Wireless Wonders

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

Thursday, May 26, 2005

DVD beaming (and washing machines)...idea #60/100...

DVD players could be equipped with Bluetooth in order to beam information to nearby movie watchers. A DVD could include a URL that points to a microsite, or it could contain the entire microsite itself and allow nearby mobiles to surf directly without incurring data costs.

Let's say that I'm watching 24 on DVD. Surfing the microsite could allow me to download the "famous" 24 ringtone.

Of course, it probably makes more sense to equip the TV itself with Bluetooth and allow for the possibility of accessing mobile content from any video source, not just DVDs.

With the rapidly decreasing cost of Bluetooth chipsets, I wonder how long before electrical goods manufacturers start thinking about incorporating Bluetooth just to beam out information to nearby mobiles. We can imagine our mobiles running an application that simply scans for nearby information beacons and brings them to our attention.

The interesting thing is that unconnected devices could suddenly appear to be connected. Consider the following scenarios:

1. My washing machine could beam its URL to my phone. Included in the exchange is a timer that instructs my phone to go fetch updates from the URL. Periodically, I get updates about my washing machine, perhaps including offers for an extended warranty or for bulk delivery of washing power. The point is that these updates, whilst coming from the Internet, could appear to be coming from the washing machine.

2. My washing machine could place calendar alerts in my diary, such as reminding me to extend the warranty, or clean the filter, or whatever it might like to remind me to do.

3. The machine could actually connect with the Internet, using my phone as a bridge. For example, it uploads a service report to the manufacturer's service centre, reporting on a fault that is developing with the pump.

These ideas are obvious. However, I'm not sure how widely the possibility has been grasped. This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. The gates are wide open for this to become a reality today and with very little effort and cost. All we need is a Bluetooth profile for machines that allows a simple "I'm here and here's my URL" to be broadcast. Beyond that, there doesn't need to be a standard because of the well-known flexibility of the good old URL.

A lot gets said about seamless mobility, but usually about using any wireless access technology to connect with a network. However, in my view, seamlessness is about this natural and intuitive exposure to information relevant to the time and place we find ourselves in from moment to moment. Like the DVD example. When I'm watching a DVD, my mobile knows about it and does something about it - "You're watching a DVD - let me help you with that...."

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Vodafone Simply...smart, not dumb!

Vodafone UK has announced the introduction of two phones under the name "Vodafone Simply". These devices are simple to use.

I advise taking a tour of the Sagem VS1, which is a really excellent example of usable design.

What's incredulous about all this is that Vodafone are clearly implying this phone is for older, possibly more stupid, people. Clearly they have to stop short of calling potential customers stupid, especially older ones, although that didn't stop the BBC including the phrase (incorrectly) "dumbed down" and "over 55's" in its report on the device.

This is incredulous because the VS1 actually shows us how a device should be - usable. They have stepped "out of the box", away from hackneyed design metaphors (i.e. bewildering "menus" constricted by two buttons) and given us something refreshing and innovative.

Simplicity of design is a universally appealing concept, not something for dumb people or cheap devices. And it doesn't mean we can't have all the "bells and whistles", as Apple has shown us with their Mac interface.

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Email, text and Metcalfe's Law (again)...

Metcalfe's Law says that the usefulness of a network is proportional to the square of the number of users (click for diagram). Clearly, there are other factors to consider, such as accessibility of the network. With texting, most of the users of the network have constant access because they carry the device with them.

On the other hand, with email, users are very often disconnected from the network. Therefore, the power of the network is diminished in real terms. The accessibility of these two networks is one of the attributes affecting how they get used.

Put simply, emails are seldom viewed as being time critical. The length of time between the user sending the message and the recipient reading is not critical. In fact, often the sender is more concerned with the sending of the message to meet some need, rather than the opening of the message at the other end. In other words, sending the email is often seen as the completion of a task, not the reading of it, which is another, almost separate, issue deferred to some time in the future.

Email can very often have a publishing quality: "Here's some information - read it when you like, act on it whenever you can". The reader subscribes to the information and acts in their own time. In essence, it is not person-to-person communication because very often the sender senses - and exploits - that their message is really being posted to an inbox, not directly to a person.

On the other hand, texting is more real-time and more like "talking". The sender has a view that their message is going straight to a person, not to their inbox.

Email is like placing a letter in someone's in-tray, whereas texting is like tapping them on the shoulder and saying look at this, whilst placing a message on a slip of paper in their hand. With email, a great deal of emotional emphasis is placed on sending. With texting, the emphasis is on the receiving. The technical reason for this is that texting has always been push-based. Therefore, a sent message is immediately brought to the attention of the recipient who will have their device with them at all times. This immediacy quality is missing with email, which is why the perception remains that emailing is to an "in-tray", not to a person.

For someone to need mobile access to their email, it is the information in their email messages that has to be important and sufficiently time-critical to warrant on-the-move access. There are very few people who need such access to their email, which is why there are so few mobile email users, by which I mean so few Blackberry users. I am using this as the yardstick for mobile email because most people have now heard of the Blackberry and it has been on sale for many years. If rapid access to email were really that critical, there would be a lot more users.

In the business world, time-critical person-to-person communication is still done by talking on the telephone. Increasingly, texting is used in the business world, but usually to reduce telephone costs and to overcome callee availability problems in certain contexts.

When many of us, myself included, set about building mobile email solutions at the birth of GPRS, we made an assumption which I think has proven incorrect. That assumption was that the massive rise in the importance of email meant that mobile access would be attractive. However, this seems not to be the case. What really matters is the importance of time-critical access to the information flows in email threads. There just aren't that many people who need email-bound information rapidly enough to warrant mobile access. Furthermore, access to email has improved anyway, with the ongoing ubiquity of laptops and remote access, especially from home-based broadband connections.

Finally, the notion that texting paves the way to mobile email is evidently untrue and apparently based on faulty logic because of the key differences mentioned above.

Does this mean that we should write-off mobile email? Not really. But it does mean that it isn't valued that highly by most of us and so it is important to remove any barriers to usage, such as current high pricing and poor usability. No doubt, as more devices become capable of usable (i.e. affordable, push-based) email, its usage will increase. There is also the possibility of reaching a tipping point where the number of active mobile email users creates a shift in usage patterns and our sense of time-sensitivity changes. Suddenly we might expect more rapid reaction to information changes than we currently do. There is no doubt that once exposed to mobile email and the "connectedness" it brings, it is easy to get used to.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

Combating data uncertainties...idea #59/100

I have been looking at various push-email solutions for mobiles. I have almost given up trying to figure out who offers Blackberry Connect on which device, because it seems an impossible task, at least in the UK.

I came across a push service for Pocket PC called Pocket Express. It is a hosted services that collects mail from an email account using POP3 and pushes it to the device. However, figuring out how much this is going to cost in GPRS data transfers is a painful process.

This is the number one problem with any mobile service that is not hosted by an operator and consequently lacking in event-based (per email) or fixed (flat rate) pricing. I think that it is totally inadequate for service providers to continue with the standard line of "consult your operator for data charges".

Providers should at the very least attempt some basic calculations based on typical usage patterns and various tariff structures. Otherwise, surely many customers are going to walk away. Operators should make this process easy by providing tariff calculators on their website - prominently displayed and easily accessible.

In fact, my idea is that operators should provide a web-service interface to their pricing databases so that various service providers could automatically display various tariff guides on their websites for different usage patterns.

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Cellular socks...idea #58/100...

A handy side pocket on a sock would allow discrete carriage of the mobile. This has a range of practical benefits, such as avoiding the dreadful and often damaging exit from shirt pockets whilst bending over.

Moreover, there's a distinct safety upside. With Bluetooth headset connected, the phone would be at the maximum possible distance from the brain. It also affords the male user the relief of not having to carry it in their pocket where radiation might cause fertility worries, even though strange experiments have shown that cellular radiation causes increased fertility in earth worms.

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