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.

Real Phone Hacking

Interesting glimpse into the real world of phone hacking–not the amateurish stuff we’ve been absored by in the UK–by Sharmine Narwani: In Lebanon, The Plot Thickens « Mideast Shuffle.

First off, there’s the indictment just released by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon which, in the words of Narwani,

appears to be built on a simple premise: the “co-location” of cellular phones — traceable to the accused four — that coincide heavily with Hariri’s whereabouts and crucial parts of the murder plot in the six weeks prior to his death.

Indeed, the case relies heavily on Call Data Record (CDR) analysis. Which sounds kind of sophisticated. Or is it? Narwani contends that this could have been manufactured. Indeed, she says,

there isn’t a literate soul in Lebanon who does not know that the country’s telecommunications networks are highly infiltrated — whether by competing domestic political operatives or by foreign entities.

There is plenty of evidence to support this. The ITU recently issued two resolutions [PDF] basically calling on Israel to stop conducting “piracy, interference and disruption, and sedition”.

And Lebanon has arrested at least two men accused of helping Israel infiltrate the country’s cellular networks. What’s interesting about this from a data war point of view is that one of those arrested has confessed, according to Narwani, to lobbying for the cellular operator he worked for not to install more secure hardware, made by Huawei, which would have presumably made eavesdropping harder. (A Chinese company the good guy? Go figure.)

If this were the case–if Lebanon’s cellular networks were so deeply penetrated–then it’s evidence of the kind of cyberwar we’re not really equipped to understand, let alone deal with: namely data manipulation.

Narwani asks whether it could be possible that the tribunal has actually been hoodwinked by a clever setup: that all the cellular data was faked, when

a conspiring “entity” had to obtain the deepest access into Lebanese telecommunications networks at one or — more likely — several points along the data logging trail of a mobile phone call. They would have to be able to intercept data and alter or forge it, and then, importantly, remove all traces of the intervention.

After all, she says,

the fact is that Hezbollah is an early adherent to the concept of cyberwarfare. The resistance group have built their own nationwide fiber optics network to block enemy eavesdropping, and have demonstrated their own ability to intercept covert Israeli data communications. To imagine that they then used traceable mobile phones to execute the murder of the century is a real stretch.

Who knows? But Darwani asserts that

Nobody doubts Israel’s capacity to carry out this telecom sleight of hand — technology warfare is an entrenched part of the nation’s military strategies. This task would lie somewhere between the relatively facile telephone hacking of the News of the World reporters and the infinitely more complex Stuxnet attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, in which Israel is a prime suspect.

In other words, there’s something going on here that is probably a lot more sophisticated than a tribunal can get behind. I’m no Mideast expert, but if only half of this is true it’s clear that cellphones are the weakest link in a communications chain. And that if this kind of thing is going on Lebanon, one has to assume that it’s going on in a lot of places.

Southeast Asia’s Third Mobile Tier

The mobile revolution is moving from second tier countries in Southeast Asia to the third and final tier. Whereas previously Indonesia and the Philippines were seeing the biggest growth in mobile Internet traffic, now it’s Burma (Myanmar) and Cambodia which top the list in terms of user- and usage-growth, according to the Opera State of the Mobile Web report for July:

    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in terms of page-view growth (6415.0 % and 470.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of unique users (1207.5 % and 179.1 %, respectively).
    • Myanmar and Cambodia lead the top 10 countries of the region in growth of data transferred (3826.6 % and 353.2 %, respectively)

Of course these figures are from a low base, and the Opera data is not the easiest to trawl through. (The Opera mobile report is always interesting reading, so long as you take into account that the Opera browser is for many people a Symbian browser and so of declining popularity in some quarters. Also their data is never presented in quite the order one would like, so you have to dig. )

Looking at the figures in more detail, and throwing them into a spreadsheet of my own, it’s clear that Burma is definitely an outlier. Cambodia’s growth is impressive, but Burma’s is by far the greatest out of all 27 countries surveyed. Here’s how it looks:

2011-07 Page view growth SEA

So is the Burma usage real, or is this just a jump from nothing to slightly more than nothing? I suspect it may actually be a sizeable jump. Opera are coy about the actual number of users (so we may actually be dealing with a small dataset). But the figures suggest that this is a real spurt in usage: Burmese mobile users are transferring more data per page view than any other of the 27 countries surveyed, and the page views per user is on a par with the Philippines and Thailand.

I’d cautiously suggest that Burma, along with Cambodia and Laos, are beginning to show exhibit some of the signs of what one might pompously call “mobile societies”: using the mobile phone as an Internet device as a regular part of their activities. Take the page views per user, for example, which measures how much they’re using the mobile phone to view the Internet (Brunei seems to be in a league of its own; I don’t know what’s going on there, except that in terms of nightlife, I’d have to say not much):

2010-07 Page views per user SEA

It’s probably too much to conclude that mobile phones as Internet devices are now mainstream in this third tier of the region, but it’s a healthy sign, with lots of interesting implications.

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.

Phantom Mobile Threats

How secure is your mobile phone?

This is an old bugaboo that folks who sell antivirus software have tried to get us scared about. But the truth is that for the past decade there’s really not much to lose sleep over.

That hasn’t stopped people getting freaked out about it.

A security conference heard that some downloadable applications to phones running the Android operating system would “collect a user’s browsing history, their text messages, the phone’s SIM card number and subscriber identification” and send all this data to a website owned by someone in Shenzhen, China. Some outlets reported that it also transmitted the user’s passwords to their voicemail.

About 700 outlets covered the story, including mainstream publications like the Telegraph and Fortune magazine: “Is your smart phone spying on you?” asked one TV station’s website.

Scary stuff.

Only it isn’t true. It’s not clear who misreported all this—the journalists and others covering the event, or the company releasing the fruits of their research, but it gradually emerged that the applications—downloadable wallpapers—only transmitted a portion of this data. (See a corrected version of a story here.)

Indeed, the whole thing got less suspicious the more you dig.

This is what the developer told me in a text interview earlier today: “The app [recorded’] the phone number [because] Some people complained that when they change the[ir] phone, they will lose the[ir] favorite [settings]. So I [store] the phone number and subscriber ID to try to make sure that when [they] changed the phone, they have the same favorites.”

Needless to say the developer, based in Shenzhen, is somewhat miffed that no one tried to contact him before making the report public; nor had any of the 700 or so outlets that wrote about his applications tried to contact him before writing their stories.

“I am just an Android developer,” he said. “I love wallpapers and I use different wallpaper every day. All I want is to make the greatest Android apps.”

Now of course he could be lying through his teeth, but I see no evidence in the Lookout report or anything that has appeared subsequently that seems to suggest the developer has done anything underhand. (The developer shared with me some screenshots of his app’s download page which show that they do not request permission to access text message content, nor of browsing history.)

In fact, he seemed to be doing a pretty good job: His apps had been downloaded several million times. He declined to give his name, but acknowledged that he was behind both apps provided under the name Jackeey, and under the name iceskysl@1sters!

Not much longer. One website quoted Lookout as saying “We’ve been working with Google to investigate these apps and they’re on top of it.” They have: Google has now removed the apps from their site. So I guess Jackeey, as he asked me to call him, is going to have to look for other ways to spend his time. (He told me that Lookout had contacted him by email but not, apparently, before going public.) 

Seems a shame. Obviously, there is a mobile threat out there, but I’m not sure this is the way to go about addressing it. And I don’t think a guy in Shenzhen doing wallpaper apps is, frankly, worth so much hysterical column ink.

Let’s keep some perspective guys, and not embark on a witch-hunt without some forethought.

Lookout has since been backtracking a bit from its original dramatic findings. “While this sort of data collection from a wallpaper application is certainly suspicious,” it says on its blog, “there’s no evidence of malicious behavior.”

Suspicious? We seem very quick to attribute suspicious behavior to someone we don’t know much about, in some scary far-off place, but less to those we do closer to home: Lookout’s main business, after all, is prominently displayed on their homepage: an application to, in its words, “protect yourself from mobile viruses and malware. Stop hackers in their tracks.”

Conflict of interest, anyone?

The End of Boorish Intrusion

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

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One of the ironies about this new era of communications is that we’re a lot less communicative than we used to be.

Cellphones, laptops, iPhones, netbooks, smartphones, tablets, all put us in touching distance of each other. And yet, perversely, we use them as barriers to keep each other out.

Take the cellphone for example. Previously, not receiving a phone call was not really an option.

The phone would ring from down the hall, echoing through the corridors until dusty lights would go on, and the butler would shuffle his way towards it.

Of course, we were asked by the switchboard operator whether we’d take a call from Romford 230, but unless you were a crotchety old earl, or the person was calling during Gardener’s Question Time, you’d usually accept it.

Nowadays we generally know who it is who’s calling us: It tells us, on the screen of the phone. It’s called Caller ID. This enables us to decide whether or not to receive the call. And that’s where the rot sets in.

Some of us refuse to accept a call from a number we don’t recognize. It could be some weirdo, we think. Some of us will only take a call from a number we don’t recognize. We’re adventurous, or journalists sensing a scoop, or worried it may be grandma calling on the lam from Belize.

Some of us see a number from someone we know, and even then don’t take the call. Maybe we’re busy, or asleep, or watching Gardener’s Question Time.

The phone has changed from being a bit like the postman—a connection with the outside world, and not someone you usually turn away—to being just one of a dozen threads in our social web.

And, as with the other threads, we’ve been forced to develop a way to keep it from throttling us. Whereas offices would once be a constant buzz of ringing phones, now they’re more likely to be quieter places, interrupted only by the notification bells of SMS, twitter alerts or disconnecting peripherals.

I actually think this is a good thing.

I, for one, have long since rejected the phone as an unwelcome intrusion. I won’t take calls from people who haven’t texted me first to see whether I can talk, and those people who do insist on phoning me are either my mother or someone I don’t really care for.

What has happened is that all these communications devices have erased an era that will in the future seem very odd: I call it the first telecommunications age. It was when telephones were so unique that they dominated our world and forced us to adapt to them. We allowed them to intrude because most of us had no choice.

There was no other way to reach someone else instantaneously. Telegram was the only competitor.

Now we have a choice: We can choose to communicate by text, twitter, Facebook, Skype, instant message, email. Or not actually communicate directly at all: We can set up meetings via Outlook or Google Calendar, or share information without any preamble via delicious bookmarks or Google Reader.

Our age has decoupled the idea of communicating with the idea of sharing information. This is probably why we have such trouble knowing how to start a conversation in this new medium. When the communication channel between us is so permanent, when we know our friends are online because we can see them online, then communicating with them is not so much beginning a new conversation as picking up a new thread on one long one.

We have all come to understand this. We see each other online, we know everyone we’ll ever need to communicate with is just an @ sign away, so we all appreciate the tacit agreement that we don’t bother each other unless we really need to.

And then it’s with a short text message, or an instant message that pops up in a unobtrusive window.

In this world a ringing phone is a jarring intrusion, because it disrupts our flow, it ignores the social niceties we’ve built up to protect our permanent accessibility. It’s rude, boorish and inconsiderate.

Which was probably what people said about the introduction of the telephone. It’s only now that we realize they were right.

How Not to Disintermediate

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With traditional media on the rocks, there are lots of opportunities for companies and organisations to  disintermediate: to project themselves directly to the public. Indeed, in some ways, this is the future.

But here’s how not to do it: to put a guy from the PR department in front of one of the senior folks and let him babble. The result is always awkward half sentences linked rehearsed (and usually quite obviously, and badly) lines from some media training session that ooze jargonish phrases that a real journalist would never let pass.

Things like these (with their translations alongside) from the Nokia Booklet 3G interview with John Hwang, its designer.

“nokia’s all about connecting people” = we make mobile phones

“further strengthening our device portfolio” = we’ve got a lot of different models. You’re confused? Try working here.

“mobile heritage” (repeated by the interviewer, as if it’s a phrase we all use in our daily lives: “honey, could you look in the drawer at our device portfolio and see if there’s something there from our mobile heritage we could lend the kids for sleepover?”) = we have to acknowledge we mainly make mobile phones, but we’re trying to make it sound like that’s our past. Just like our “tree-felling heritage”

“connected services” = the Internet

“all day performance” = the battery won’t give out on ya

“mobile design language” = we design mobile phones. Well we used to. Now we want to be thought of as computer manufacturers

“launched from our mobility statement” = I have no idea what this means.

(And the PR guy keeps saying “we” and then correcting himself to say “nokia”.)

If you’re going to do this kind of thing, do it right. PR guys should not be afraid of asking questions real journalists would ask, including tough ones. (Interestingly, the only tough question here is one the interviewee asks himself.)

links for 2008-09-11

  • Avego.com is where travelers cooperate to make the whole transport system more efficient, saving us all money, wasted time and reducing pollution.

    A 5-seat car traveling with only a driver is inherently inefficient, and yet 85% of the time, that’s how cars travel in much of the world. With our iPhone GPS technology, web services and your participation, we can fill up those empty seats.

  • Did I get enough exercise today? How many calories did I burn? Am I getting good quality sleep? How many steps and miles did I walk today? The Fitbit Tracker helps you answer these questions.

  • Swype was developed by founders Cliff Kushler and Randy Marsden, along with a very talented team of software programmers and linguists.

    Cliff is the co-inventor of T9, the standard predictive text-entry solution used on over 2.4 billion mobile phones worldwide. He is the named inventor on multiple patents related to alternative text entry.

    Randy is the developer of the onscreen keyboard included in Windows, with an installed base of over a half a billion units. He is a recognized leader in the field of assistive technology and alternative computer input.

    Together, their experience is unmatched in developing onscreen keyboard-based text input solutions for mobile touch-screen devices.

  • ShiftSpace (pronounced: §) is an open source browser plugin for collaboratively annotating, editing and shifting the web.

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