Bus. Std: The Many Uses of Mobile Phones

My latest column in Business Standard:

The innovation and growth on the mobile phones front is astonishing. The top-end phones available now have the processing power and storage available in desktop computers from just 4-5 years ago. Little wonder then that 2004 saw 674 million phones being bought, and estimates for 2005 stand at 730 million.

The mobile phone is rapidly becoming the uber-device the one device that seems to have it all and becomes even more indispensable than it is now. Mobile phones have already started functioning as more than just communications devices. Mobiles serve as watches and alarm clocks. Even with the limited free games that come with basic phones, they are already good for time-pass. They can also function as calculators.

In unfamiliar neighbourhoods, they tell us where we are. The address book and contacts list on phones is our social interface. Without the phone, many of us would be quite lost in connecting with other people! The calendar function on the mobile phones can help us track our lives. Phones can also function as radios. For some, the mobile phone also becomes a notepad send an SMS to oneself and make it a reminder service. Owners also have tended to customise phones with their own ringtones, themes and wallpapers.

This is just for starters. Consider what some of the more advanced mobile phones are also doing:

  • Digital Camera: Point-and-click! Phones capture pictures and let us save them for posterity or transfer them to others and computers.
  • Audio Recorder: Mobile phones can be used to record conversations, or even brief notes to oneself.
  • Video Recorder: Phones are becoming video cameras also some of the newest cellphones can record an hour or more of video.
  • Multimedia Messaging: Everything recorded can be shared with others by using MMS.
  • Email Client: The phone can be used to connect to any POP or IMAP server and allow receiving and sending email. While most phones may not have the ease-of-use that a Blackberry has with email, contacts and calendar, the fact that it is on the phone itself and there is no need for a separate device can be a big help (along with the lower total cost of ownership).
  • Web Client: Phones can also browse websites via a WAP and/or HTML browser. Most websites may not look great on the small screen, but it is still possible to connect to any website.
  • Gaming Platform: Mobile games have become big business in the past couple years, as people seek entertainment in the free time that they have on the device that they always carry with them.
  • Documents Viewer: It is increasingly possible to view documents on the cellphone in the popular MS-Office file formats.
  • Computer Adjunct: For many, the cellphone has replaced the PDA as the complement to the computer. With a remote desktop application, it also becomes possible to make the mobile phone a window to ones computer.
  • Music Player: The next big thing in 2005 is reckoned to be the combining of music capabilities on the mobile phone. While phones can play MP3s, it will soon also be possible to have music streamed from the Internet. Motorola is expected to introduce a phone this year that marries the mobile with Apples iPod.
  • TV: In India, some operators have been promoting many TV channels on the cellphone over next-generation networks like EDGE.
  • Wallet: The phone can also be used to pay for purchases like a credit or debit card. There is already a billing relationship that exists between the subscriber and the operator, and that can be used to make payments to merchants.
  • Bar-code readers: Phones will also be able to read barcodes and that can have very interesting applications in commerce.

    Ramesh Jain, professor at University of California, Irivine, wrote on his weblog: Mobile phones are becoming very powerful and are likely to become a dominant device for CCC (communication, computing and content).

    So, the phones of tomorrow will be remote controls for our life. They will come with bigger, better keyboards and displays even though there are practical limitations on how big a device we will carry. Networks are becoming faster, too. And the device that was once a replacement for the fixed-line phone will occupy an even greater role in our lives. Countries like Japan and South Korea already lead the way in having multi-purpose mobile phones. China is following and India is not far behind.

    Consider some of the recent announcements at Cebit.

    A Slashdot reader wrote: Samsung [is] showing off a new cell phone which runs on Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system which features a built-in hard drive. The SGH-I300 will offer 3GB of storage which allows you to store up to 1,000 songs on it for playback through the music player. The 3GB hard drive is similar to the type of hard drive that is found in Apple’s Mini iPod. These 1-inch drives with very low power requirements, are ideal for cell phones and other mobile devices.

    News.com wrote about two of the announcements at Cebit: Motorola is demonstrating its 3G Motorola V1150 phone in Hannover. The sleek phone will come with an integrated 2-megapixel camera, two-way video calling and a new Motorola ticker technology called Screen3 that streams news and entertainment from Motorola…Sony Ericsson is showing off the W800 phone, the first Walkman- branded cell phone. The handset comes with a digital-audio player, FM radio tuner and 2-megapixel camera. The W800 will have 38MB of free memory for music and images.

    Mobile phones are morphing to the point where voice is just incidental. They are becoming, what George Gilder has called, teleputers.

  • PCs, Internet and Literacy

    Atanu Dey writes:

    The undeniable fact is that literacy is the basis for all development. Literacy (and numeracy) is absolutely positively acutely necessary. You have to have a literate population for there to be any hope of any advancementsocial, economic, physical, whatever. Given a literate population, even in the absence of new-fangled high tech equipment, you can have wonderful outcomes; absent a literate population, no amount of high-tech gizmos will amount to a hill of beans.

    Every notable invention, every innovation, every advancement made by humans have been made by humans who have been literate and they did it without PCs and internet. That statement is obviously true until about 30 years ago. PCs and the internet have arguably enhanced the power of humans to innovate more rapidly but the preconditions are that of literacy and resources to afford those tools. The lesson for the development of India is straightforward. If you want the rural populations to benefit from the use of high technology, then you have to make them literate first. If you dont make them literate, then you can forget about bridging the so-called digital divide.

    Here is my prescription: First, make the people literate. How? See my modest proposal to make India literate within a few years.) Second, figure out which of the problems admit a least cost solution which involves PCs and internet. Finally invest in PCs and internet.

    Story Books Come Alive

    Technology Review writes:

    Giant Jimmy Jones is a friendly, helpful giant. In fact, this book character is so helpful, he can make the sun shine on an otherwise gray village. The giant simply walks across the page, reaches up to the cloud cover and pushes it out of the sun’s way so the villagers can catch some rays.

    Those light rays may be virtual, but the book this scene pops out of is not.

    Using augmented reality (AR), the technology behind the interactive version of Giant Jimmy Jones, New Zealand author Gavin Bishop recently collaborated with Mark Billinghurst and his colleagues at the Human Interface Technology Laboratory New Zealand (HIT Lab NZ) to turn the book into not only a storytelling device, but also a storytelling experience.

    A child can flip through its pages and read it like a conventional book. But with a handheld display and computer vision tracking technology, the child can watch the story literally come to life.

    “You can see animated virtual characters overlaid on the real book pages and hear the voice of Gavin Bishop reading the story,” says Billinghurst, director of the HIT Lab NZ..

    Vertical Search

    Om Malik writes about the buzz: “So what is vertical search? It is a specialized search engine that mines data for one narrow niche of the market place. Say jobs or travel. Or even high end real estate. Because the data sources are so fragmented, there seems to be an opportunity to massage the data and present it in a manner that is simple to use and easy to consume. Sort of meta search for niches. The main reason this is supposed to work is that the two older advertising models – cost per thousand (aka banner ads) and cost per click are too inefficient and fraught with fraud-related risk. Vertical search can offer a more focused audience, and thus increase the efficiency of ads on the search engine. It also presents a new kind of advertising opportunity – lets call it cost per action. If you can generate leads, or say have some sign-up for an email newsletter or a RSS feed, you suddenly have created much higher value, and thus that click is more valuable.”

    TECH TALK: The Future of Search: Discovery

    Who doesnt love the joy that comes with discovery?! We are all so delighted when we find something different from what we started looking for. There is an element of serendipity in there. Technology promises to make this process easier look at the Amazon book recommendations based on our purchase history.

    The same holds true for information. Today, discovery comes either via the search process as we sometimes end up finding things accidentally or via recommendations from our social network. Bloggers have made the process of discovery easier by tracking people we know who have certain interests that overlap with us, we rely on their search processes for recommendation.

    One such application that is aiding in the discovery process is Rojo.

    Technology Review: Rojo has an RSS feed search function and gives readers the ability to flag stories they find important or interesting. But in enabling users to draw on the insights of friends, family, colleagues, and others in their social networks, Rojo departs from most of the competition. Rojo users can invite others to sign up for Rojo accounts; those accounts are linked, much like the accounts on the popular website Friendster. Rojo users can see what RSS feeds the members of their networks are reading and which stories they are flagging. Network popularity also affects the ranking of results when the user searches RSS feeds. We all depend on our community for content discovery, says Chris Alden, Rojos cofounder and CEO. Any successful media service has to tap into that.

    News.com: Like Google’s PageRank algorithm and other search engine technologies, Rojo examines the link structure of the so-called blogosphere in order to call attention to blog items and feeds that have proved popular with other readers. Along the same lines, it follows e-commerce sites like Amazon.com in recommending related feeds. And like social networking sites such as Friendster, Rojo narrows down the community of blog readers to those within a user-defined network of friends and associates.

    As more and more of our interests and actions are available on centralised servers, the process of discovery will become easier not just discovery of content, but also discovery of other people with similar interests. In a sense, the information dashboards have to build upon the social networking sites what our friends and family say means a lot more to us than what someone else says. This creates another layer of search we can view the world in a series of concentric circles which expand the sphere of search and discovery. We start with what we know and our subscriptions. Next comes the flow of events which match the tags that we have set. Then comes the results of discovery in our social network. And finally comes the big wide world indexed by search engines. This funneling of information is what we use all the time in the real world. The technologies and building blocks now exist to do something similar in cyberspace. The challenge lies in the interfaces that we create to make this process simple.

    Tomorrow: Interfaces

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