Tag Archives: Jan Chipchase

Afghanistan’s TV Phone Users Offer a Lesson

By Jeremy Wagstaff

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There’s something I notice amid all the dust, drudgery and danger of Kabul life: the cellphone TVs.

No guard booth—and there are lots of them—is complete without a little cellphone sitting on its side, pumping out some surprisingly clear picture of a TV show.

This evening at one hostelry the guard, AK-47 absent-mindedly askew on the bench, had plugged his into a TV. I don’t know why. Maybe the phone gave better reception.

All I know is that guys who a couple of years ago had no means of communication now have a computer in their hand. Not only that, it’s a television, itself a desirable device. (There are 740 TVs per 1,000 people in the U.S. In Afghanistan there are 3.)

But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve long harped on about how cellphones are the developing world population’s first computer and first Internet device. Indeed, the poorer the country, the more revolutionary the cellphone is. But in places like Afghanistan you see how crucial the cellphone is as well.

Electricity is unreliable. There’s no Internet except in a few cafes, hotels and offices willing to pay thousands of dollars a month. But you can get a sort of 3G service over your phone. The phone is an invisible umbilical cord in a world where nothing seems to be tied down.

Folk like Jan Chipchase, a former researcher at Nokia, are researching how mobile banking is beginning to take hold in Afghanistan. I topped up my cellphone in Kabul via PayPal and a service based in Massachusetts. This in a place where you don’t bat an eyelid to see a donkey in a side street next to a shiny SUV, and a guy in a smart suit brushing shoulders with a crumpled old man riding a bike selling a rainbow of balloons.

Of course this set me thinking. For one thing, this place is totally unwired. There are no drains, no power infrastructure, no fiber optic cables. The cellphone is perfectly suited to this environment that flirts with chaos.

But there’s something else. The cellphone is a computer, and it’s on the cusp of being so much more than what it is. Our phones contain all the necessary tools to turn them into ways to measure our health—the iStethoscope, for example, which enables doctors to check their patients’ heartbeats, or the iStroke, an iPhone application developed in Singapore to give brain surgeons a portable atlas of the inside of someone’s skull.

But it’s obvious it doesn’t have to stop there. iPhone users are wont to say “There’s an app for that” and this will soon be the refrain, not of nerdy narcissists, but of real people with real problems.

When we can use our cellphone to monitor air pollution levels, test water before we drink it, point it at food to see whether it’s gone bad or contains meat, or use them as metal detectors or passports or as wallets or air purifiers, then I’ll feel like we’re beginning to exploit their potential.

In short, the cellphone will become, has become, a sort of Swiss Army penknife for our lives. In Afghanistan that means a degree of connectivity no other medium can provide. Not just to family and friends, but to the possibility of a better life via the web, or at least to the escapism of television.

For the rest of us in the pampered West, we use it as a productivity device and a distraction, but we should be viewing it as a doorway onto a vastly different future.

When crime committed is not just saved on film—from Rodney King to the catwoman of Coventry—but beamed live thro to services that scan activity for signs of danger, the individual may be protected in a way they are presently not.

We may need less medical training if, during the golden hour after an accident, we can use a portable device to measure and transmit vital signs and receive instruction. Point the camera at the wound and an overlay points out the problem and what needs to be done. Point and click triage, anyone?

Small steps. But I can’t help wondering why I’m more inspired by the imaginative and enterprising use of cellphones in places like Afghanistan, and why I’m less than impressed by the vapid self-absorption of the average smart phone user in our First World.

Now I’m heading back to the guard hut to watch the late soap.

Are We Too Obsessed With Our Cars?

More stuff from the observant and thought-provoking Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase: drivers protecting their cars in Beijing from urinating canines: 

Beijing, 2008

As Jan points out, lots of issues arise with this: how confused must dogs get that their choice of territory markers move around? (Or maybe that’s exactly what they want—expanding territory without them having to do anything.) But I guess for me is the weird thing that people have over their cars these days. Cars seem to be much clearner than they used to be.

Even in dusty, messy places like Jakarta you knew you could always beat the other guy to a spare corner of road just because you cared less about your car’s bodywork than he did. Here in Singapore people’s cars are so shiny you could eat off them. Apartments may look a mess but the car—the most visible reflection of people’s affluence—is glittering.

Then there’s the thing about hotels, restaurants and clubs allowing the owners of fancy cars to park right outside the lobby. Never quite understood how that works in practice. How do you know whether your car is fancy enough to merit this treatment? Would my Kijang KF42 cut it? It had a chrome trim thing going on which I thought was quite fancy.

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Ownership = Target

Power to the Consumer. (Is That All?)

Akasaka, 2008

Jan Chipchase, roving Nokia researcher, as ever inspires and provokes with this piece on the psychology of the coffee cup:

This Akasaka coffee shop includes a row of accessible power sockets (running a long the edge of the window) primarily to support laptop use – though over the course of an hour a number of people charged their phones (yes people here sometimes carry petite phone chargers). Recharging mobile devices in coffee shops is nothing new – but to what extent does the explicit nature of the infrastructure lead to new behaviours? Like? Well, maybe plugging in a printer? Or setting up a server. Or, or…

Jan points to the issues raised by offering power to consumers:

In some ways customers that don’t use the power socket are subsidising those that do – after all they pay a the same for a cup of coffee. Or do power using power-users spend more money either on more items or on items that will last longer? What if the electricity socket was a stand-alone working micro market? As you plug into the socket your devices authenticates itself to the system, negotiates how much power (or fuel-cell fuel) it needs and charges away. As with the explicit presence of the socket to what extent does the explicit presence of a micro-market for power this extend existing behaviours? And given the relaxed ambiance that this coffee shop is trying to create is it desirable to create a market in this context?

It fascinates me that the average high street these days is as likely to have as many coffee shops as it is other kinds of outlets. And that people work, live, play, cry and get divorced in them. Why do we need the hustle and bustle of others to be productive?

But for me the biggest mystery is why these outlets don’t bother to try to sell something more than just coffee, crappy CDs and bad finger food to these customers. Selling power to them might be a cheap shot, but let’s face it, you’re not really selling them coffee. You’re selling them a place to work. A noise, an ambience. You’re selling them the chance to feel cool. To show off their Air. To furtively check out members of a sexually appealing gender. To have physical proximity. To engage with engaging staff. A chance to get away from the office/family/silence.

That’s what they’re buying. But what about what they’d like to buy, that they just haven’t considered yet? A chance to meet the people around them? A way to build an informal network with other users? To be able to print from their computers? To arrange pick up by FedEx? An ATM machine?

To me, Starbucks is never really about the coffee. Well, it is for the people who go in there, queue and then take it with them (and then, I think for a lot of them it’s about delaying arrival in the office, or having something in their hands as a sort of weapon to take on the day; if it’s halfway through the day it’s a chance to get out of the office on an errand that is acceptable.) But for the people who stay in Starbucks, they’re buying something else. And who knows what else they might buy if you try to sell it to them?

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Behaviours Reflected

Ideas Are Things

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One guy I’m always inspired by is Jan Chipchase, who does more for Nokia’s credibility than any of their products. Here he observes how small things are more likely to spread more rapidly than big ones, making them closer relations to ideas than to things:

Today we’re comfortable with the rapid dissemination of information and ideas from one side of the globe to the other. What’s in Tokyo today can be in Tehran tomorrow and vice versa.

When physical things reach a certain size – being pocketable seems about right, their ability to be picked up and moved around increases considerably. All things being equal small objects much like ideas, travel further, travel faster. They are put into bags, pockets and inevitably are introduced to people in far off lands. And if those people in far off lands like and value them enough, the container ships follow.

Great idea, and reminds me of Negroponte’s bits and atoms shtick (sorry, meme.) Two points: Never underestimate the power of small things. People are much more likely to buy them than big ones, for the simple reason that they’re less expensive. Retailers from Body Shop to IKEA understand this, and make sure there’s lots of small things to buy in their shops so people feel they are part of the experience, even if they can’t actually afford the lifestyle itself. And of course, these little products, and the branded bags they come in, walk out of the shop and around with the customer (in places like Indonesia, the bags are recycled as prestige items in themselves.)

Second point: Jan sees all this stuff because he travels. He is the modern equivalent of the foreign correspondent; because now traditional media can’t afford them, it’s people like him whose trained and observant eye (and great camera work) captures the stuff the rest of us don’t see, either because we’re not there or because we’re not looking properly.

Jan Chipchase – Future Perfect: Further, Faster

The Gecko in the Machine

 (This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. If you’re an editor interested in subscribing to the service, drop me a line. Regular readers of the blog, meanwhile, will be familiar with some of the themes here)

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I found myself reading the words of one Timo Veikkola one morning.

Frankly, before then I did not know that Timo existed, although I do know of his colleague at Nokia, Jan Chipchase. Not only do these men have far more interesting names than I, they also have far more interesting jobs: peering into the way we use technology and how we might use it in the future.

But this column isn’t about them. It’s about you and your computer. Timo and Jan made me realize that often we focus on the minutiae of computing, as if that’s where the whole thing stops.

It’s as if we’re car owners who blame the car for our being stuck in traffic. It’s worth remembering that if we are not happy with our computers, it’s not all the computer’s fault.

First off, I can understand why you’re frustrated. Computers don’t work very well (though a lot of Mac users, and even Windows Vista users, convince themselves that their particular computers do). The truth is they don’t, because computers don’t help us think better.

They are merely tools, when they should be more than that. They help us send e-mails. They help us download and listen to music. They help us draft long resignation letters we never send. They help us crunch numbers.

All of this would make the early developers of the computer initially excited (“All that computing power in the head of a pin! Back in my day we had to make do with the computing power of a toilet brush in a box the size of Angkor Wat”). They were also, quickly, disappointed (“So everyone has these computers in their homes, bags and hands, and they do WHAT with them?”).

But it needn’t be like that. Computers can be used for good stuff. Here’s how:

* Collecting stuff: Computer hard drives are big enough now for you not to worry about storing stuff (unless you take 5,000 videos and photos a day, in which case you may want to consider an external hard drive or six.)

The trick about collecting stuff — whether it’s words, pictures or audio — is to organize it. After all, you want to find it again quickly. So, if you’re not a Mac user (who has Spotlight) install Google Desktop, which will index your hard drive and let you find stuff as easily as if it were on the Web.

But that shouldn’t be an alternative to organizing your stuff. Each batch of photos you store on your computer should have its own folder, usually organizing by date (for example, 20070722 as today’s date is best).

If you’re saving information you find on the web, save it to one place. I use something called MyInfo, an outlining program that includes a button you can install in your Firefox browser, which makes it very easy to save anything you read online.

* Brainstorming: there are some great tools out there to help you brainstorm, but in my view the best are those that bring mind mapping to the computer. (A mind map is a drawing where the central idea is put at the center of the piece of paper, and other ideas are added to it, floating off like branches.)

If you’ve not done mind maps I recommend them; if you’re a big computer user then it makes sense to do them on your computer. (Mindjet’s MindManager works on both Macs and Windows; for Mac users there’s also NovaMind, which looks promising.)

* Think stuff up: The computer won’t think for you, but it will do the next best thing — help you recall things you forgot. You’re probably aware of the fact that however smart you are you won’t be able to remember what you want into the kitchen to get. Most of what we do, read, hear and say is forgotten within minutes. This is where the computer can help.

But whereas it’s great about storing stuff, it’s not good at recalling things that we don’t know we knew. Search is great if we know what we’re looking for, but for that tip-of-the-tongue stuff I’d recommend something else: PersonalBrain.

PersonalBrain is a program that I have bored my friends with for several months now — it works on Mac, Linux and Windows, and has a free version available.

It looks odd, and will take some getting used to, but think of it as a place to throw everything you know into. You add “thoughts” and then you link those thoughts to other thoughts: The more the merrier.

For Timo Veikkola (the Nokia guy) I added a thought called “Timo’s predictions” and “Timo’s ideas”. To the latter I added all the ideas I liked, including one “travel is the best stimulant”.

This is something I know but I keep forgetting. So I linked that to another thought I had elsewhere in my PersonalBrain called “Guiding principles”.

Already linked to that thought were a bunch of ideas I had added (and promptly forgotten about) which, together, form a philosophy of sorts (if you call “Don’t write columns like this before your morning coffee because they won’t make any sense” a philosophy.)

Put simply, the brain works not by hierarchy, but by connections. We watch a movie and it reminds us we haven’t sent a letter to Auntie Marge. We find a website we like but it looks vaguely familiar: We don’t realize we actually visited the same website two days ago. We are looking for a friend in Nongkhai but can’t think of anybody, forgetting that Bob used to work there five years ago.

PersonalBrain helps you add this data when it first hits you and, more importantly, map its connections to other things so that you can find them again when you need them. When I add my friend Bob to my PersonalBrain, for example, I can link him not only to my other friends, but also to the places he’s worked at, the places he’s lived in — anything that may increase the chances of his name popping up when I might need him, but when I might not have thought of it.

PersonalBrain is the kind of software that makes you realize a) You spend way too much time using your computer to watch YouTube videos; and b) Your brain may be big, but you can’t remember anything that happened more than 30 seconds ago.

So, grumble as much as you like about your computer and what pain it causes you. But then set your sights higher and turn it into something that really complements you and the way you do things.

Your Phone as Stalker

Phone spam feels like it’s getting worse.

I and my wife have been receiving numerous calls from the local arm of ANZ Bank — a bank I am happy to identify by name because I’ve sought comment from them without reply for nearly a week now. Our mobile phone numbers were probably sold by another bank or possibly by the cellphone company.

Nokia researcher Jan Chipchase starts picking up SMS and phone spam on Hutch in India within a day of activating his SIM card, and finds that the company is three times as slow at removing his number from their spam lists:

Locals in the know send a text message to opt out, a process that, according to Hutch’s automated response takes at least three days to activate: “We respect your privacy. Please give us 72 hours to include your number on our Do Not Disturb list. Thank you” and an unspecified amount of time this to filter through to the companies that already have you on their disturb list.

I’m quite aggressive at fighting SMS and phone spam, but not always successful. One nightclub spammed me regularly until I got upset. Now they don’t. (Embarrassingly, it turned out to be owned by a friend of mine.) Now a lot of people here don’t answer their phone unless they recognize the number on the display.

Still, there’s nothing is quite as bad as this case of cellphone stalking in the U.S., where one family claim to feel harassed to the point of paralysis through their cellphone. A good clear-eyed view of the mess here.