Wireless Wonders

No news, just comment about mobile phones and services, from a veteran practitioner...3G, GPRS, WAP, Bluetooth, WiFi, etc...

Friday, February 18, 2005

Xtreme RFID...

Seth Godin rightly says RFID is the next big thing, linking us to Xtreme Retailing 23. Included is the incredible Paypass system from Mastercard. But that's not as extreme as Nokias NFC shell that embeds RFID in the mobile phone. Wave your phone over anything and interact!

Think of using the phone as a Paypass card and simultaneously downloading coupons or promotional materials into the phone, including links to products, upgrades, etc.

All kinds of marketing and advertising modalities become possible.
The mind boggles.

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100 Mobile Product Ideas...#11...
...Renewing friendships...

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam told us that Americans do less things socially than ever before. They increasingly spend their lives alone. More time commuting, less time at home with family. More time watching TV, less time with friends. A disturbing trend.

Less well known perhaps is his follow-up book "Better Together".

Can mobile technology bring people together?

There are all kinds of fancy "social networking" concepts that involve mobile and wireless devices, such as Jambo. But, what about something simpler?

We all know how easy it is to forget to call friends and family. An application to send text messages and initiate calls between distant people might help to improve social cohesion.

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Are women as wireless as men?...

According to a piece on Wired, there are precious few women running tech companies. Well, I don't get it. I don't meet many women that interested in technology, precious few passionate about it. I'm not saying that's right or wrong, or know why it's so.

That debate aside, is there any benefit in thinking about mobile product ideas for women? Marketing to women is one thing, but are there specific design concepts that make more sense for women?

It's tempting to think that women aren't as tech-savvy as men. Even if that's true (I'm not saying it is), as I mentioned earlier, any attempts to make products more usable generally benefit all users, not just women.

Any women-friendly mobile ideas?

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Hacking J2ME on a Nokia phone...

Adam Gowdiak has now shown us that J2ME can be hacked. He revealed this at last year's Hack in a Box conference (KL, Malaysia). The screenshot below is a MIDlet revealing method names in the underlying Java implementation - these are not public methods.

To quote from Adam's disclosure to the security community:

I verified on my Nokia DCT4 phone that malicious code exploiting one of the flaws can steal data from the phone (i.e. phonebook, SMS messages), establish communication with the Internet, send arbitrary SMS messages, write permanent memory of the phone (FLASH), interfere with or intercept IPC communication occurring between native Nokia OS tasks, install resident code on the phone. Any of the aforementioned actions can be conducted without user knowledge and permission.

Wow! That's NOT a small problem is it?

I downloaded Adam's presentation from the conference (watch out, it's 51 MBytes). It is a most fascinating read, if one can wade through the low-level programming exploits. I had to dig deep into my operating systems and assembly knowledge.

What impressed me was the systematic way that Adam went about first finding a way out of the Java sandbox, which is impressive enough. To then reverse engineer large parts of the underlying Nokia OS, that's indeed astonishing. It took him 4 months.

An initial reaction might be that this is an unusually resolute person going about an unusually arduous and difficult task. We shouldn't let that fool us. There are plenty of people out there with the knowledge and time to go about such a task. And, I can well imagine, it must be fun.

Anyone who's ever spent time in a lab with disassemblers and emulators trying to figure out a design, will know the kind of perverse satisfaction this can bring. Of course, it is not normal to spend so long crunching through code, but the lure of reaching the goal it unusually attractive.

I remember many years ago jumping with joy in a lab when I managed to make an LED light up by hacking into a processor board. Now, I had an hugely expensive HP 68030 emulator, one of only two in the world at the time. However, Adam was working "blind". He had to produce his own ARM "emulator" to run on the device and pipe out the data over the phone-to-PC wire.

Predictably, Sun played the vulnerability down. Astoundingly, they said it's not a problem because the MIDlet can just be deleted. Huh? I don't think they read Adam's presentation properly. (Actually, they probably did and it got them worried.)

We should not be in any doubt that mobile viruses will be a problem. This recent exploit should probably make handset vendors rethink how they implement their underlying operating systems to prevent reverse engineering. Also, encryption of key data on the device might also be worth considering.

The bottom line is that the problem should be fixed whilst it's still in its infancy.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

More usability blunders on MMS...

Apparently, the crowds at 3GSM are talking about usability. They've realised that there's a connection between how much a service is used and how usable it is.


I've lost count of the posts and articles I've written on this topic. Fellow mobilist Barbara Ballard is now blogging on this topic alone. She recently posted on "Mobile Usability Challenges for 2005".

Today I was playing around with the MMS composer on the NEC 338 on Three's network. I uncovered several usability problems in the whole experience.

Each time I tried to send the MMS from the device, it complained "Message size too large". What it didn't tell me is how big, or small, the message should be. The MMS composer didn't complain either. So I had to play around with the message elements until it worked. That's not very usable.

I sent the message to my Nokia 6600 on Voda. No problems.

Then I sent it to my Blackberry 7230, also on Voda. The BB doesn't support MMS, so I got a text message telling me where to go collect my MMS. This turned out to be a totally unusable possibility.

I clicked the link and was directed to a massive web page, not at all designed for mobiles, where I had to enter my mobile number and some obscure password, which I couldn't see because I now had my browser open, not the inbox.

Now, why can't the site detect I'm accessing it from a mobile device and format the page accordingly? Why are such blunders still taking place? Why? Why? Why?

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Mobile spiritualism...

Have you spoken to any dead people on your mobile recently? Well, now it's a "possibility".

Whereas Hertz only managed to transmit sparks, it was Marconi at the turn of the 20th century who finally figured out how to use the human voice as the cause of electrical excitement in the antenna. Radio transmission as we know it was born.

Transporting the voice through air seemed paranormal. Indeed, some spectators were so in awe of this effect that they convinced themselves it had a supernatural significance. Some were even convinced that radio had potential for communicating with the dead .

Now that's silly isn't it?

Well, not so, according to inventor Juergen Broether who has come up with a new idea, as reported by fellow mobilist David Pescovitz in a recent item in his journal on The Feature.

The gist of the "invention" is a mobile phone that is buried with the deceased in the grave. It has a speaker-phone and the battery gives 200 hours of talk time.

Now, I might just be a little dumb on this one, but what about RF coverage? And what about when the battery runs out. Do we exhume the mobile?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

100 Mobile Product Ideas...#10...
Open personal mobile gateway...

Developers are used to the highly programmable and open environment of the Internet. Understandably, they get frustrated about the relatively restricted possibilities for making things happen in the mobile ecosystem.

This has led some energetic attempts to provoke debate about the problem. One notable effort is Open Gardens, a book by Ajit Jaoker and Tony Fish, positioning themselves as change agents in the milieu. Ajit has gone on to produce his own publishing company to promote the writings and ideas of industry visionaries, like Tomi Ahonen.

Essentially, there is a tension between operators and external entrepreneurs and developers who see that their mobile product and service ideas are thwarted by onerous attributes of the mobile ecosystem.

The product idea I shall introduce here is potentially useful in its own right for all mobile users. However, it has an added benefit of allowing a more open arrangement with the operators, at least at the individual level so that a particular user could play with mobile ideas more easily than at present. This might at least allow the floodgates of creativity to open a little and nudge the industry in the right direction.

Every user should be provided with a web account that enables access to their mobile services online, such as:

1. Voice mail
2. Call handling (i.e. forwarding, diverts etc.)
3. SMS
4. MMS
5. Location services
6. Billing (inc. top-ups)
7. Address book with synchronisation features
8. Ring-back tone manager
9. Other stuff (more on this later)

Let's call this portal "MyMobile", for want of a better name.

The features above are all accessible via an authenticated web portal and only work for the mobile associated with the particular MyMobile account.

The services would be useful in their own right. For example, I could send SMS from my account to any of my contacts and this would be billed to my mobile. An MMS composer would also be included and allow me to easily send pics from my account. Again, billing is to my mobile.

Location services would allow me to make location pings of my mobile. Now, that might seem like a stupid idea. I know what you're thinking. Why do I want to ping my mobile's whereabouts from a web page?

Well - don't forget that I could also access this portal from my device's browser. So, now that you can see that all the above services are accessible via my device, perhaps this might set some creative sparks flying. But that's not all...

The really interesting feature of MyMobile is that all of the above features are also accessible via web services, which is why I headlined the idea as an "open personal mobile gateway". Are you beginning to get the drift now?


I can programmatically gain access to any of the functions, which means I can start to do creative things with my mobile services without worrying about operator permissions, billing arrangements and authentication issues etc. I can play in the sand pit, or should I say sand box.

OK, you want some examples of what I could do.
No problem.

Imagine I write a MIDlet for my phone that manages my meetings. It might allow me to take minutes of meetings (see idea #6). Additionally, let's say it keeps a record of all my meetings times, either directly or via the phone's calendar. Using the MyMobile interface, the MIDlet could divert my calls to voicemail automatically during meetings. Well, perhaps that' s possible on some phones anyway (e.g. Symbian). However, with MyMobile I could implement this feature from anywhere. I could get Exchange or Notes to do the same.

Now, let's say that the voicemail allows us to upload sound files (which is an idea all by itself) for our greeting messages and that it allows per-number customised greetings. In other words, if Bill calls me, then I can play the sound file for Bill. With MyMobile, I could dynamically upload sound files as often as I liked.

Let's follow that thread for a moment. A common "should-do" task for consciencious professionals is to update their voicemail message everyday: "Hi, today is Tuesday the 12th of May and I am out all day - please leave a message".

Now, that might be a bit too much for many of us to bother with, or remember to do. How many times have you called someone who is "Out today on the 18th of June" and it's the 23rd of July?

With MyMobile, an enthusiastic developer could program this in a day. In other words, with MyMobile and some programming, we've extended our voicemail functionality to something a bit more interesting and useful.

My application examples might not get your juices flowing, but that's not really the point. Whatever takes your fancy, that's what you go program. Imagine being able to play around all day with easy-peasy programming, dancing in the sand box and making cool things happen with your mobile. Combined with the power of MIDlets (if needed), all kinds of possibilities emerge - and that's the point! Any code hack could build a mobile app based on this approach.

We could well imagine that an open source movement emerges around the idea of creating customised MyMobile apps. Want to have your own daily-update voicemail. No problem, download the code and load it on your server. Want to have a shared address book among a group of friends or associates. No problem. Download, plug and play!

Power to the user!

[I'll add more to the idea in some later posts, including some thoughts on the implementation of MyMobile.]

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100 Mobile Product Ideas...#8 (pt. 2)...
My home line on my mobile

Previously, I blogged about my desire for a networked answering machine for my fixed home line, offering web and mobile access to the voicemail. However, a network-provider based solution is more attractive in the long term, because it means that I get voicemail whilst the line is busy.

One approach to fixed-mobile convergence is to make my landline behave as if it were my mobile. This is entirely possible in the evolving world of SIP-based telephony.

For voicemail, which was my main concern, my mobile messaging service will act on behalf of my home line too. If I miss a call at home, the caller is sent to my mobile mailbox.

Such services are on the horizon, but we still need to include visual navigation of the voicemail and missed calls. A synchronised address book is also a necessity.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Bad menus, bad taste, bad aerials...

The drop-down box for US states annoys Seth Godin, who bemoans the persistence of bad ideas. It's persisted because everyone else does it. Well, so is mint-flavoured tooth paste and I loathe it.

Thank heavens then that in my move to use non-flouride toothpastes, I found one that's citrus flavoured. And it's for adults. I thought only kids got yummy flavoured toothpaste.

Sometimes bad ideas persist because there's no outside - no purple cow (Sethology) - to disrupt the status quo. Nokia persisted with mars-bar phones whilst the world was falling in love with clam-shells. They lost serious market share. For years, Ericsson phones had huge external antennas. Yuk! Like minty toothpaste! No, worse!

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100 Mobile Product Ideas...#9...

What a great article by Peggy Anne Salz on The Feature website. She writes about the importance of training mobile users on devices and services.

Wow! Simple, yet wow! Hardly anyone does it and it's so obvious and so useful, as some operators are now discovering.

What a contrast from my recent purchase of a phone from Three. I had to endure the pain of having my questions answered by the assistant reading from the same feature card that I could see, or from a slightly more detailed crib sheet. That's not training on a product, for her, or me!

My father used to sell amazingly complex medical equipment that makes 3G phones look like toy bricks. He would know how every button worked in every single modality of operation for every single application context. In other words, there wasn't a better person on the planet who could get better out of the machine than he could - and this is what he demonstrated to the user, not a brochure. That's what got sales.

Thanks Peggy for drawing our attention to the ever so important issue of customer awareness and customer training. I have been in mobile technology for 15 years and have never stopped being amazed at how useless the mobile community is at promoting its own wares. I barely meet anyone in the operator world who can use their own products, nevermind sell them.

I vividly recall launching a web-based text messaging service in a Fortune500 company back in 97. We insisted on end-user training and this made sure that everyone actually used the service.

If mobile data has not taken off, it's our fault, not the customers. I recently attended a seminar in the UK about updates to the Blackberry. The O2 sales guy was puzzled about why so few (comparatively) people are actually using Blackberries. "They're great" he said, and I agree.

However, one reason is that very few people who don't own one have ever tried one. I'm guessing that this applies to so many services. I've many times been in a major high-street shop who offer digital printing booths for camera-phones and only once seen them in use. My guess is that no one knows how to use them. I took a brief look and couldn't figure it out - and I'm a techie by most standards.

Aside from all of the vitally important issues Peggy mentions, like usability, it is critical that users get their hands on some of the better devices, be trained on them and then let loose.

My very simple and obvious idea is to use a very old sales technique - the user trial. Simply select customers who clearly already demonstrate a propensity towards using non-voice services and simply give them free upgrades to the best devices next time they walk in the shop. They get training there and then and get to use the new services for at least 3 months for free.

The potential viral effect of word-of-mouth from these users will far outstrip money spent giving phones and services away for free. One thing that a mobile operator should be able to do, with all of their vast amounts of data on user habits, is find those users who will stand the best chance of spreading the word - "sneezers" as Seth Godin calls them.

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"Red-Button" ads on mobiles...

Justin Pearse writes on The Feature that mobile marketing is going mainstream. Just as advertisers can now include interactive-TV "Red Button" on campaigns, they can now include an SMS response mechanism.

According to Justin, major ad agencies are now offering this mobile add-on in their portfolio. In other words, mobile marketing has gone mainstream.

If this is true, which I suspect it is, this is all the more reason that influential members in the mobile food chain should make the mobile experience closer to an actual "Red Button". Currently, users have to text keywords. I'd like to see a proper study done on this to examine its efficacy.

As posted earlier (and in earlier posts and in my book) I'm still campagning for ad-numbers that includes a recognisable equivalent of the red-button, so that ad readers know that they can get more info on their mobiles. "@1234 for more info on your mobile".

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Location triggers are the essence of LBS...

Location sensing is a necessary feature of all mobiles. The whereabouts of each mobile is needed by the core of the mobile network. This is how calls and text messages get routed through to the mobile.

Location information is also useful for services. Many users have probably already experienced services like "Find" on the 3 network in the UK. These services are static, request-based services. The user requests information and at that time their location is calculated. There are many ways to calculate location and I have a whole chapter on this topic in my book.

However, location information can be much better utilised with location triggering. This is summarised in the above slide from one of my courses. It shows that when a user moves within the vicinity of an event or place/person of interest, there exists an opportunity to notify the user.

My previous posting (idea #7) required just such a capability. Recall that I wanted a 3rd party call to be initiated when I moved within range of my home.

The biggest challenge with triggering is the huge processing task in tracking all the users and all of their possible points of interest, which could be many per user. Many moons ago I blogged about this issue and it is also discussed in my book. I also drafted an architecture for a J2EE solution, which was part of a project to build a location platform for an operator in HK.

Techniques like in-memory processing allow for high performance calculation of the trigger points, but there is still the problem of demand on the network.

I was very interested to come across WaveMarket who claim to have solved the processing problem with their location platform. Their claims may well have validity, if their customer sign-up and recent funding round (9.2M USD) are anything to go by.

As WaveMarket has identified, location triggering is an essential component to any commercialy successful location-based service. There are many services that could utilise triggering. My own favourite is Splash Messaging, which I recently heard referred to as "Splat messaging". It is also a theme that I continue to research, especially in conjunction with graffiti.

WaveMarket are proving their technology through their very own location service, called Crunkie, which combines social networking, splash messaging and blogging - all potentially hot ingredients for a "killer app". However, ingredients are one thing, but usable and compelling services are quite another. I would like to know more about what users think of Crunkie.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Sleep, snoozing and texting...

Do you text in your sleep?

A man from Swansea does.

Is it plausible? Apparently so, says some "expert" (read the article).

In several polls, including my own straw poll on my website, people have mentioned that their favourite app after voice and text is the alarm clock. We are sleeping with our mobiles folks. What about all that RF?

Personally, I switched my Blackberry off - or the RF part of it - and found that I sleep better at night. Can't explain it, but it "cured" my insomnia. I don't think I was sending any emails in my sleep. At least, no one has reported any unusual incoherence in my messages, or abnormal sending times.

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Push I-MAP Protocol

This is what we have been waiting for. An open standard push-protocol for email.

Abstract : «The Push-IMAP protocol (P-IMAP) defines extensions to the IMAPv4 rev1 protocol [RFC3501] for optimization in a mobile setting, aimed at delivering extended functionality for mobile devices with limited resources. The first enhancement of P-IMAP is that unlike a standard IMAPv4 Rev1 server, which relies on the client to constantly initiate contact to ask for state changes, the P-IMAP server can push crucial changes to a client. In addition, P-IMAP contains extensions for email filter management, message delivery, and maintaining up-to-date personal information. Bindings to specific transport are explicitly defined. »

The old story of email being the killer mobile app still has a lot of mileage, if only it were actually widely available. Mobile email only becomes a killer app once it has push. Where would texting be today if we had to keep pushing a dumb button called "Fetch Messages" every few minutes, or hours, or whatever?

I recently attended a Blackberry seminar to get an update on the new features for BES 4.0, which is the enterprise server that makes it all work. A sales guy exclaimed that he simply didn't understand why more people aren't using Blackberries. Now, I'm a great fan of the Blackberry - it's my main device. I can't imagine not having it now. Definitely, if users try it, they will like it and fall in love with it, the "it" being push email, NOT the device. Apart from the brilliant 10/10 email (thanks to push), the device is about 2 years out of date.

Sure, RIM are focussed on enterprise customers, email functionality and none of the other sexy bits. But, email is a mass consumer product and consumers don't want black-and-ugly, they want silver-and-sexy with all the bells and whistles. The ringtone on a Blackberry sounds like an old Bontempi organ.

Let's hope P-IMAP appears on our mobiles soon. Of course, operators have to juggle with the rates, not cannibalising their text revenues and all the other things they worry about at night. However, the future has to be mobile email and it will one day overtake texting. Once users have it, they won't want to do without it.

It is often overlooked that one of the most powerful features of email over and above texting, apart from the obvious ones, is that practically any device or application on the planet can send an email. I know, plumbing IT systems into texting gateways is "straightforward", but there's the huge chasm of billing to cross. Whoa! It all falls down into that big crevass.

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100 Mobile Product Ideas...#8...

I have a separate landline for my home number, one for business and then my cable modem. My landline has an answering machine, but it has two major problems. First, it has very little memory. Second, if we're out, then we don't know that we have a message.

Obviously, we have mobile phones and there are all kinds of solutions to tackle this problem. I am interested in software answering machines ("google it"). There are plenty on the market. They are not new.

They use the hard-disk for storage, so memory is not a problem. Many of them also include notification, although this is where we can improve matters a little.

Notification options can include text messaging and email. Either is potentially fine for me, as I use a Blackberry as my main mobile device. Preferably, I want to know who the call is from, not just the caller's number. This is where matters get a bit sticky.

We could keep an address book on the PC, in order to allow the numbers to be translated to names. This immediately gives us a synchronisation problem. Ideally, I want my numbers on my mobile and on the PC to be the same. There is nothing new about this problem and there are myriad synchronisation solutions available, especially with technologies like SyncML proliferating. Also, we could use a MIDlet on some MIDP2.0 phones to achieve synchronisation.

Ideally, I would like a completely networked answering machine. The voicemail service should be entirely web-based and accessible from anywhere on the net and from any mobile device. I want to be able to view a list of missed calls and voicemails. I can play the messages from a PC or mobile device. I should be notified of voicemails via a push message that enables me to jump straight to the voicemail and hear it immediately.

To summarise, the mobile product features are:

1. Software-based answering machine for fixed line
2. Voicemails and missed calls stored on the web, accessible from PC or mobile
3. Notifications of voicemails/missed calls via text or email
4. Notifications include caller names, not numbers
5. Name/number store is also web-based and synchronises with my mobile (or any other e.g. wife)
6. Black-box solution is preferable for the answering device itself, as I'd rather not mess around with modems and PCs. The box has a phone jack and comes in ethernet or WiFi flavours. An indicator LED is fine, but otherwise zero interface - everything is accessed via a net interface, in the PC or mobile browser.

If you already know of such a device, please let me know.

Eventually, telecom providers like BT will get around to providing this kind of service anyway and we wont ever have to bother with answering machines at all. It's especially good for fixed-line companies who also offer mobile services, as they could presumably drive more calls to the mobile.

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100 Mobile Product Ideas...#7...

Yesterday I was away from home, visiting friends. I promised my wife that I would call her "as I got near" home, as I was bringing a guest back for dinner. She needed time to prepare etc. My wife is very hospitable and a good cook.

Problem is that I didn't remember to call until I was nearly home - "I'm ten minutes away". That was probably nearer 5 minutes in reality - not very fair on my wife either way. With her magic, she still managed to prepare some really good food.

Then I realised that with location-sensing, my approach could be programmed automatically. It doesn't actually require tracking of my whereabouts, just a trigger to sense when I enter one of the cells within the defined range. That's no extra overhead on the network, as cell-based sensing is essential for mobility management anyway.

But, how should my wife by notified?
Using the phone of course!

The great thing about Parlay is that a 3rd-party call could be initialised. This means that the network is told to ring my phone and my home phone. In fact, it seems a good idea to keep this switch on all of the time. When I think about it, my approach to home always causes me to make that call - "I'm nearly home". This must be a common occurence for spouses, partners, parents, children who approach home.

The great thing about Parlay is that (in theory) I could go program this app myself. Otherwise, this is specialised call processing stuff deep in the bowels of the network that external developers would never gain access to. In other words, Parlay opens the network, at least from a programmatic point of view. Commercially....that's another issue....

The thorny issue with Parlay applications like this, or any that go beyond simple discrete messaging paradigms, is the billing. How will the operator charge for this service and share the revenue? I shall post more on this later. There is no single solution, but we can attempt to look at models that might lead to open networks in the near future.

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