Focus on the mobile user, and all else will follow…

Worldwide phone penetration continues to climb at a break-neck pace, with over 4 billion mobile subscribers at last count. (In comparison, the PC industry is forecasted to see its sharpest unit decline in history.) Prevailing economic conditions will accelerate this trend, as users consolidate pricey communication services into cost-effective, all-in-one mobile devices. And for the first time ever, half of all new connections to the internet will come from a phone in 2009.

Google’s mobile traffic reflects these milestones — having quintupled since 2007 — and it underscores users’ appetite for mobile data services. But as a community of operators, device manufacturers and software providers, we continue to get in their way. In short, and as a general rule, we make it too costly, too unfamiliar, and too difficult to do anything beyond voice calls.

In reply I offer up three suggestions: simpler data plans, better web browsers, and a smoother on-device experience. And in each case I’ll use Google traffic numbers as a proxy for total internet usage and user happiness.

Emphasis mine.

Writing in TechCrunch IT, Vic Gundotra, Vice President of Engineering for Google’s mobile and developer products backs with evidence my submissions to the Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) community since 2004 that mobile phones will match the capabilities traditionally associated with PCs, especially when it comes to Internet and web usage.

In The future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) – Technologies to keep an eye on, I pointed to smartphones (iPhone in particular) as a device that will lead the transformation of the mobile web as it is known today into a single web, accessible seamlessly though mobiles and desktops.

Google Latitude: Real time location awareness through mobiles


At the time I last wrote about the potential of location aware web / mobile mashups and services, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence disallowed the sale of GPS enabled mobile phones. That seems to have changed in the past month. Airtel and Dialog both sport the Blackberry Bold, which has in built GPS, and Dialog’s Crescat shop now showcases the Blackberry Curve 8310 again – which was taken off the market because it also had in built GPS. 

I find GPS and location aware services fascinating. In the insecure environment for human rights defenders and other NGO staff in Sri Lanka, this sort of technology potentially holds much value in tracking staff movement in high risk areas. on the iPhone pretty much defines this genre of software. The iPhone’s UI coupled with the social networking and location aware services of Brightkite open up a range of possibilities that were unimaginable just a year or two ago. 

Google’s now got in the act with Google Latitude. Unlike which is only available on the iPhone, Google Latitude works on:

  • Android-powered devices, such as the T-Mobile G1
  • most color BlackBerry devices
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ devices
  • most Symbian S60 devices (Nokia smartphones)

with support for iPhone and iPod touch devices and many Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones, such as Sony Ericsson devices coming soon. 

Google’s video on Latitude sums it up nicely. 

I’ve used Google Maps on my Blackberry Curve 8310 (with GPS), the 8320 (without GPS) and now on the Bold (with GPS) and have been blown away by its accuracy in cities where location data is on Google down to street level. In Copenhagen, I was able to find my hotel just by using it. In Salzburg, I was able to find Mozart’s birthplace using it and the most heavenly chocolate gateaux I’ve had from a local patisserie. It’s fast on the Curve and faster on the Bold. 

With Latitude built in, the version number on the Blackberry goes up to 3.0 from 2.3.x. One annoying thing is that you have to sign into Latitude even though I have Google Chat running on my Bold. Given that I have an over 15 character alpha-numeric-symbolic password that I can’t even remember off-hand, it’s a pain to type it in all over again. And at the time of writing this, Latitude fails to verify my mobile number, despite several attempts. 

Not that these glitches detract from what can be a very cool tool. As the video shows, you add friends and you can then follow them as they meander through their cities. It’s a bit weird to be tracked thus, and it’s a relief to find privacy settings that allow you to update location data manually. For the moment, I’ve put it on automatic, to see how well GPS works in Sri Lanka. Proximity alerts I guess will only ever work with street level data sets, not yet available here. 

The neat thing about Latitude is that it allows for web based tracking of mobile phone location information. As the screenshot from my iGoogle shows, you get a Latitude gadget that links to a Google Maps mash-up. Very cool. Potential uses for this for real time election violence monitoring, IDPs and refugee movement tracking, Human Rights and Ceasefire monitoring, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and disaster management are impressive and beg to be explored.

Dialog Telekom runs out of all Blackberry’s in Sri Lanka?

Since I’ll spend a fair amount of time on the move around and out of Sri Lanka over the next three years on account of the award of a Fellowship that will have me looking at the nexus of mobiles, peacebuilding and democratic governance, I wanted to purchase a Blackberry from Dialog Telekom yesterday.

Went to their Future Centre down Duplication Road and despite two models displayed in the showcase was told that all Blackberry’s were out of stock.

Called up their Blackberry hotline today, spoke to a bloke called Ashan, who told me that apart from a few devices reserved for Club Vision members, all Blackberry devices are out of stock. Dialog has no idea, or is not letting on for some bizarre reason, when stocks will arrive in Sri Lanka. I asked whether a Club Vision customer could buy it on my behalf and was told that this was not possible either. 

So basically, an ordinary customer who wants to buy a Blackberry from Dialog today simply can’t, because there are ostensibly no devices available. The only option given to me by Dialog if I didn’t want to wait for an indeterminable period before I could purchase a Blackberry from them was to get someone to purchase a device from abroad.

Forget about giving wings to equality. How about ensuring there are adequate stocks of devices that form part of Dialog Telekom’s core business?

It’s also an interesting situation to find oneself in. I’ve been with Dialog for yonks and have no desire to shift customer loyalty. But I realised today that this loyalty in fact was acting as a sort of lock-in to Dialog’s inanity. If mobile numbers were portable in Sri Lanka, perhaps I would have switched networks or at least threatened to do so for some added leverage to get me one of the Blackberry’s “reserved” for Club Vision customers. 

I also wondered whether this sudden unavailability of Blackberry’s was due to recent Ministry of Defence ban on GPS enabled mobiles, which both the 8310 Curve and Pearl support (though I don’t believe maps for Sri Lanka are available other than in the most basic form). But if that’s the case, why does Dialog Telekom advise customers to get such devices from abroad? 

Beckett would have found great inspiration in the behaviour of both public and private sector actors in Sri Lanka today. 

Snooping into mobile communications in India

Research in Motion (RIM), the folks behind the Blackberry, are reportedly close to finalising a deal with India’s Home Ministry to allow it to monitor communications and access customer data.  As Ars Technica notes,

The issue first became public in early March, when the ministry threatened to ban BlackBerry service entirely, unless it was given unconditional access to any and all of the information passing across RIM’s network at any given time, for any given person… The ministry claimed it needs access to customer data in order to protect the country from terrorists operating in Kashmir, who may be using BlackBerrys to communicate with each other.

In 2006 India noted that it was using mobile phones to track insurgents and terrorists in Kashmir. 

“Earlier, we thought it would help terrorists in their communications and help their subversive activities,” army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel V.K. Batra said. “But it is proving counterproductive to them.”

Two years on the the government now seems to think that the interception of Blackberry communications will help in its struggle against terrorism. There are conflicting reports on the status of negotiations with RIM, with some newspapers suggesting that RIM has agreed to conditionally turn over all customer records and others suggesting that RIM is unwilling to budge on the issue of customer privacy

As the Ars Technica article notes however,

It may be a month or two before Research In Motion announces the details of its agreement with the Union Home Ministry, but the information coming out of India is at least plausible. RIM has yet to state, point-blank, that it will not allow the Indian government to access its network traffic in some form or another, and until that happens, all bets are off. 

The problem with mobile phones that grab our attention

Our opportunity: remembering to find the OFF switch on our devices, now and then, and tune in to the present with engaged attention.

I believe attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. We can enhance or augment our attention with practices like meditation and exercise, diffuse it with technologies like email and Blackberries or alter it with pharmaceuticals. In the end, though, we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.

Linda Stone’s recent post, Fine Dining with Mobile Phones is deeply instructive for the design of ICT mechanisms for peacebuilding and is linked to a post by Ken Yamosh I pointed to in 2007.

For example, the series of ads for the Blackberry shown on Sri Lankan TV (done in India I believe) give the impression that one has more time for family and leisure when one gets a Blackberry. Not so. You become a hostage to work and what is more, raise expectations of quick responses even on weekends and at night. When these expectations are unmet, frustration builds up along with stress to meet them in the future.

Problem is, switching off is easier said than done.