to challenge Nokia Communicator | Reg Hardware.

Would You Buy A Bluetooth Car From These People?

Spare a thought for the car salesperson. Nowadays they’ve got to know as much about technology as they do about cars. A recent course held by Ford in the UK called True Blue Live to train salespeople in technology has produced mixed reports. A South African motoring website called motoring.co.za reports that “by the end of the session nearly half felt “very confident” and most of the rest were “reasonably confident”. Only a few were still unsure but, importantly, conscious of the need to brush up.”

But elsewhere The Coventry Evening Telegraph (sorry, can’t find original link) reports from the same training session that “feedback after the event indicated that around 35 per cent of the sales staff who attended had little confidence in their own ability to demonstrate high-tech in-car equipment such as BlueTooth devices and voice control systems.” What’s not clear from the story is whether this was their attitude before or after the event. But you can’t help wondering whether, if the salespeople have trouble explaining Bluetooth and other features of these cars, end users actually ever understand or use any of them?

The Bluetooth Gun

Bluetooth in the line of fire? New Scientist reports of a police gun invention that when fired will automatically send its position to fellow officers who can then, presumably, provide backup.

The idea is that when a police officer is holding his gun correctly — both hands on the weapon — he or she can’t easily reach for the radio. So inventor Kevin Sinha of Georgia, “has come up with a simple way around the problem and Motorola, which has made police radios for many years, has pitched in.” The invention involves a Bluetooth transmitter chip controlled by a sensor in the gun which detects when the firing pin is triggered. Whenever a shot is fired the gun sends out a signal to a GPS radio on the wearer’s belt which determines the wearer’s precise position and transmits a pre-recorded message along with the location.

An interesting use of Bluetooth (and GPS). Of course, knowing how hard it is to couple two Bluetooth devices, and their tendency to need “waking up” even if they are paired, I wouldn’t want to rely on it in hairy situations. Like being shot at, for example.

How To Infect An Airport

Could it be possible to use Radio Frequency ID tags, or RFID, to transmit viruses? Some researchers reckon so. Unstrung reports that a paper presented at the Pervasive Computing and Communications Conference in Pisa, Italy, the researchers from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, led by Andrew Tanenbaum, show just how susceptible radio-frequency tags may be to malware. “Up until now, everyone working on RFID technology has tacitly assumed that the mere act of scanning an RFID tag cannot modify backend software, and certainly not in a malicious way,” the paper’s authors write. “Unfortunately, they are wrong.”

According to The New Scientist the Vrije Universiteit team found that compact malicious code could be written to RFID tags by replacing a tag’s normal identification code with a carefully written message. This could in turn exploit bugs in a computer connected to an RFID reader. This made it possible, the magazine says, to spread a self-replicating computer worm capable of infecting other compatible, and rewritable, RFID tags.

An RFID tag is small — roughly the size of a grain of rice, the New Scientist says, and contains a tiny chip and radio transmitter capable of sending a unique identification code over a short distance to a receiver and a connected computer. They are widely used in supermarkets, warehouses, pet tracking and toll collection. But it’s still in the early stages of development. Which leaves it vulnerable. Until now, however, it was thought the small internal memory would make it impossible to infect. Not so, say the researchers.

So what would happen, exactly? RFID virus would then find its way into the backend databases used by the RFID software. The paper, Unstrung says, outlines three scenarios: a prankster who replaces an RFID tag on a jar of peanut butter with an infected tag to infect a supermarket chain’s database; a subdermal (i.e., under-the-skin) RFID tag on a pet used to upload a virus into a veterinarian or ASPCA computer system; and, most alarmingly, a radio-frequency bag tag used to infect an airport baggage-handling system. A virus in an airport database could re-infect other bags as they are scanned, which in turn could spread the virus to hub airports as the traveler changes planes.

So how likely is this? Not very, Unstrung quotes Dan Mullen, executive director of AIM Global, a trade association for the barcode and RFID industries, as saying. “If you’re looking at an airport baggage system, for instance, you have to know what sort of tag’s being used, the structure of the data being collected, and what the scanners are set up to gather,” he explains. Red Herring quotes Kevin Ashton, vice president of marketing for ThingMagic, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based designer of reading devices for RFID systems, as saying the paper was highly theoretical and the theoretical RFID viruses could be damaging only to an “incredibly badly designed system.” Hey, that sounds a bit like a PC.

But he does make a good point: because RFID systems are custom designed, a hacker would have to know a lot about the system to be able to infect it. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and it doesn’t mean it won’t get easier to infect. As RFID becomes more widespread, off-the-shelf solutions are going to become more common. And besides, what will stop a disgruntled worker from infecting a system he is using? Or an attacker obtaining some tags and stealing a reader, say, and then reverse engineering the RFID target?

My instinct would be to take these guys seriously. As with Bluetooth security issues such as Bluesnarfing, the tendency is for the industry itself not to take security seriously until someone smarter than them comes along and shows them why they should do.

Phones As Emergency Tools

The excellent textually.org  carries a piece about a technology which would allow people to “receive emergency messages on their mobile phones via an audio system — even when networks are down or out of reach, such as when underground”. The signal would be embedded as “data in an audio signal which can be transmitted over a radio, TV or PA system and sent using an encoded link via SLS to mobiles in the vicinity.” 

It sounds like a good idea. I’d love to see the cellphone used more imaginatively as a way to reach and transmit emergency data — whether it’s information which may help the owner, or as a beacon for the owner to convey their location. After the London bombing I was thinking aloud about whether Bluetooth could in some way be used as a kind of panic button allowing people to pass on information even when existing networks were congested or down. But as I have as much technical knowledge as a penguin this idea may not have reached the powers that be.

Still, my own ignorance aside, I think the cellphone needs to be considered as a vital lifeline — the awful sadness of SMS messages being sent by schoolchildren trapped under landslides in the Philippines should be reminder enough that everyone has one of these things in their hand nowadays and make it seem such an obvious step to try to make them a more useful emergency device.

Your Watch Is Ringing

Jiji Press of Japan is reporting (can’t find any link for this) that Seiko Instruments “has developed a prototype of a wristwatch that alerts the wearer to mobile phone calls.” The watch uses Bluetooth to monitor a cell phone and vibrates or sounds an alarm when a call comes in. Useful, I guess, if you don’t want to take your phone out of your pocket. Expect to see something in the shops next year.  

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For whom the Bluetooth tolls

The Future of Paper

The Observer has an interesting piece on the future of the book. For some the future of the book is electronic:

[Bloomsbury chairman Nigel] Newton is certain that ‘within seven to 10 years, 50 per cent of all book sales will be downloads. When the e-reader emerges as a mass-market item, the shift will be very rapid indeed. It will soon be a dual-format market.’ That prediction makes a lot of sense. E-books will not replace the old format any more than the motorcar replaced the bicycle, or typewriters the pen.

This 50–50 division may occur largely between genre, where electronic books are largely used by reference and technical publishers. Meanwhile to survive the ordinary book trade will turn to

‘on-demand printing’, in which on-demand printers, installed in bookshops and service stations, will enable the reader to access a publisher’s backlist and make a high-speed print-out of a single copy of a book.

Print on demand already exists, of course: Many of the books you order from Amazon are printed in response to orders. But not by the bookseller: that technology has still to come. But I remember how as a bookseller in the early 1980s we dreamed of that world. If smaller bookshops were able to do that they may yet stand a chance against the big guys. Imagine knowing that any bookshop you walk into, however small, could zip off a copy of some obscure, out-of-print tome while you wait? Bookshops would suddenly become more like a Kinkos or a Post Office: A place where anything can be done. (But then again, the technology to do this in music already exists, so why hasn’t HMV and Tower Records made it possible to burn a CD on demand?)

This all said, the book is not dead yet:

There is every reason to want to see the printed word enhanced by something more in tune with current information technology, but until the geeky entrepreneurs of MIT, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and the rest can come up with something that looks like a book, feels like a book and behaves like a book, those who handle such items every day, and marvel over the magical integration of print, paper and binding, will probably continue to read and enjoy books much as Caxton and Gutenberg did.

The point really is that the book is not just a sentimental throwback to a happier time, but a superb piece of technology that maximises all those things we digital generation hold dear: great screen and easy to read in poor light conditions, indefinite battery life; light and highly portable; cheap; won’t break in water (just put on heater to dry); easy to navigate through content (just flip pages); nice to hold.

The other point worth making is that e-paper is much more likely to catch on in other areas before it catches on with books. Newspapers, magazines, journals, reports and exhibition flyers are much better suited to this kind of technology, because they need to be read while mobile (the newspaper on the train); they have no emotional hold on the user (a book is usually kept; a magazine is thrown away. The user therefore handles a book better and preserves its condition). Newspapers, getting smaller as our lives get more crowded, are an obvious target for a digital makeover, since we rarely keep them and yet every day fill the same space in our briefcase with an identical replacement.

In the case of flyers and reports, the ability to share and broadcast the content is an important part of the process. E-paper would be great at this, since it would be no harder (or easier, for that matter) than beaming what’s on your e-paper to someone else’s. Indeed, wherever reading is not a solitary activity, e-paper makes sense: bring an agenda into a meeting and fire it around the room by Bluetooth to other attendees (rather than printing out copies and stapling them, or demanding bring their laptops). Instead of walking around exhibitions weighed down with brochures and flyers, attendees could carry around one e-paper and receive blasts from each booth they are interested in.

I don’t think publishers need to worry that much. But elsewhere e-paper is long overdue.