Smartwatches: Coming Soon to a Cosmos Near You

This is a column I did for the BBC World Service, broadcast this week. 

There’s been a lot of talk that the big boys — by which I mean Apple and Samsung — are about to launch so-called smart watches. But how smart does a watch have to be before we start strapping them to our wrists in numbers to make a difference?

First off, a confession. I’ve strapped a few things to my wrist in my time. Back in the 80s and 90s I used to love the Casio calculator watch called the Databank, though I can’t actually recall ever doing a calculation on it or putting more than a few phone numbers in there. About a decade ago I reviewed something called the Fossil Wrist PDA, a wrist-bound personal digital assistant. It didn’t take off. In fact, no smart watch has taken off.

So if the smartwatch isn’t new, maybe the world around them is? We’ve moved a long way in the past couple of years, to the point where every device we have occupies a slightly different spot to the one it was intended for. Our phones, for example, are not phones anymore but data devices. And even that has evolved: the devices have changed direction in size, from shrinking to getting larger, as we realise we want to do more on them.

That in turn has made tablets shrink. When Apple introduced the iPad Steve Jobs famously said that was the smallest the tablet could reasonably go, but Samsung proved him wrong with the phablet, and now we have an iPad Mini. All this has has raised serious questions about the future of the laptop computer and the desktop PC.

But it shouldn’t. For a long time we thought that the perfect device would be something that does everything, but the drive to miniaturise components has actually had the opposite effect: we seem to be quite comfortable moving between devices and carrying a bunch of them around with us.

This all makes sense, given that our data is all stored in the cloud, and every device is connected to it either through WiFi, a phone connection or Bluetooth. We often don’t even know how our device is connecting — we just know it is.

So, the smartwatch optimists say, the time is ripe for a smartwatch. Firstly, we’ve demonstrated that we are able to throw out tired conventions about what a device should do. If our phone isn’t really our phone anymore then why not put our phone on our wrist? Secondly, the cloud solves the annoying problem of getting data in and out of the device.

Then there’s the issue of how we interact with it. It’s clear from the chequered history of the smartwatch that using our digits is not really going to work. We might be able to swipe or touch to silence an alarm or take a call, but we’re not going to be tapping out messages on a screen that size.

So it’s going to have to be voice. GeneratorResearch, a research company, reckons this would involve a small earpiece and decent voice-command software like Apple’s Siri. I’m not convinced we’re quite there yet, but I agree with them that it’s going to take someone of Apple’s heft to make it happen and seed the market.

In short, the smart watch might take off if it fits neatly and imaginatively into a sort of cosmos of devices we’re building around ourselves, where each one performs a few specific functions and overlaps with others on some. If it works out, the watch could act as a sort of central repository of all the things we need to know about — incoming messages, appointments, as well as things the cloud thinks we should know about, based on where we are: rain, traffic jams, delayed flights.

But more crucially it could become something that really exploits the frustratingly unrealised potential of voice: where we could more easily, and less self-consciously, talk to our devices and others without having to hold things to our ear, or be misunderstood.

In time, the smartwatch may replace the smartphone entirely.

I’m not completely convinced we’re as close as some think we are, but I’ve said that before and been proved wrong, so who knows?

Smarter smartphones for smarter people

This is a piece I wrote for the BBC World Service..

So, the iPhone 5 is here, and while it will sell well, probably better than any phone before it, there’s a sense of anticlimax: this, we are told, is evolution, not revolution. None of the mind-bending sense of newness and change that the iPhone and iPad used to engender. This is a sign, we’re told, that the market is mature, that there’s not much more that can be done.

I’d like to suggest another way of looking at this. For sure, not every new product that comes out of Apple HQ can blow our minds. But that doesn’t mean the mobile device is now doomed for a stodgy and reliable plateau of incremental improvements, like cars, washing machines or TVs.

In fact, quite the opposite. The world of the mobile device has already made extraordinary changes to our world, and we’re only at the start of a much larger set of changes. Our problem is that we’re just not very good judging where we sit amidst all this upheaval.

Consider these little factlets from a survey conducted last year by Oracle. At first glance they seem contradictory, but I’ll explain why they’re not.

More than half of those surveyed thought their mobile phone would replace their iPod/MP3 player by 2015. A year later when they asked them again, a third said it already had. Oracle found more or less the same was true of people’s global positioning systems, or GPS.

Then there’s this. More than two thirds of the people surveyed said they use a smartphone, and of those people, 43% have more than one.

In other words, more and more functions that used to be a separate device are now part of our mobile phone. And yet at the same time a significant chunk of users have more than one mobile phone.

What this means, I think, is that we are integrating mobile phones into our lives in a way that even those who spend time researching this kind of thing don’t really get. In fact we’ve integrated them so much we need two.

That’s because, of course, they’re not really phones: they’re devices that connect us to all sorts of things that we hold dear, whether it’s social, work or personal.

But there’s still a long way to go. The device of the future will make everything more seamless. A company in Thailand, for example, allows you to use your smartphone to open your hotel door, tweak the room lights and air con, order food and switch TV channels.

In other words interact with your surroundings. Some via connected devices, from air conditioning units to washing machines, from street signs to earthquake sensors. Other services will sift piles and piles of big data in the cloud, and push important information to us when we need it. Google already has something called Google Now which tries to anticipate your problems and needs before you do: a traffic jam up ahead, a sudden turn in the weather, a delayed flight.

Devices will also interact with the disconnected world, measuring it for us — whether it’s our blood sugar levels or the air quality. Sense movement, odors, colors, frequencies, speed. It may even, one day, see through walls for us.

So our smart phones are just starting to get smart. We’re already smart enough to see how useful they can be. The bits that are missing are the technologies that blend this all together. This could still take some time, but don’t for a moment think the mobile world is about to get boring.

The Real Revolution

This is also a podcast, from my weekly BBC piece. 

While folks at the annual tech show in Vegas are getting all excited about a glass-encased laptop, the world’s thinnest 55″ TV and a washing machine you can control from your phone, they may be forgiven for missing the quiet sound of a milestone being crossed: there are now more smartphones in the world than there are ordinary phones.

According to New York-based ABI Research, 3G and 4G handsets now account for more than half of the total mobile phone market. Those old ‘dumb phones’ and the so-called feature phones–poor relations to the computer-type iPhone or Android device can–are now officially in decline.

This is, in the words of ABI Research’s Jake Saunders, “an historic moment.” While IDC, another analyst company, noticed that this happened in Western Europe in the second quarter of last year, Saunders points out: “It means not just mobile phone users in Developed Markets but also Emerging Market end-users are purchasing 3G handsets.”

So why is this a big issue? Well, a few years back it would have been hard to convince someone in an emerging market to shell out several hundred bucks for a phone. A phone for these folks was good for talking and sending text messages. That was a lot. And enough for most people–especially when the handset cost $20 and the monthly bill was even less.

Now, with prices falling and connectivity improving in the developing world a cellphone is so much more: It’s a computer. It’s an Internet device. It’s a portable office and shop front. It’s a music player. A TV. A video player. A way to stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter.

And for the industry these people in emerging markets are a life saver. For example: The developed world is pretty much saturated with smartphones. People aren’t buying them in the numbers they used to.

But that’s not to say the feature phone is dead. In fact, for some companies it’s still an important part of their business. Visionmobile, a UK based mobile phone research company, says that Nokia–busy launching its new Windows Lumia phones in Vegas–is still the king of feature phones, accounting for more than a quarter of the market.

And they just bought a small company called, confusingly, Smarterphone, which makes a feature phone interface look more like a smartphone interface. So clearly at least one company sees a future in this non-smartphone world. In a place like Indonesia, where the BlackBerry leads the smartphone pack, nearly 90% of phones sold in the third quarter of last year were feature phones, according to IDC.

So companies see a big chance for growth in these parts of the world. But they also need the spectrum. If you’re a mobile operator your biggest problem now is that smartphone users do a lot of downloading. That means bandwidth. The problem is that one piece of spectrum is for that 3G smartphone, and another is for your old-style 2G phone. The sooner you can get all your customers to upgrade their handset to 3G, the sooner you can switch that part of the spectrum you own to 3G.

So this is a big moment. We’re seeing a tipping point in the world’s use of cellphone use, from a simple, dumb communication device to something vastly more useful, vastly more exciting, vastly more lucrative. All those people moving over to smartphones

ABI Research reckons there’ll be 1.67 billion handsets sold this year. That’s one in four people buying a new device. Forget fancy Vegas. The real revolution just started.

Phishing Pushes Banking To Impose Transfer Limits

Internet banking takes another knock with news from AP that Germany’s biggest retail bank Postbank has imposed an online transaction limit .

Germany’s biggest retail bank, Postbank, said Monday it was imposing a euro3,000 (US$3,860) limit on online transfers in an effort to protect customers against e-mail “phishing” scams.

The bank, which has 11.5 million depositors and is majority-owned by postal company Deutsche Post, said the move was meant as a precautionary measure and none of its clients had suffered harm from the high-tech form of identity theft.

Postbank said the limit, which will not apply to standing orders, was a response to the “heightened security needs of customers” and should make online fraud less attractive.

I don’t think Postbank is the first to do this, but it’s probably the first to draw a direct line between the fact that customers are now more at risk than they’ve ever been. Most banks, I suspect, introduce these measures without really announcing them to the public.

I don’t, for the record, think this is the best way of tackling the problem. All this means is that accounts can’t be emptied in one go — in most cases this wouldn’t have been possible anyway, because of other limits on bank transfers. But what I think will happen is that phishers will concentrate on accessing accounts surreptitiously and maintain their access to those accounts without the knowledge of the users, setting up standing orders themselves that gradually empty accounts.

Of course, some customers will notice this kind of thing, but we’re likely to see phishing combine with more sophisticated efforts — such as those illustrated by Fabrice Marie in March — to gain access to accounts for more complex purposes than merely emptying them.

What I would like to see is some sort of dual- or triple-layered authorisation process for any kind of transaction or alteration of settings/standing orders/notifcation within accounts. Before making any such transaction or configuration change, the user would be required to enter data from a separate device, or else confirm via email or SMS or phone before the change/transfer was made. I think we have to stop assuming that entry/logging in is the main security fence. Phishers, scammers and social engineers have shown that is not the real issue. There are other ways to get in, so the security has to be at the transactional level, however much it upsets the user.

Bottom line: Don’t remove services from online banking to deter fraud because all you do is undermine its usefulness, and likely dissuade users from using it. Better to add multiple layers of security that may inconvenience the user but which help them to feel safer. In the end, they’ll still figure it saves them going to the bank, or spending hours diving through voice-driven menu options via phone-banking.

Wiretapping Your Way Into Credit Card Fraud

If you think the Internet is a scary place for stealing your sensitive bank data, try your local gas station.

The Star Tribune in Malaysia reports that criminals there are increasingly intercepting the transmission of credit card data between the point of sale machines that swipe your card and the bank. This data, incredibly, is being sent in unencrypted text form so all a criminal has to do is ‘wiretap’ the phone line and capture the data — usually onto an MP3 player.  All they need to do is find the phone line, either in the outlet’s Main Distribution Frame room, or that of the bank itself and record the gurgling modem sound. A special decoder can then convert that noise into data. Your data.

The banks are finally getting onto this. Malaysia’s central bank has ordered all credit cards in the country to be EMV(Europay/MasterCard/Visa)-compliant by end-2005 (this means smart, and supposedly fraud-proof). But for now, The Star Tribune says, the banking industry is trying to encrypt data. Unfortunately, so far nothing has been agreed on.

At the risk of sounding appalled, I’m appalled. How can such data be transmitted without a modicum of encryption? This means that when we’re typing our credit card number into a web page it’s actually more secure than if we give it to the guy at the gas station or restaurant?

I was never that happy anyway doing the latter, given the prevalence of skimming — where a crooked employee would either double-swipe your card, or swipe it into a separate device that stored your details — but now, it seems, the data is up for grabs even when it’s being transmitted to your bank for verification. Yikes.