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.

Carrier IQ’s Opt-Out Data Collection Patent

ZDNet writes here about an Carrier IQ patent that outlines keylogging and ability to target individual devices . Which is interesting. But Carrier IQ owns a dozen patents, including this one, which to me is much more interesting. This patent indicates what Carrier IQ software could do—not what it does—but it is revealing nonetheless:

A communication device and a data server record and collect events and event-related data to create an activity record. A user of the communication device may request that events and related data be recorded and collected using a configuration option on the communication device or through an interaction with the data server. Data are grouped into data sets and uploaded to the data server either automatically or upon user approval. The data server uses the uploaded data to create an activity record which the user may access through a website. The user uploads additional data which are associated with the activity record. In some instances, the data server embeds a link pointing to the additional data in an entry in the activity record corresponding to an event associated with the additional data.

Basically this patent offers a way for a “user”—which could be either the user of the device or the service—to have a record of everything they do:

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While most of the patent is clearly about a product that would create a ‘lifestream’ for the user—where they can access all the things they’ve done with the device, including photos etc, in one tidy presentation, there’s clearly more to it than that. Buried in the patent are indications that it could do all this without the user asking it to. It’s paragraph 0023 which I think is most interesting:

A user of a mobile device requests that events and event-related data be collected by a data server and data collection begins. Alternately, data collection may be a default setting which is turned off only when the device user requests that data collection not occur. In yet another embodiment, a request from a server can initiate, pause, or stop data collection. The mobile device is configured to record events performed by the mobile device as well as event-related data. Typical events that the mobile device records include making or receiving a phone call; sending or receiving a message, including text, audio, photograph, video, email and multimedia messages; recorded voice data, voice messages, taking a photograph; recording the device’s location; receiving and playing an FM or satellite radio broadcast; connecting to an 802.11 or Bluetooth access point; and using other device applications. The data most often related to an event include at least one of: the time, date and location of an event. However, other event-related data include a filename, a mobile device number (MDN) and a contact name. Commonly, the mobile device records events and provides a time, date and location stamp for each event. The events and event-related data can be recorded in sequence and can be stored on the mobile device.

This seems to suggest that

  • basically all activity on the phone can be logged
  • the software can be turned on by default
  • the software can be turned on and off from the server

All this information would be grouped together and uploaded either with the user’s permission or without it:

[0025] The mobile devices may be configured to store one or more data sets and upload the data sets to the data server. In one embodiment, the data sets are uploaded automatically without user intervention, while in other embodiments the mobile device presents a query to the user beforehand. When the mobile device is ready to upload one or more sessions to the data server, a pop-up screen or dialog may appear and present the user with various options. Three such options include (1) delete session, (2) defer and ask again and (3) upload now. The user interface may present the query every time a session is ready to upload, or the user may be permitted to select multiple sessions for deletion, a later reminder or upload all at once. In another embodiments, the uploading of sessions may occur automatically without user intervention. Uploads may also be configured to occur when the user is less likely to be using the device.

This point—about the option to collect such data without the user’s say-so—is confirmed in [0030]:

Although typically the device and the server do not record, upload and collect data unless the user requests it, in other embodiments the communication device and the server automatically record, upload and collect data until the user affirmatively requests otherwise.

And in [0046]:

In embodiments where participation in the data collection services is the default configuration for a mobile device (e.g., an “opt-out” model), it is not necessary to receive a request from a user prior to recording data.

An ‘opt-out’ model is hard to visualize if this is a product that is a user-centric lifestream.

While patents only tell part of the story, there’s no evidence of any such consumer-facing product on Carrier IQ’s website, so one has to assume these capabilities have been, or could be, wrapped into their carrier-centric services. In that sense, I think there’s plenty of interest in here.

Facebook’s Internet of Sharing

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications.)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Get ready for a world where everything is shared.

Readers of this column will already know that our notions of privacy have changed a lot in the past couple of years.

That has made it possible for Facebook to announce a new initiative this past week, pretty confident it won’t get rebuffed in the same way its Beacon program did a few years back.

Back then we didn’t like the idea of companies having access to the things we were doing on their websites and then posting it to our Facebook feed (“Jeremy’s just bought an Abba CD!”)

Now, with Facebook’s Open Graph, we’ll actually go quite a bit further than that. In effect, every web page will become part of your Facebook world, because whoever runs that web page will have access to your Facebook world—and, in a way, vice versa.

If you “like” something on a music website, then that “like” will be broadcast on your Facebook feed. So your friends will see it. But so will that music website have (at least some) access to your Facebook profile, your Facebook network, as will Facebook have access to your profile on that music website.

In short, Facebook will become a sort of repository of all the breadcrumbs you willingly leave around the Internet—what some are calling your “social metadata”. These are all the bits and pieces you leave on websites about songs, pictures, books, food, hotels that you like.

Instead of all that stuff just being little fragments, all those websites that participate in Facebook’s Open Graph will collect it and create a much more complete picture of you than your Facebook stream currently does.

I’m not going to get into the privacy aspects here. Obviously there’s a lot that’s creepy about this. But then again, we willingly share much of this stuff with our friends, and all the applications that we use on Facebook, so maybe we have already made that choice.

Compare this with Google, which collects similar data but in a different way. Google collects your interests, intentions and preoccupations whenever you do a search, or access your email, or look at a map.

Google may be a search engine, and Facebook may be a social network, but they’re ultimately fighting for the same thing: Targeted advertising.

Facebook will do it through social metadata you intentionally leave behind; Google will do it through data you unintentionally leave behind.

I don’t know whether Facebook will win with this or not. But it’s an interesting move, and, if we continue to inhabit Facebook in the numbers we do, we’ll probably slide effortlessly into this world.

And, of course, as we get more mobile, this only becomes more powerful. A research company called Ground Truth found last week that U.S. mobile subscribers spent nearly 60% of their time on social networking sites; the next biggest category was less than 14%.

In other words, social networking is actually more compelling on a mobile phone than it is on a laptop or desktop. Kind of obvious really.

If you want to get futuristic about it, it’s possible to see how this coupling of mobile device and social networking is likely to give a big push to a new kind of device: wearable computing.

Expect to see more of the likes of Ping: a garment that its inventors say allows you to connect to your Facebook account wirelessly and update your status simply by lifting up the Ping’s hood, or tying a bow, or zipping up.

Heaven knows what our Facebook page is going to look like in the future. But it’s a natural succession to the basic principle of something like Facebook, which is that a life not shared is not worth living.

I know I have developed that instinct to share the absurdities of my day on Facebook, and I appreciate it when others do. I’m not talking about the average “my boss sucks” update, but ones which are funny, thoughtful, or both.

One day we’ll look back, as we did at email, and wonder how we lived without status updates.

By then we’ll be swishing our arms or doing up a button to update our page—nothing as archaic as actually tapping it out on a keypad.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about all this. Maybe I’ll update my Facebook status to reflect that.

Bye Bye, Laptop?

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The day seems to be getting closer when we can do something that would seem to be pretty obvious: access our pocket-sized smartphone via a bigger screen, keyboard and a mouse. Celio Corp says it’s close.

Celio Corp have two products: their Mobile Companion (pictured above), a laptop like thing that includes an 8″ display, a full function keyboard, and a touchpad mouse. At 1 x 6 x 9 inches and weighing 2 lbs, the Mobile Companion promises over 8 hours of battery life and boots instantly. After loading a driver on your smartphone you can then access it via a USB cable or Bluetooth. (You can also charge the smartphone via the same USB connection.)

Uses? Well, you can say goodbye to coach cramp, where you’re unable to use a normal laptop. You can input data more easily than you might if you just had your smartphone with you. And, of course, you don’t need to bring your laptop.

The second product might be even better. The Smartphone Interface System is, from what I can work out, a small Bluetooth device that connects your smartphone, not to the Mobile Companion, but to a desktop computer, public display or a conference room projector  — these devices connect via a cable to the Interface, like this:

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The important bit about both products is that the Redfly software renders the smartphone data so it fits on the new display (this will be quite tricky, and, because it will carried via Bluetooth, would need quite a bit of compression. The maximum size of the output display is VGA, i.e. 800 x 480, so don’t expect stunning visuals, but it’ll be better than having all your colleagues crowding around your smartphone.)

The bad news? Redfly isn’t launched yet, and will for the time being be available only for Windows Mobile Devices. Oh, and according to UberGizmo, it will cost $500. The other thing is that you shouldn’t confuse “full function keyboard” with “full size keyboard”: this vidcap from PodTech.net gives you an idea of the actual size of the thing:

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this is the keyboard size relative to Celio CEO Kirt Bailey’s digits:

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Until I try the thing out and feel sure that the keyboard doesn’t make the same compromises as the Eee PC, I’d rather use my Stowaway keyboard.

For those of you looking for software to view your mobile device on your desktop computer, you might want to check out My Mobiler. It’s free software that purports to do exactly that for Windows Mobile users.

Plaxo Moves Into Macland

Plaxo, the software and service that lets you update your contact details with others — and lets them update theirs with you — automatically, is now available for Mac. A press release issued today (thanks, Joseph) says the move “represents a major step toward the company’s vision to offer the first truly universal personal contact management service, accessible on any platform, email client, browser, or mobile device.”

This is an interesting way of putting it. Plaxo has weathered the criticism about privacy concerns — some of them from this humble blog, despite my support for the service as a whole — to expand beyond Microsoft Outlook to America Online, Mozilla Thunderbird, and Outlook Express. Users can also import contacts from their Netscape, Palm, Yahoo! Mail, and Hotmail accounts.

Like a lot of folk I’m torn over a service like this. On the one hand I can see the obvious benefits: Who better to update the contacts in your address book than the contacts themselves? But on the other hand, how many of the contacts in your address book would be happy that the information is being stored on some company server somewhere, without their knowledge or consent? Then again, that last sentence looks less problematic than it did a year or so back. We’ve heard so many cautionary tales about private data getting lost, stolen or abused maybe we think this kind of thing isn’t important. Now, perhaps, we realise that Plaxo is not really the problem here. The problem lies in those companies deliberating collecting data on individuals, whether they’re ordinary Joes like you and me, or members of the CIA, as the Chicago Tribune recently discovered by searching a commercial online data service.

But I’m not sure that’s the case. The bottom line is complex: We should be as careful with other people’s data as we are with our own. If we don’t want a company to keep details of us we shouldn’t keep details of other people online. Of course, this refers as much to any web-based application or storage tool or networking site.

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Logitech’s Bluetooth pen

Logitech are about to bring out their io2 pen for Bluetooth:

This summer, Logitech will launch a Bluetooth-enabled version of the io2 Digital Pen, designed to address the current data entry shortcomings of mobile data capture devices. Logitech’s Bluetooth digital pen, when used in combination with a Bluetooth wireless handheld device, will help an organization’s mobile workforce more efficiently gather, transmit and share important data.

A press release gives a bit more detail: Using the Logitech io2 Digital Pen with Bluetooth technology, a mobile worker will be able to capture information by using a customized version of a standard paper form, such as for an insurance appraisal or a work order. The pen automatically creates a digital record that is transmitted to a complementary Bluetooth wireless technology enabled handheld communication device, such as a smart mobile phone, PDA or Blackberry. That data can be stored and processed on the handheld device or immediately sent into an organization’s central database for processing. For the mobile worker, it’s an automated process that starts with filling out a familiar form and ends with a confirmation on his or her wireless handheld communication device that the information has been sent and received.

Sounds interesting, although I’m not quite clear about how this differs from the Nokia SU-1B pen, which originates from the same Anoto source. And why aim only at business users with this?

The Mobile Doctor

Back in the late 1980s there was this very eccentric English doctor in a Southeast Asian capital I used to visit who clearly based most of his diagnoses and treatment on whatever he had read in The Lancet that week. There were piles of old copies lying around his surgery, many lying open at certain pages, or with the corners folded over, or bookmarked with old prescriptions.

The city being what it was, he was probably an expert on sexually transmitted diseases but not much else; I was fortunate enough not to have to visit him with any such complaint, but when I had a knee problem he thumbed through a Lancet on his desk and seemed keen to try out something he’d read about that week. I forget what the treatment was but I think it involved trapping my leg in a filing cabinet. Chicken that I am, I fled.

Anyway, said doctor will be delighted — if he’s still around — to know that the august Lancet is now available in a mobile edition. “You can now download selected content from the latest issue of The Lancet to read at your leisure on your mobile device – PDA, wireless PDA or smartphone,” the blurb today reads. I can just imagine expatriate doctors all over the world armed with a PDA in one hand, a scalpel in another, just dying to get started.

Squeeze More Out Of Your Gadget

 If you’re trying to get more out of your PDA, phone, Treo or whatever, here’s the blog for you: MobileWhack.
MobileWhack is a repository of hacks, hints, tips, tools, stories, news, ideas, and wishes for and around the mobile device you’re actually using. The raisons d’etre are to be useful, to inspire, and to delight.
Actually there’s some useful stuff in there. A post yesterday, for example, explains how to use your Treo 600 as a wireless modem.

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: Palm’s New Wireless Keyboard

 On the heels of its launch of fresh handhelds, Palm has launched some new accessories, including a wireless keyboard, multifunction stylus, six cases, a camera card, handheld device protection units and complete accessory kits.
 
According to UK PR firm M2 Communications the wireless keyboard lets users type using a QWERTY key layout without the need to connect the device to the main unit with wires. Pricing starts at GBP59.99. The stylus costs GBP9.99 and can be used as a writing pen, a laser pointer, a torch and a stylus.