Mobile Technology: Where to?

Introduction

Dick Tracy

In 1931 a young cartoonist, Chester Gould, created a comic strip detective named Dick Tracy, and in 1946 gave him a two-way wrist radio.

1946 was a great year for inventions before their time, with the BBC foreshadowing the wrist news reader, in text, with Daddy the first user.

Not bad for 1946, but what about 2046? Where is mobile technology taking us?

Currently there are about two billion mobile phones in use throughout the world, representing by far the greatest penetration by any electronic device ever. Over a quarter of all Internet access is already from mobile phones. Well informed predictions foresee a mobile phone for every second person by 2012, i.e., 50% of the world's population. This device, currently changing inter-personal communications in a major way, is on the threshold of transforming society itself.

Developments

The developments in mobile technology are innumerable. There are at least hundreds of small advances across the full range of possibilities. Here are some standout examples of forward motion, in no particular order.

The Smartphone

The term smartphone means different things to different people, but essentially any mobile phone that does many things well has earned the title. Already leading smartphones offer touch screen navigation with a QWERTY keyboard, GPS, email and texting, camera, video, full PC capabilities, complete personal organiser, control of game play by tilting the phone, and data and large file transmission. Use of Artificial Intelligence may allow mobile phones to be the ultimate in personal secretaries, receiving emails and paging messages, understanding what they are about, and changing the individual's personal schedule according to the message. This can then be checked by the individual to plan his/her day. Coming developments are likely to include short cut keys that are easy to identify and press without looking, speed dialing capability, voice dialing capability, and voice memo features.

Smartpox.com

Although a proprietary line, this device is revolutionary, and will add quanta of experience to the phone user. In a nutshell, Smartpox enables people to create encoded messages of online content, waiting to be discovered in the offline world. A rock group puts a concert flyer onto the Web, and adds a smartpox code – rather like a two dimensional barcode – pointing to a new song. The user, with a smartpox-ready phone, holds the phone towards the code, instantly downloading the song and listening to it at leisure. Smartpoxes can be added to anything, software, catalogues, people, anything. The phone instantly transfers online content into the offline world.

A related development is the QR code, which you might see attached to an advertisement in a magazine. Pass your suitably equipped mobile phone over the code and be taken instantly to the company's URL.

Mobile Navigation

The GPS device is becoming integral to mobile applications. By developing and maintaining databases of points-of-interest, developers can provide a comprehensive multi-lingual mobile guide that provides citywide information based on where the user is at the moment he or she accesses the relevant site. Using a highly accessible mobile and web interface, users can find which shops are just around the corner, what restaurants they are missing one street over, what event is about to happen at the bar just up ahead, traffic information and even information about the number of available parking spaces at a given car park.

Intra-Body Communication

Japanese company KDDI has used a human body to transmit high volume data, implying possibilities such as being able to download a video simply by touching a movie poster while holding your phone, or giving someone your business card via a digital handshake.

VoIP

Skype, JaJah and Rebtel all have their admirers and users, but no-one has yet cracked the problem of making VoIP super simple to use for both landlines and mobiles. The first to do so will, among other things, kill landlines.

Ticketing

YourRail, in the UK, is accessed on the Internet by the traveller, with the ticket being automatically downloaded to the mobile phone. You then wave your phone over the reading eye at the station and on you go.

Wearable solar cells

A new solar cell is flexible and capable of being attached to any garment, or accessory, powering up iPods, Cell phones, Headsets, GPS, Digital Cameras, etc. Easy replacement of adaptors and accumulators allows users to recharge their gadgets while mobile. The product measures a mere 50mm x 200mm x 3mm, adding to its versatility, and can be attached easily to any textile, be it an anorak or a baseball cap, a backpack or even a bathing suit. Or a soldier's battle gear.

Literature creation

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on novels, written by girls and young women in Japan, which have become a successful publication phenomenon, selling between 100,000 and over 1 million copies each for the most successful. The novels start their life as texted teenage preoccupations, written in SMS-speak, and uploaded by mobile phone to a MySpace-type website from where they are read, serially, by tens of thousands. A publisher then whips the stories into hardback for big sales. The interesting IT aspect of this development is that the technology itself has generated the creative output, and goodness knows where that could lead.

Sociological changes

Thoughtful recorders of the passing parade have sounded some warnings, particularly about the current and growing mobilisation of the workforce.

On or off duty?

There will be a need for employer and employee to settle on and off times for the employee, analogous to being in or having left the workplace for the day. This should stop work leaking into home and social life, and will require focused management by the employee. Koroshi, or death by overwork, is a phenomenon attracting close attention in Japan.

Lonely workers

'Workplace' will soon become a thing of the past. This has obvious pluses for individuals in organising their lives, but reduces group morale and collegiality, togetherness. Contact by SMS and email is just not enough to encourage group feeling.

Digital underclass

Compounding the digital divide between the well off and the poor, those who leave education too early will be less technologically savvy, and will therefore miss out on opportunities for flexibility of employment and mobility.

Mobile Web

Dick Tracy

Possibly the biggest story from here on will be based on, not only easy access to the Web from the mobile phone, but the changes in the way we live that arise from that. Web expert Rudy de Waele lists ten trends, including much lower flat fees for use of mobile devices, more user-generated content via the phone, the big youth networks (MySpace etc) will go mobile, and the big developers will race into mobile-facilitated search.

Each of these developments has a positive side. And yet it is difficult not to be concerned that technology may go too far, causing detriment to society. By nature we are social animals, which means, people together. We are inviting trouble if we convince ourselves that contact at one (electronic) remove will satisfy this innate requirement.

Nov 2007