Wireless Wonders

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

Friday, June 24, 2005

A new approach to mobile email?

Beware RIM! Despite being king of the mobile email world with Blackberry, your mobile email solution is going to be toppled soon unless you improve it.


Someone who understands email is going to come up with a better solution. RIM doesn't understand email in the "information organisation" sense. They understand email in the transport sense, i.e. mechanisms that makes sure things are secure and makes sure things get delivered on the move. They also understand sychronisation, especially with all those "dirty" low-level Exchange protocols. Granted, they also understand device design.

But why do I think that this apparently elegant mobile email solution, well liked by a few million, is in danger of becoming out-moded?

In case you haven't noticed, folders are out, searching is in. With the ability to search and retrieve information with powerful searching engines, the need to sort data into hierarchical folders is apparently in decline. This trend is well described by Jon Hiller.

Google are the exemplars of the search ethos and they have taken this a step further with Gmail, an online email service that does away with folders to organise email and uses labels ("tags", "keywords") instead.

Tagging is an important concept because it still allows user-intervention in information organisation processes, but doesn't impose a structure. For example, I can tag an email from a client with the tag "client", which means that it is now retrievable as a message from a "client" without the need to stuff it into a folder called "client". If I have a powerful search engine that can quickly retrieve messages tagged with "client", then this does away with the need for a folder called "client". Moreover, I can tag "client" messages with other tags, like "vip", or "chicago", or "nanotechnology", to indicate status, location and business activity respectively, and then search on these tags. I can use any tag I like and I don't have to worry about having sub-folders called "Chicago" etc.

However, I can also use rules to create tags. Just as we can use the Rules Wizard in Outlook to manipulate folder storage (i.e. routing to folders), there's no reason why we can't use the wizard to add tags. For example, I could create a rule that for all messages from "cool_client@cool..." add the tag "cool" and "client".

Also, we can use heuristics to generate tags automatically. For example, by looking at the percentage of emails I open from a sender and weighting this with the time interval between received (or accessed) and opened, I can automatically add tags like "vip" to the types of messages I open often and quickly, no matter the sender or the content.

Currently with my Blackberry, ALL of my email flows via the device. It is the single-user "Internet Edition", aimed at consumers (or prosumers). If ever there was a need to deviate from the standard "inbox" metaphor used by email for donkey's years (i.e. since the 70's), then it's mobile access. Innovation is required.

With tags, I could do things like open a current view on messages that are "vip", "cool", "project X" and "family". Only messages with these tags would be visible and cause an alert. However, with powerful search and fast wireless connections, all my other emails are only a click away! And, with better client implementation techniques, AJAX-like and with merged Web/local-data search, email providers will be able to offer slick, fast and usable interfaces. Also at our disposal will be generic push capabilities (unlike the Blackberry proprietary solution) that can also be used with thin-client implementations.

My instincts are that the emerging trend towards tagging and search-based approaches to email will enable a new approach to mobile email. Those that understand these trends, or drive them - like Google - will be well placed to deliver us highly usable mobile email solutions, well integrated with our Web-based email services, like Gmail or Oddpost.

I haven't gone into any implementation details, as I realised half-way through this posting that I would need a much lengthier article than my usual blog postings. Therefore, I might document these possibilities in more detail elsewhere.

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Tag search engine...

Gataga is a new search engine that searches items according to their tags (keywords), such as tagged URLs (e.g. del.icio.us) and tagged photos (e.g. flickr). It also includes RSS feeds on the tag searches, so you can keep an eye on your favourite search terms without having to go back to the engine each time.

Interestingly, it has a mobile interface (XHTML), which you can view here in your regular browser. Note the apparently pointless step of asking whether you want to search photos or blogs, before giving you the text box. This seemingly small step could be a big block for mobile users who aren't going to hang around for a new page to download each time they use the service.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Really Instant Wireless Messaging...

The latest edition of New Scientist has an article about recent experiments with quantum mechanics. Theory suggests that with two "entangled particles" that are physically separate (could be opposite sides of The Universe), changing the state of one causes a change of state in the other.

Clever guys in Geneva have done experiments, now verified by others, that demonstrate that the theory is correct.

Wow! That's wireless messaging!

And, it happens very fast. How fast? The "measurements" suggest 10,000 million times faster than the speed of light.

Wow! That's instant messaging!

Now, presumably if I had a few billion of these entangled particles in a "quantum computer" and I changed their state at once, then all the entangled particles on the other side of The Universe - ok, let's say other side of The Earth - change at the same time.

Does this mean that we have a bandwidth of *!&"^*? I don't even know how to write that number, but I think we're talking V.BIG! Big enough for teleportation?

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Screen scraping to my mobile with Grease Monkey...idea #67/100...

In idea #62, I wanted to scrape info from a designed-for-big-screen web page and make it available for a tiny screen on a mobile, perhaps as a WAP page or a text message.

The example I gave was the "My Rental List" from the Blockbuster Online account page. It's just three tiny lines of info (my current DVD rentals), but buried in a mass of HTML in a frame set.

I described an approach, which is essentially to ensure that all data elements in a page have unique labels, so that elements could be fetched separately to some other container than the web page that holds them.

I've now found a way to do something similar, albeit only partially and with some limitations. It's called Grease Monkey (GM). This is a modification to the Firefox browser. The mod allows a programmer to "take charge" of the web page output and re-display it, within the data-manipulation possibilities of JavaScript.

For example, in the Blockbuster page in question, there is a table that contains the rental list that I'm after. Fortunately, those nice people who programmed Blockbuster's website have nice "id" tags in each of their tables. The one I want is called "Onrentlistcontrol1_OnRentList". I can therefore extract the table contents using GM and then I have the list, separated from all the Blockbuster page graphics and other stuff on the page.

However, at this point, it's only a partial solution. What I really need is a web(/WAP) proxy that runs a similar script, so that when I call the page from my mobile, I just get the table and nothing else. So, what I really need is a Grease Monkey proxy, which is my idea for an interim solution!

What I like about GM is the whole notion that the user can create his/her own service on the back of an existing one, just by re-purposing the content. The notion of giving the user control over their own service experience was the essence of idea #10, which so far has been one of my favourite (possibly the favourite) idea in the 100 ideas series.

Of course, I don't expect most users to start creating their own services. However, what I hope is the following might happen:

1. A better (i.e. open) environment emerges for innovative new services
2. A market emerges for service "plug ins" (output from 1)
3. Operators to have an "ah-ha" experience (OK, that's too hopeful)

Screen scraping has limited scope in a mobile environment. The "GM-like proxy" in a mobile network should go a stage further and allow manipulation of underlying service elements, such as voicemail, but still in a "proxy" fashion that doesn't stand a chance of actually changing (i.e. harming) the elements themselves, so other users get the unadulterated vanilla service.

With the emerging possibilities of all-IP networks in 3G (such as the IMS), this idea becomes even more possible and potentially very powerful. To an extent, the advent of IMS will be a step towards an open network that the operators no longer control, despite their best efforts. Many of the services hanging off the IMS will be under the control of 3rd parties. On the Northbound interface, the 3rd party might well have a web presentation of their service. With a GM-enabled browser, we can potentially take control of the service in ways unintended by the service provider.

(p.s. using Grease Monkey, I have appended some Technorati tags at the end of this post using a GM script to override the standard Blogger posting page.)

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Flower power...idea #66/100...

Cameraphones, along with MMS and Push-to-view applications, enable us to connect with visual databases. Pattern detection and matching techniques can be used to identify image content.

One example already touted is facial recognition, using the face as a kind of visual URL. Point the camera at someone's face and click straight into their website, or a search about them etc.

One application that I think countless people would find useful is identifying plants, shrubs and trees. How many times have you come across a plant that you'd like to have in your own garden, but don't know its name.

With the emerging mega-pixel camera-phones, it ought to be possible to get enough resolution to make a match, or at least a guess at the likely candidates.

Visually driven search engines are an interesting idea to pursue in terms of better interfaces to drive mobile computers for a variety of applications.

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What's an IMS?

I was in a discussion yesterday with a group of people talking about IMS, which is the latest addition to the 3G network. It doesn't matter, for now, if you don't know what an IMS is...

According to the IMS product guy in the group, it's an "enabling technology". According to the IP guys who were present, it's a "applications router". According to the software people, it's really "a network operating system". According to the marketing guy, it doesn't really matter, "as long as we can brand it".

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Monday, June 20, 2005

Less umms, more silence...idea #65/100...

Do you "umm" a lot? If I play back a voicemail message before I deposit it (which I invariably do and probably shouldn't), I notice how many times I say "umm". Probably it increases during voicemail experiences. Afterall, talking out loud to a machine isn't always easy, even for a geek.

Speech processing is advancing all the time, as are signal processing devices. When I speak through my mobile, perhaps a filter could remove the "umm" bits and replace them with silence.

That said, with powerful enough speech processing and synthesis, it ought to be possible to replace entire words in real time, not just remove "umms". If I say "I think we ought to move forward on this one Bob", Bob could hear "I'm confident we should move forward on this one Bob", which is with my "sound more assertive" filter switched on.

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HCI?...idea #64/100...

HCI stands for Human Computer Interface (or Interaction), but should it stand for Human AND Computer Inclusion?

Modern lives tend to be based on two types of HCI:

Human-Company Interaction = social interaction with people.
Humming-Computer Interaction = sitting glued to a monitor.

(There's another, which is Human Cathode-Ray Imbibing = television.)

Most of the time, there's a sharp boundary between the two. Just think of the daily office routine. It's either tapping at keys or talking to people. There's very little overlap. Computers are socially exclusive. Mostly, they're designed that way.

Mobile devices occupy a unique status as computing devices - they are always with us. Each of us carries a computer in our pocket for most of the day. There is a degree of social inclusion, but very rarely, such as swapping contact details via infrared/Bluetooth.

The new frontier in computer design, especially mobiles, is to make them socially inclusive. Interacting with a person and interacting with a computer (mobile) needs to become more blended. This requires a new approach.

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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Jobs and the new frontier of computing...

It's v. hot here in the UK. Summer has arrived at last. I even got sun burnt for the first time in years, whilst watching my kids in their golf lesson. Today was putting. Balls were going straight, even without nano-tech.

The weekend has been great for lazing around in the garden and reading a book or two. One book that I couldn't put down is iCon - the story of Steve Jobs and his comeback. All the historical stuff in the book reminded me of a previous ambition, which was to design a personal computer.

Silly Paul! Does he think that the mighty dominance of the existing Wintel can be challenged?

Well, of course! In fact, anyone who doesn't think so is the real fool.

When the team at Apple walked into the Xerox PARC labs and saw the now-familiar "Windowed" GUI and mouse concept, they realised this was the future, but not before some creative type showed it to them.

OK, so the technology isn't the whole story. We all know how things panned out with Apple and the Mac versus Windows/Intel. But, still that frontier had to be crossed. From geek-dom to office productivity tool and the birth of the PC boom.

So, where is today's frontier?
HINT: read the name of my blog!

In mobile computing, we're all still carrying around an Apple II, not a Mac!

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