Tag Archives: cell phones

Computers: Right Back Where We Started


A lot of my time is spent writing for and talking to people for whom the computer remains a scary beast that is best kept at arm’s length, or, better, in a closet. I feel for these people because I’m not naturally a techie myself.

I failed science and math in school and almost certainly would again if I retook those exams. (I blame the science teacher, an evil vicar who tormented me, but that’s another story.) But perhaps these technophobes have a point? Perhaps computers and the Internet haven’t really done us any favors?

Firstly, the stats. Has the computer/Internet boom made us more productive? Apparently not. Well, it did the first time around: the 1990s technology surge (the steep red bit in the chart above) made us all productive, and that continued until about 2003 (the extra years beyond the bubble burst helped by the momentum of the surge, and some serious cost-cutting. But since 2004 the U.S. has been in decline in terms of the rate of productivity growth (or trend productivity, to give it its proper name), to the point where we’re pretty much back where we started in 1995. I know it doesn’t exactly follow, but given a lot of us didn’t have BlackBerries, ultraportable laptops and ubiquitous Internet connections in those days, does that mean we’re doing about the same amount of work then as we are, with all those gizmos, now?

Scary thought. And in some ways the answer is yes. According to research firm Basex, nearly a third of our day is eaten up with interruptions from e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, text messaging, and blogs like this one. In financial terms that’s a lot of

McKinsey sees it differently: We’ve outsourced or automated all the simple stuff, so we’re left with people whose jobs can’t be done by computers.

I see it a little differently again. I believe that we have mistaken ubiquitous computing — in other words, the ability to do stuff anywhere, anytime — as making us more productive because we’re filling “dead time”. It’s this misunderstanding of time that I think is causing us problems. Take some of these quotes from a story on how BlackBerries make us more productive, from July last year:

I can now use downtime–waiting to collect daughters, train journeys–to continue to read and action e-mails, which means I don’t have a huge queue waiting for me when I’m next in the office

After a recent long weekend, I would normally have returned to around 150 e-mails …Instead, I spent an hour on my PDA the night before I was due back into work, and the next morning, I walked in to only six mails that required attention. Not only did this make me more efficient, but it totally reduced my stress levels

The technology both increases output by enabling what would otherwise be unproductive downtime to be used positively, and is liberating in that it allows flexibility and responsiveness.

The BlackBerry has definitely extended the capability of utilizing ‘dead’ time effectively–trains, taxis, 10-minute waits or answering questions like this

We are all benefiting from quicker response times to things that need actioning ‘now … Communication between department managers is much quicker.

Each statement is usually followed by a ‘I realise I need a balance/the wife hates it’ comment, as if the user is aware of the pitfalls. But the pitfall is not the ‘always on’ culture this creates, or even the lack of awareness that the ability to react quickly to something will simply prompt another reaction and require another response. The pitfall is that the “dead time” of waiting for your daughter to finish school, or the “unproductive down time” is actually an important component of our lives, and therefore of our productivity.

Sitting in your car waiting for your kid, the lazy hour on a Sunday evening after the washing-up’s cleared away and the kids are in bed, used to be time when you’d think about what needed to be done, or to reflect (on your daughter, hopefully, so you’re mentally ready for her rather than still mentally scanning emails when she’s gushing about gym class.) Dead time was there for a reason: a chance to think outside the box, reflect, think about that email you’re going to send the boss rather than jab a misspelled couple of lines on your BlackBerry so you can cross that item off your Getting Things Done list.

Productivity may be slowing because we’ve just filled every second of that dead time already and there’s nothing left to fill. If that’s even partly true, then the productivity was fake, since it was based on a false assumption: that the dead time was empty, an unused resource. Anyone who has sat in a moving vehicle and looked out of the window reflecting on stuff knows that this is actually the most important part of the day, and by removing it most of our BlackBerry-wielding friends/colleagues/bosses/spouses have turned into zombies, unable to locate themselves in the here and now.

The solution then, to this productivity crisis is to use technology less, not more. I’m not suggesting we don’t use BlackBerries — although I don’t — but I’m suggesting we stop deluding ourselves that these gadgets are saving our marriage/hearts. They’re not. They’re like ping pong paddles with the ball on a piece of elastic — we think are batting the problems out of our lives but they’re just coming back at us. Time to put the bat down and look out the window.

Hang On, I’m Just Calling My Getaway Car

A bank in Chicago has banned use of cellphones in five of its branches, hoping to prevent the bad guys from communicating with each other during a robbery, according to UPI:

“We ban cell phone use in the lobby because you don’t know what people are doing,” Ralph Oster, a senior vice president [of the First National Bank], told the Chicago Tribune. Cell phone cameras are also a worry.

Oster said there have been holdups in which bandits were on the phone with lookouts outside while committing bank robberies.

As the piece points out, this isn’t the first such ban: West Suburban Bank, based in Lombard, Ill., barred customers wearing hats in January but has not moved to silence cell phones.

Does this make sense? Well, in some ways it does. If there’s a guy hanging around the bank on the phone, it could be that he’s coordinating his getaway car, and you would want to try to nip that kind of thing in the bud. It does happen. By stopping him (or her) from using a cellphone he may decide not to rob your bank, but the one next door instead, where cellphones aren’t banned.

However, where does it stop? Would someone texting/SMSing be told to stop? And how would a security guard, however many PhDs he has, be able to tell the difference between someone jabbing away on a cellphone and jabbing away on a PDA? How about people using handsfree devices? Are they just singing/talking to themselves?

On the other hand, isn’t there an easier way? I would have thought a cellphone blocker would be a better idea (check out this excellent Google Answer on the difference between jammers (illegal in the U.S., since it involves actually interfering with the signal) and blockers (which build a shield around the location to block signals from penetrating it).

Of course, there are downsides. How many times have you been in a bank and then realized you needed to contact a friend/colleague/family member to discuss how much money you should take out/deposit/borrow? As Bruce Schneier would say, devices can be used for both good and ill and if the good outweighs the ill, as it usually does, banning is stooopid:

We don’t ban cars because bank robbers can use them to get away faster. We don’t ban cell phones because drug dealers use them to arrange sales. We don’t ban money because kidnappers use it. And finally, we don’t ban cryptography because the bad guys it to keep their communications secret. In all of these cases, the benefit to society of having the technology is much greater than the benefit to society of controlling, crippling, or banning the technology.

Tsunamis, Warnings and the SMS

Systems — especially warning systems — need to work perfectly, or not at all. Take Thailand’s new tsunami early warning system, which recently failed a trial because busy phone networks took hours to deliver vital SMS messages, while some some warnings sent by fax didn’t turn up at all, according to AFP. (More on the drill from DPA here.)

The report quotes Thailand’s National Disaster Warning Centre as saying that text messages sent by cell phones to emergency coordinators around the country took hours to arrive, while warnings sent by fax during the morning drill also failed to arrive. Said Pakdivat Vajirapanlop, the centre’s deputy operations chief: “The problem we faced was with communications. We have no idea whether our messages sent to local operations chiefs by fax and SMS arrived on time or not, and by midday some of them said they did not recieve the SMS. We need to know whether they have received our messages. What can they do if the messages don’t arrive on time? Then the warning is useless,” he said.

Indeed. SMS is not a reliable way to transmit messages, especially during a crisis. A warning system is as weak as its weakest link, and relying on SMS, or even fax, is not going to work. I’m just not sure what would work under such circumstances. The system needs to have an inbuilt check that a) ensures the message reaches its destination and b) the sender receives confirmation that the recipient has received and opened the message (what you might call passive acknowledgement. The recipient doesn’t need to actively acknowledge the message has been received, because that requires a further step. The message itself actually has an inbuilt acknowledgement mechanism.

SMS actually allows this confirmation, where the user can receive an SMS back informing him his message has been received by the sender. This system is not perfect of course, since nowadays SMS messages are filtered by increasingly sophisticated smartphones. So, for example, in the past an SMS’ arrival would intrude upon the recipient by a) making a noise and b) appearing on top of any other data or image on the phone’s screen, now smart phones can handle the SMS differently, from directing it to a specific folder to not appearing on the screen at all if another program is being used, or the phone is in silent mode, say. A great example of technology actually getting in the way of using the communication device as an alerting mechanism.

There are other ways, of course. One could use email trackers like MessageTag or DidTheyReadit which would alert the sender that the email has been sent. Although not popular with privacy advocates, this might be a way to inform a sender of a tsunami alert that a message has been read — even when, and perhaps where. Perhaps email trackers could be packaged and sold for this purpose?

On the other hand, how about picking up the phone and calling someone?

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

Pay Money, Scan Barcodes With Your Cellphone

ScanZoom, which allows camera phone users to scan barcodes to compare prices in stores and obtain other information and services, is now available. It will work with most camera phones, but there’s a catch: You have to pay $10 for the software, $10 for a special macro zoom lens, and another $5 or so to get it to you. A similar version if available for webcams.

I haven’t tried it out yet, but if I recall correctly a barcode reading pen was available a few years back — the C Pen, if I’m not mistaken, which turned out to be less of a success than its makers hoped for. The idea was for users to scan barcodes they found in magazines and then send the data to their computer, which would in turn, er, tell them about the product they’d just read about in the magazine. I might be getting this wrong, but a) I couldn’t find that many companies that had been loaded into the pen’s database for it to work and b) how many people are going to do this kind of thing for it to work?

ScanZoom could be different, in that the user doesn’t have to do that much. But clearly the need for a macro zoom lens on the camera phone is going to be an inhibitor (can you still use the phone with the lens on it?), as it the fact you’ve got to pay $20 to get started. Unless the service really does help you get good prices, rather than just throw more advertising at you and steer you to certain vendors, you might be wondering who the chump is.

Still, as infoSync World reported late last year, this kind of thing is common enough in Japan. And ScanBuy, the company behind ScanZoom, says it used the technology at a soccer game in Spain earlier this year to ID ticket holders. And they’re not shy in their claims: Their PR blurb says (PDF only)

Optical Intelligence enables camera equipped cell phones and other mobile devices with barcode-reading functionality. This technology will drastically change use of cell phones as we know it today as the biggest problem with the cell phones, namely the input mechanisms, is now solved. With the new generation of devices, ScanZoom will allow to send an email, give a call, access a website, download music or purchase items according to the data scanned.

I’ve requested a review unit and will report back.

Tracking People With A Cellphone

Can services which allow you to track another person’s whereabouts be abused to monitor the movements of loved ones, employees etc without their knowledge?

David Brake of Blog.org cites an article on Korea’s OhmyNews.com site that says yes. As he points out, there are plenty of services that offer this service with built-in safeguards to ensure the person being tracked has given his/her permission. In the UK there’s Verilocation and Where RU, for example.

But the OhmyNews article would seem to confirm that such safeguards are easily bypassed. The article, written by Jennifer Park, an OhmyNews intern about to begin her freshman year at Carnegie Mellon University, points to two cases in Korea she says illustrate the relative ease with which folk can monitor people without their knowledge.

One involves a woman subscribing to a location-based service without his knowledge, finding and entering the correct PIN code to register for the ‘search friend’ service. She was then able to “trace her boyfriend block by block” to an accuracy of 10 metres. That, Jennifer says, was enough to be to tell the woman’s boyfriend was at a specific bar.

Jennifer Park also points to a recent case at Samsung, the Korean conglomerate, where civic groups allege that nine employees of Samsung SDI who were trying to set up a labor union were placed under surveillance by their managers by hacking into their cell phones. According to their attorney, Jennifer writes, the hacking was done by finding the cell phone’s identification number and using it to duplicate it. Then the hacker was able to subscribe to the service.

According to the Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, prosecutors began investigations in July into the case. Korea also prosecuted a group earlier this year which had “illegally copied the phones of the female employees of an entertainment establishment and put them under surveillance after secretly installing location-tracking systems”, the newspaper said.

Bluetooth Security – The World Wakes Up?

The corporate world, it seems, is waking up to Bluetooth security issues. At the same time there is a growing slew of products to make them sleep safer.

InfoSync World writes of new security software from Bluefire Security which “disables Bluetooth and Infrared communication to minimize the risk of information theft.” Bluefire Mobile Firewall Plus 3.0 allows system administrators to disable Infrared and Bluetooth communication capabilities on any company PDAs or other gadgets before they’re handed over to workers.

GeekZone also reports that AirDefense has launched what the company is calling “the industry’s first Bluetooth monitoring solution”. BlueWatch monitors an organisation’s ‘airspace’ and can identify different types of Bluetooth devices, including laptops, PDAs, keyboards and cell phones, their signal strength and illustrate the connectivity among various devices.

Here’s a piece from ComputerWorld on what IT managers are doing. Of course, there’s a danger of an over-reaction here. Some folk don’t see Bluesnarfing, Bluejacking et al to be a problem. But this is usually because they are only considering it from their own point of view (‘I’ve only got my mum’s and girlfriend’s telephone number in there, who would want that? They’re welcome to it’). But for companies this is a serious issue. If a rival could sit outside their office and download all the marketing department’s contacts from their cellphones, PDAs or (theoretically) their laptops, then that might be something to worry about.

News: The Death Of The PDA

 Interesting article by Reuters’ Franklin Paul on the death of the PDA (no link available, I’m afraid). “The truth is, the PDA as it was first envisioned – as nothing more than a fancy digital pocket organizer – may be nearly extinct,” he writes. Three years ago, consumers rushed to buy PDAs, but “today, its the mailroom guys and soccer moms who are toting handhelds, and the slick executives carry new wireless devices that look more like cell phones, or thin notebook computers able to link to high-speed web access at various business sites.”
Paul cites IDC figures predicting that traditional PDA shipments will decline slightly this year from 12.3 million in 2002, and see minimal growth at best in 2004, while smartphones will top 13 million this year and find annual growth of over 86 percent by 2007.

News: From Kazaa To Skype

 From Estonia comes news that the guys behind file-swapping legend Kazaa are launching an Internet phone service they claim could put traditional phone companies out of business. AP says the service, called Skype, purports to offer free, unlimited phone service between users with sound quality near to existing phone lines.
Skype users — and there are already more than half a million of them — can currently use the program only to talk to each other, but it could later be enhanced so someone could call other types of programs, or even regular landline and cell phones. The program directs peer-to-peer data through the quickest networks, ensuring that quality isn’t degraded. Privacy is ensured through encryption.