Wireless Wonders

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

Friday, March 11, 2005

Is Mobile TV bite-size TV?

The "buzz" at Cebit is high mega-pixel camera phones and Mobile TV. No surprise there. No doubt we are duly destined towards a drip-fed existence of non-stop entertainment. That's if the entertainment industry finds its way into the mobile world, which it is eager to do.

In Hollywood, so I'm told by an O2 bigwig, they're calling mobile "the 4th screen". As one "analyst" puts it: "After television, cinema and the PC a new platform is taking shape." That's the forth screen - the "platform" bit, which is mobile. I thought a platform is where we wait for trains...

Thus far, mobile video is really bite-sized video, nothing essentially mobile. We can well imagine that this excites the entertainment industry, as there must surely be an endless supply of bite-size "content"...

After pop videos, trailers and other skittish chunks from stardom world, I can well imagine "snippet TV" becoming popular. We just get to watch the classic scenes from all our favourite movies. These will be packaged and sold according to mood. "Feeling great" clips, "Payback" clips, "Motivational" clips, "Kick ass" clips...take your pick. Sounds plausible and likely.

The essence of mobile is dynamic context, both spatial and temporal. This does not apply to our current television/cinema experience. Very few people in media seem to have understood this difference and its implications.

With low-cost digital production techniques making movie-making accessible, combined with the obviously lower budgets to make a nano-length film, you have to wonder if a cottage industry of mobile video producers will emerge. I think so. And from within that crowd we will find talent who can utilise the mobile context and give us something new. My gut feel, and possibly my desire, is that such talent will give us refreshing alternatives to mainstream snippet world.

Of course, mainstream entertainment will duly grab mobile as one of its distribution channels, but I think this is a sufficiently different area that we can, and should, expect some radical shifts in how we define entertainment. Mobile video/TV will be different....

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Deadly mobiles...

We already know that using mobiles can lead to fatalities, such as whilst driving. But there is something much more sinister about the recent case in Manchester that involved a gun disguised as a mobile phone.

It is a frightening thought, but the mobile is an ideal candidate for a stealth weapon. It is something most of us always carry and so can go relatively unnoticed.

On the other hand, things could be turned around and the mobile could perhaps become a tool of self-defence. This would be useful in areas like London, where over half the street crimes involve mobile theft. Perhaps personal attack alarms could be added to some phones. More potent possibilities exist in other countries, such as the US, where pepper spray and stun guns are legal.

Mind you, if a robber wanted my mobile phone, I don't fancy a tussle. They could have it. The thing to ensure is that we've all backed up our address books! Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, that should be a standard network feature (courtesy of SyncML and operators who understand usability).

If a mobile does get stolen, then, at long last, it is now possible to report it stolen and have the device disabled remotely. This has always been possible in most digital cellular networks using the unique ID number of the device (the IMEI). I don't know why exactly it's taken so long to become a reality, but in the UK, the Immobilise system and campaign was launched in January.

I'm not sure how the Immobilise people get around authenticating reports of stolen devices, but the site seems to indicate that users have to register first. Perhaps I should try that and see how it works.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005

DOS attack on Blackberry...

Today I think that I discovered a potential denial-of-service (DOS) attack on the Blackberry.

I was sent an email with a 1MB attachment, but the MIME encoding didn't work properly. This meant that the message body itself was massive (the Base64 encoded attachment).

For some reason, despite the Blackberry's chunking of large emails into small pieces, the mail seemed to stump the device. The sand-timer appeared and just kept twirling away. I had to stop it by taking the battery out (i.e. drastic re-start).

I couldn't find a way round the problem. Trying to delete the message caused the same "freezed" response. I simply had to wait for a long time before it processed the command.

Now, had someone flooded my inbox with such large messages, it would have been very hard to recover without losing a lot of hair and patience.

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Tap, tap, tap...

The more one delves into usability on mobiles, the more it becomes apparent that we are stuck in our ways. Just as toothpaste is usually mint, so we have been stuck with mint.

Now, I'm sure that there is a logic to it. Yes. Perhaps we are willing to believe that the makers of toothpaste have done their market research and it always comes out mint. But how many of us have tried orange, or lemon, or any other non-mint flavour? (Thanks to some trailblazers like Green People, the big boys are catching on a giving us other flavours, though not in the UK yet.)

The same is probably true of usability testing. We ask users to try out interfaces that are essentially already decided, like mint toothpaste. The testing is about tweaking, or getting user acceptance. It isn't about trying alternatives to see what really works best.

In other words, we might test to see if a voicemail interface is usable. We are not asking what is the most usable interface for voicemail. There is a difference.

Someone decided that the interface for mobile menus is two buttons at the bottom of the screen. We can't have buttons on the side, or the top. Of course not. I'm sure that one-handed ergonomics says so. After all, we need our other hand to...well, do other things....stick in our ear hole perhaps...

Unless I'm an unusual user, which is possible, I have a hunch that being able to divert the phone straight to voicemail would be a useful feature. Of course it is, but it probably seldom gets used, except by really dedicated users. We all know the problem. Switching to divert-on-all is more than a few clicks on most phones. But why?

The same goes for keypads. We can settle for the standard 12-key alphanumeric, or we could settle for this...

...Fastap from DigitWireless...

Sure, not all operators are impressed. Perhaps no customers are asking for it and 700 million 12-key phones a year can't be wrong can they? Ditto, 1 billion tubes of mint toothpaste....

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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Parent-child hot line...idea #26/100...

It has been well researched that kids don't like to be called on their mobiles by their parents ("it's embarrassing"). Kids don't like to call their parents either, as it eats into their prepay credits. However, many phones are bought by parents so that a metaphorical umbilical cord can be maintained with their siblings. There is a tension here.

Although they are not users of the phones bought for kids, the parents are important customers and deserve special attention (reward) from the operators.

I started mulling this problem over and decided that there were probably lots of network services and phone features that could make the parent-sibling relationship more "mobile-friendly". This is a theme worth exploring, as there are other contexts outside of parent-sibling relationships that induce tensions between the caller and the called.

My first thought is giving the parents a hotline feature. Some means to get through despite most attempts to stay out of reach (except for the fatal switching-off).

This is a mode whereby a call to the mobile from the home number cannot be diverted to voicemail, ended or silenced. The phone is guaranteed to ring out loud, provided it's switched on.

What's more, with a ringback feature, the parents would not have to hang-around waiting for their child to answer, if he or she decided not to answer anyway. If the child did switch off, then the moment they switch on again, the phone rings.

Perhaps this is offered via a "hotline" number. The parent calls a hotline number (not the child's mobile number) and the network does the rest, having already registered the parents home number and the child's number on the hotline system.

Their are other solutions to make the parent-sibling relationship easier with mobile and I hope to return to this theme...

[Kids!! If operators ever implement this, I apologise in advance. Be nice to your parents :) ]

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Lie detection...

Mobile technology offers valuable lie detection potential, especially when it comes to detecting gross marketing exaggerations. How so?

Well, let's take bottled water as an example.

Seth Godin's forthcoming book is called "All Marketers Are Liars". He's started a new blog especially for it. One entry is about bottled water and the marketing-hype that is now used to describe plain old water. This resonates with a recent shopping experience...

In the supermarket I happened upon a range of bottled water products from the same manufacturer, but each with a separate claim on the label. From memory, one said something like "re-vitalizing", another "detox - liver cleanser" and the last one said "diet aid", or something like that. Interested, I read the ingredients...

They were all water, but with different flavourings. That's it! Not even a fancy-named herbal tincture, nor a lowly vitamin...nothing. Just flavourings....and....artificial sweeteners (AS).

I don't want to get into a debate about nutrition, but for my money, any product with AS in it does not come under the rubric of healthy and certainly not detox. I think just about any nutritionist would back me up on this.

One day in the mobile-connected era, we are going to be able to scan product codes on our mobiles and do our own product checks. Let's ignore the details for now, but one possibility will be to ask "is this healthy for me?" In the consumer-powered world of open source health, we shall be able to get an "honest" answer to such a question.

The point here is that with mobile technology, we can effectively supplant the marketing messages on product packaging in situ with our own messages from trusted sources, whatever they might be. This applies to all kinds of products and services, not just bottled water...

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Dialling sites...

David usefully comments that dialling sites won't work for him, as he can't remember numbers. He also raises a number of other issues about URL entry on mobile devices, including using barcodes.

I agree about numbers. No one, except train-timetable fanatics, can remember numbers very well, which is why we use letters and have wordy URLs. I should have made it clearer that dialling is intended for public spaces, so that mobile marketing campaigns can be more effective on billboards etc. Numbers solves the data entry problem, not a memory retention problem.

We see a billboard and it says "Dial 1234 for more info on your mobile" or whatever...

The current options for engaging mobile users from public adverts are the increasingly popular text-ad campaigns. Often these are used for a keyword driven 2-way texting dialogue that typically is a single send and response cycle.

Some campaigns can drive a user to a site via WAP-push. However, this is essentially a huge fudge that we may have overlooked in our enthusiasm for WAP-push. If our end-goal is to get a user onto a WAP site, then here's what we're asking:

1. Compose text message
2. Send text message
3. Wait for response
4. Click on link in response
5. Wait for page

To me, that seems a little cumbersome.

We have to take a step back from our techie world and into user world. It doesn't matter how much the above process seems "acceptable", I am working to the principle that usability drives usage and that if there's a conceivable improvement, it's worth doing, especially in the mobile context.

We are not talking about replacing URLs. They are fixed. WAP is "Web-lite", which means we're sticking with the HTTP-URL model. We need a range of alternatives for entering URLs whilst keypads are still the limiting factor, which they are on MOST phones.

Barcodes are an alternative data-entry method and they are very useful, but not for billboards.

As for using Google to get the URL....I think we need to rethink that one.

That's probably the least efficient technique possible. Try entering "railtrack" in Google's WAP engine to find train times....

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Up, up and away...

A guy from Intel emailed me to say that my book was prominently displayed on Wiley's stand at 3GSM, Cannes. I spoke to Wiley, to thank them, and they told me it sold out!

Wiley remarked that this was a very buoyant year for them at Cannes, so it does look like things are picking up...

Certainly, the activities in 3G are very encouraging and the massive interest in HSPDA and Mobile TV indicate great optimism for the 3G era.

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That's not me is it?...anti-theft device...idea #25/100...

The Guardian reports a story about Omron (Japan), who have an application for facial recognition that works on a mobile as an anti-theft device. The idea is that the user stores a self-portrait and then re-identifies using the camera each time they want to use the phone.

I can just imagine the not-in-the-lab accuracy rate...

Rest assured, if the accuracy isn't 99.99%, then users will switch it off.

Surely a possible alternative that would statistically be more accurate is to use a combination of long-term vocal and dialling recognition. In other words, the device continually monitors the user's voice and their calling habits, which enables a potentially reliable signature to be constructed (interesting area for research?).

Any deviation from the signature would cause the device to be disabled. Such a method could be entirely non-challenging, which means, unlike the photo-id, the user isn't actively asked to identify his- or her-self, which is a guaranteed usability hurdle. The signature technique simply works in the background and only becomes noticeable if the user's habits deviate from the signature.

Of course, this wouldn't stop the device in its tracks after a theft. The device would take some time to notice the deviation, depending on how reactive the underlying algorithms are. But, it would certainly disable the device and make onward selling of stolen devices problematic.

Continual vocal recognition algorithms would also add a processing overhead. However, it is my sense that this could done at the vocoder level (in the voice compression firmware) and take advantage of the significant signal-processing apparatus already present in all mobiles. I have not researched about using voice compression vectors as inputs to voice recognition engines, but I am confident that this is possible and probably well researched.

If the device falsely detected a deviation from the signature, then a simple pass phrase could be used as a challenge. For added security, this could be combined with selecting a number from the address book.

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Monday, March 07, 2005

Very taxing indeed...

I joined the queue as "number 280", waiting for my number to be called so that I could license my vehicle. Like all government offices, the DVLA services queues at its own slow pace.

The sense of frustration was in the air. Posters on the booths saying "we don't tolerate abuse of our staff" only heightened the tension. Frankly, I was waiting for the guy next to me to break. He kept uttering things under his breath, trying to get a reaction by glancing my way. I maintained my gaze forward and started to sweat. I confess that it took great patience not to get agitated by yet another person who hadn't filled their form in properly.

The only cool breeze came from an unlikely source: from a leaflet on the fill-your-form-here-or-don't-queue counter. It said that licenses can now be renewed online. Wow! This is the promise of e-government.

Now, can they go one step further and involve mobile? Please offer me a service to remind me via text message so that I don't ever have to go back to that office.....please....

And let me renew via my mobile too...

Send me a reminder - "Car reg. XX XXX. Your tax is due. Reply "r" if you want to renew now." I reply and get redirected to a secure WAP page and asked for my card details. Next day I get the tax disk in the post. The government saves oodles on costs.

Of course, this is a great idea, but full of holes.
Easy to defraud...and that's because WAP is "Web-lite", so we haven't thought how e-commerce in the mobile context might need to be different from Web, hence it doesn't work. Doesn't matter, I can still call them from my mobile or go online...

Whoops! I just tried it and read this:

Suspension of
Electronic Vehicle

Click it and see what happens...

[Note: the spell checker for this article suggested "devil" for "DVLA".]

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I'm a dull bull...

A new subscriber to my email list (link gratuitously displayed at the end of every post) replied to the auto responder from the mailer service (I use Constant Contact [CC]). The fair and useful criticism was that it didn't engage. It was a standard "you are subscribed and you can unsubscribe" message. A black-and-white cow.

Yes. I more or less took the CC template as I found it.
Yes...it is dull.
Not a purple cow.

My critic has given me food for thought. I am missing an opportunity to engage with the subscriber. I am working to fix it.....

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Draw your own interface...idea #24/100...

"Aah. The mind of a child" said Yoda in Attack of the Clones. The child thought of the answer that eluded Obi-Wan. My 5-year old son thought of this idea...

He just handed me a phone case (for a T68i) in which he had inserted paper instead of a phone. On it he had drawn his own interface design. This made me think...why not?

A phone could be produced with a touch-sensitive membrane beneath a plastic shield. Between the two could be inserted a keypad design, hand drawn if you like, or else nicely produced (e.g. in Photoshop) and printed from a colour laser. The phone can then go through a learning mode asking the user to touch all the keys. Voila! A uniquely customised phone interface.

[Japan probably already has it!]

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