Wireless Wonders

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

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Tai Chi on the phone...

I am learning Tai Chi. I already subsribe to Traditional Chinese Medicine as a viable approach to wellness, including acupuncture and herbs. Tai Chi is a soft martial art that involves graceful movements that are a lot harder than they look - believe me! (I sweat a lot and it hurts.)

During one of the lessons I was intrigued by one of the students who was perplexed by the initially difficult to grasp sequence of Tai Chi walking. His response was to get out his mobile and start video recording the sequence.

Of course, it might serve as a useful reminder and learning aid, but I couldn't help reflecting on the disconnect. Here he was in front of a Tai Chi master who could teach the student in the flesh, but he was too busy downloading the moves into his phone to learn it from a screen later....

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IM assistant automatons...idea #57/100...

Having an Instant Messaging (IM) dialogue with an automaton is not new. There have been various attempts to introduce platforms and developer kits to allow this type of service to be realised. The idea is to use IM to interact with a software application (automaton) rather than a human being.

One mode of IM assistant is the variation on interactive dial-up menus - "press 1 for option A, press 2 for option B, etc." This mode of dialogue with a service hasn't really found an application, mostly because in the majority of contexts there is a better, or more familiar, alternative, such as the web of course.

However, I think that within the "push-to-X" presentation of services, IM-automatons make sense, especially as more automatons start to appear in our buddy lists alongside all of our human buddies.

The particular idea I had related to my previous two posts on instant updating of voicemail announcements.

The weakness of making voicemail announcements more fluid is our own propensity to forget things, like changing the announcement back again from a "temporary" one. For example, if I pushed an update to say "hi, I'm in a meeting until 3", I need to remember to go back and update it after 3 in order to avoid announcement staleness.

One possibility for doing this is to include a expiry setting on the announcement. After the expiry time passes, the most recent announcement is deleted and returns to the default one.

Setting the expiry time, if required, mustn't be a tedious process, otherwise the whole convenience of instantly updating announcements is eroded. Therefore, what I had in mind was to pop an IM dialogue on the user's device immediately after depositing the new announcement. The IM dialogue would simply say "How many hours (h) or minutes (m) should the announcement last? (e.g. 1h, 5m)"

Here's the sequence then:

1. I select my "voicemail buddy" from the buddy list
2. Press the PTT button and speak the new announcement
3. Release the PTT button
4. An IM dialogue immediately pops up on my device:

Voicemail:> "How many hours (h) or minutes (m) should the announcement last?"
Voicemail:>"Your new announcement is set for 1 hour...bye"

5. IM dialogue closes

This kind of interaction is easily integrated into the new environment of buddy-driven presence interfaces and services on the coming generation of 3G devices. All of the interactions in that environment are SIP-based, which allows a fluid movement between different types of communication session, such as voice and IM. In this context, it seems to me that IM-automatons are a likely candidate for interaction with various services, either entirely or partially, such as the example just discussed.

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Dial to record...idea #56/100...

Following on from my last post about using push-to-talk to instantly update voicemail announcements, is there is an alternative whilst we wait for PTT to arrive on our terminals?

One possibility is to give users a dedicated number that is solely for updating voicemail announcements. Dial the number and record! That simple.

However, even were this available, don't underestimate the power of ultra-convenience when it comes to usability. It might not sound like much of a difference between dialling to record and pushing a button to record, but in terms of usage the difference is vast. Without doubt, the coming push-to-X mode of using mobile services is going to be important.

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Push to record...idea #55/100...

Voicemail is still a useful application, despite the ubiquity of text messaging and other forms of asynchronous communication. We all like to talk and voice remains the dominant service for mobile. But, can it be made better?

The newly emerging service for mobile is push-to-talk (PTT). It's an old idea revisited. However, its new form has some important differences from its walkie-talkie ancestor. One crucial difference is the interface. On modern PTT devices the user is presented with a graphical buddy list that works just like those in various Instant Messenger (IM) applications. In essence, PTT is more akin to the voice equivalent of IM than the old walkie-talkie services.

A key feature of the buddy-list interface is presence. This is the ability to view each other's current state of preparedness for a communications session: "online", "offline", "busy" etc. This meta-communication is useful in its own right, which is why presence is being viewed as an integral part of future 3G devices.

Clearly, PTT is an evolution of the voice offering for cellular, but what's this got to do with voicemail?

Voicemail is a form of presence indication, albeit very crude. Getting through to someone's voicemail announcement clearly says "I'm not here to take your call", or the user is "offline". More discerning users of voicemail will update their messages to include more information, like "Today is Tuesday - I am in the office, please leave a message..."

Most of us are unable, or unwilling - in incapable - of updating our announcements that often, if ever, apart from during vacations maybe.

What if our voicemail announcement was a buddy in our PTT list? With one click (push), we could record a new announcement and do this as often as we liked. My suspicion is that many of us would find this useful and probably develop a new habit of updating our voicemail messages often...."I'm in a meeting for the next two hours, please do leave...."

Taking this push-to-record (PTR) a stage further, we could also add the ability to use PTR on a per-buddy basis in addition to the generic announcement. If we PTR with the "voicemail" buddy, then the generic announcement is updated. If we PTR with a particular buddy in our list, say "John", then if John calls he gets the announcement I left for him.

There's no doubt that whenever a service is as simple as pushing a button, we tend to use it. We're push-overs when it comes to push-buttons.

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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Vonage and my mobile...

Vonage recently launched their VoIP telephony service in the UK. The pricing is attractive, but I am just as interested in the services. In particular, the voicemail, which includes email notification and web access. I am just so frustrated that on an ordinary carrier, like BT, you're either stuck with an answering machine or using their incredibly basic voicemail service (with zero notification options).

I would like to see better integration with mobile. For example, SMS notification of messages would be very useful and allow immediate dial-in to the voicemail. Notification of missed calls might also work, especially considering that about 80% of callers do not leave messages. It would also be nice to allow access to the voicemail and other features via an application on the phone, such as a MIDlet or Symbian app. I suspect this would be in Vonage's interest as one feature could be a "follow me" service, which configures the call forwarding to the mobile. If this is as easy to turn on as clicking a button on the mobile (more or less), it is imaginable that the service would get used, even with the forwarded-leg costs (15p per minute day-time to mobiles in the UK).

These days it really is quite easy to develop a mobile application and thereby extend service offerings into the mobile domain. The potential level of convenience offered by mobile control and access to services is easy to underestimate.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Pricing of services..the essential problem!

Another synchronization service was brought to my attention. Tabella Express is an address and calendar syncing application (that uses SyncML). It looks good and is very reasonably priced during its promotional phase.

However, their price is only one component of the cost to the user. The other is the data traffic. How much is using this service going to cost the user? Unfortunately, most users won't have a clue. There are two pieces of information missing.

Firstly, most users are unaware of their data tariff. Moreover, many users are probably on the most expensive tariff possible (surf all day and spend hundreds - literally!) unless they have elected for a particular bundle. The high cost of data is probably hidden by the fact that most operator portals are free to surf.

Secondly, even if a user knew their tariff, this is really mumbo jumbo for most of us. We don't want to know X per megabyte, we want to know how much to use the service. This is the second piece of missing information - the expected, or typical, data usage (translated into price).

There's a further problem. Let's imagine that we could convince our operator that it would be a good idea - in its interest - to facilitate event-based pricing for this service. Most operators don't have the necessary infrastructure to support the mechanism, namely to allow an event, like a SyncML exchange, to be trapped by a charging gateway and subsequently accounted for (and charged) as an event rather than ratcheting up the megabyte counter. Of course, it can be done, but not at the click of a button.

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Monday, May 09, 2005

People-centric interfaces

Back in 98, I led a project, called Zingo, to program a wireless portal for Lucent Technologies. This was a demonstration vehicle for wireless data. One of its features was a context-sensitive interface, or "tab-driven" interface.

There were, as I recall, three "tabs" - "home", "office" and "mobile" (i.e. "3rd space"). The idea was that the available portal features were arranged for the context. For example, in "home" mode, only personal contacts were visible in the address book. Quicklinks were also adjusted to include access to TV listings and other home-orientated content.

A key part of the concept was people-centric design. One view of the information space was via people. Instead of an inbox, there was a "people-box" and associated icons suggested messages, tasks and information available on a per-person basis. In each tab mode, the relevant people would bubble to the top of the people-box, such as family and friends.

Returning to my recent posting on merged web interfaces, the people-box would be connected with a networked resource so that I am guaranteed the most up-to-date contact information for each person, a la Plaxo. To that end, although Plaxo offers a mobile access service (with WAP presentation), they should seriously think about offering an XML ("web services") interface for other services to build on their offering. Going forward, I am convinced that this type of open-API (see Flickr) model will bring a lot of benefit to users and service providers in the future. In other words, users can plug into service providers, but via an interface/presentation of their choice. Of course, they would have to pay for the service provision, but for reliable useful services, this is not unreasonable.

It is unforgiveable that mobile operators have taken this long to figure out that people are what drive usage and to design accordingly. Mobile is a person-to-person business and will remain so for a long time to come, even within the data services sphere. I recently wrote a chapter on just this topic, which I hope to bring to you soon in abridged form.

Why are we still stuck with relatively crude address books? Services are emerging, like Fonetango, that give address books the attention they deserve, but there is a lot more that can be done in this area.

Is it possible that the new breed of dynamic interfaces, like Surfkitchen, will team up with providers like Plaxo to give us dynamically driven address books and people-centric interfaces?

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