HTC Sense and mobile phone user interfaces

My first mobile phone in 2002 was a Nokia 3310. It was a hardy beast and hands down, the most reliable mobile phone I have ever owned. I don’t remember playing the in-built games that much, but its screen was easy to read and the phone was dead simple to use.

I recently bought two Samsung i780’s for friends and upgraded them, after purchase, to Windows Mobile 6.1. I use a Blackberry Bold and have a Apple iPod Touch at home, which is the same UI as the Apple iPhone, which I’ve toyed around with a lot but never had the inclination to buy. I’ve also used the Nokia N series and the Symbian operating system in addition to Nokia’s own OS for its other phones. And for a short time, I also had a Sony Ericsson phone – that I hated enough to forget the model – and a Samsung X820, at one time the world’s thinnest phone.

Each of these phones came with a different operating system and UI, some with more bells and whistles than others. Not a single one of them were as stable as my Nokia 3310. In my experience, the greater the complexity of the OS and features on the phone, the more unreliable and unstable the OS was.

This is one reason I support device agnostic SMS as the best way to send and receive mission critical information – like election monitoring reports from the field. With the exception of apps for the Apple iPod Touch, which ran well, I have not encountered a single J2ME app or app for Symbian that has not at some critical moment just crashed and buggered the phone’s OS to boot.

If only because I know I will not be able to resist buying it, I really hope the recently announced HTC Sense UI in their new Hero phone works as well as it looks.

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On another note though, with my Blackberry Bold, I hardly ever use my laptop when I travel long-haul or when I am in the field in Sri Lanka. Even basic phones today are capable of photo and video recording, some even voice. Phones like this new HTC model blur further the distinction between a mobile phone and features traditionally associated with the PC.

Video interview with Rohan Samarajiva on telecoms in Sri Lanka

A video interview with Rohan Samarajiva, Executive Director of Lirneasia and former Director General of Sri Lanka Telecom on telecoms regulations, disaster mitigation, preparedness and early warning, mobile phone usage at the B.O.P and a number of other technology related issues pertinent to Sri Lanka.

Mobile phone anthropology

Photo credit: Shaul Schwarz/Reportage, for The New York Times

Does observing the behaviour of people using mobile phone influence how they are made? Jan Chipchase wants that answer to be yes.

Read this fascinating article (don’t forget to look at the photos) published in New Scientist on how Jan’s travels and research are influencing the design of handsets and software features in them, such as seperate address books on the same phone (useful when many members of a family share the same device).

Also read his blog here, though on my Mac all the text is crossed out.

Readers interested in Jan’s work may also recall a more engaging story on him and his work in the NY Times in April this year titled Can the Cellphone help end Global Poverty?

Mobiles for Social Development

There’s a very interesting paper on the web I came across recently that deals with the pros and cons of using mobiles for social development and linked to the discussions on Lirneasia’s recent post on the future of telecentres and the role of mobiles in complementing and / or supplanting them. 

The paper seems to end on a note that is weighted towards the mobile web – the development of the web as we know it and use on PCs for mobile phones. The paper also says that SMS is not a viable option to provide services to millions of people in the developing world who may be illiterate. I don’t agree with either proposition and find a disconnect here – if illiteracy is a problem (it is and more specifically, the lack of vernacular services on mobile phones) then how will the development of the mobile web ensure that more citizens get access to and use services on the phone?

The paper also talks about IVR, but in my mind, it’s not a question of one or the other by complementarity between various tools, platforms and services – with SMS as the basic foundation and developing up from there – that will reach the greatest number of citizens and encourage them in turn to actually make use of what’s available. 

In Sri Lanka, some relatively low cost mobile phones already fully support Sinhala and Tamil interfaces and UNICODE text rendering. And yet, there’s absolutely no interest in creating m-gov services for mobile phones, even though there are more than around 11 million SIMS in a country with a population of 20 million.

The paper was also clearly written before the advent of the iPhone, which in the US at least has revolutionised the way people access the web using their mobile phone:

M:Metrics, which has been researching the mobile market since 2004, found that the iPhone is “the most popular device for accessing news and information on the mobile Web,” with 85 percent of iPhone users doing so in the month of January.

That contrasted with 58.2 percent of other smartphone owners, and 13.1 percent of the total mobile market.

“It’s creating buzz among consumers that it can be pleasant and useful accessing the Web from your mobile phone,” said Greg Sheppard, chief development officer of iSuppli Corp. market research firm.

The lesson here is that it may not be entirely necessary to develop a mobile specific version of the web, even though it’s now possible to do so very easily using services such as Mofuse and other plugins for blogging platforms like WordPress

With regards to the points made about the high costs of data access on mobiles, all signs indicate significant reductions in cost to the point where in the near future, mobile web browsing may even be free with some packages.

Other points regarding the use of mobiles for governance are those I’ve already tackled in a recent paper published in the i4D magazine’s June 2008 issue titled Governance and Mobile Phones.

Read the paper by S. Boyera. It may be a bit dated, but it is a tremendously useful anchor to tether the heady optimism of mobile phone advocates. 

SMS for election monitoring, peacebuilding and strengthening democracy – A conversation with Ken Banks

This podcast, from Cyberweek 2007, is a conversation between Colin Rule (Director of ODR at eBay/PayPal) and Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and creator of FrontlineSMS.

To download the mp3 file or listen to it online, visit VOR Radio here. For more information on the podcast, visit here. (File size 30.46Mb, running time approx. 30 mins)

Colin and Ken touch upon much of what I’ve articulated on this blog as sustainable and appropriate technologies to support grassroots empowerment. There is skepticism, rightfully, expressed on the XO laptop (alias $100 laptop) and Negroponte’s promises, with Ken making the point that many in the developing world still use mobile phones only capable of basic SMS. This is also a point I have raised on this blog in detail earlier. Ken’s vast experience in countries in Africa, India and other parts of the world is useful in this regard, since he speaks from the perspective of an innovator acutely aware of ground realities.

I’ve written about FrontlineSMS and the power of mobile phones to augment democracy earlier, and look forward to its development to support a number of activities I am facilitating in Sri Lanka, ranging from Human Rights monitoring to citizens journalism (Groundviews and Vikalpa).

This is a must listen podcast for anyone interested in using mobile phones for social activism.