Friday, 19 October 2007

The Potential of Smartphones

So often in the mobile phone business, people have approached these devices as merely mobile versions of immobile technology. Thus the "mobile web", "mobile mail", "mobile phone", and so on. But what if we approached smartphones from the perspective of what they are, what they can do, and what we could do with that?

An example of a technology that is completely "home grown" to the mobile community is SMS. This was not a planned service in the same way as MMS or WAP -- the operators and handset manufacturers did not carefully design and market SMS. It was simply a capability available on the phones and network that suited people's needs, and so it took off. (Note that SMS was not "mobile instant messaging", it was simply a messaging facility for operator use which turned out to work wonderfully peer-to-peer. It's mode of operation is, in fact, quite different from IM, and it is only recently that efforts have been made to fit it into an IM type of UI, such as on the iPhone.)

So what could we come up with in the future, and how do we go about it? Or do we have to rely on accidents?

I think the first thing we need to understand with this approach is exactly what a phone is, and how it fits into people's lives. So let's tackle that one first.

What is a smartphone?
If you are intimately familiar with smartphones, you can skip this section. Still, it's fascinating to take stock of just how much functionality modern smartphones pack into them, and to think about the uses of that technology independent of the actual features.

A smartphone:
  • Is a small computer with substantial CPU and memory resources
  • Carried almost everywhere
Smartphones have:
  • Relatively small screen (sometimes touch sensitive)
  • Small keypad or keyboard
  • Built-in phone, for telecommunications with other people
  • Microphone and the ability to record from it
  • Speaker and the ability to play music and sounds
  • Usually a camera (or two) with the ability to capture stills and video
  • Internet connection which is usually, but not always, available
  • Bluetooth connection which can detect and communicate with neighbouring devices
  • Infrared connection which can communicate with neighbouring devices
  • Positioning information, available via cell ID or built-in GPS
  • Databases for contacts and calendar information

Some smartphones have:

  • Light sensor
  • Motion detectors (eg. iPhone, Nokia 5500)
  • Near field RFID units (eg. mobile Suica)

What can we do with this?

So, the question is then, what can we do with the (fairly impressive) bundle of functionality that millions of users carry around with them every day?

Well, some ideas are pretty straight-forward:

  • Use it as a PDA (to keep contacts, calendar, and notes)
  • Use it as a mobile web browser (slowly starting to become viable as screens get bigger and, more importantly, CPUs get fast enough to present the web in readable ways on a small screen)
  • Use it as a mobile email terminal (RIM has been particularly successful in this area, although something like an E61 or P990i/M600i on an operator-provided IMAP push service is just as good, and much cheaper)
  • Use it as a constantly-updated weather chart
  • Use it as a navigation unit, with maps, current location (via GPS), dynamic routing, and even dynamically updated traffic status
  • Use it as an e-book reader

What's obvious about these ideas are that they have all been transferred from devices that already exist. PDAs, web browsers (on desktops and laptops), email, online weather, GPS navigation, and e-book readers are all technologies that have been around for quite some time. Putting them on a smartphone certainly makes them more accessible, and thus more useful, but doesn't really transform the way they integrate with people's lives.

Are there other ideas that can be built from the smartphone's capabilities itself? Yes, of course there are, and here are some we've seen:
  • Lifeblog: using the camera, location and time information, and recording snippets of your life along with some comments on it, creating a multimedia "life blog".
  • Sensor: using bluetooth and a personalised profile to discover and meet people in your
    immediate vicinity with matching interests.

The problem with these ideas, and why they haven't taken the market by storm, is that there really just curiosities. They don't meet a real need. How many people complain that they don't have a sufficiently rich record of their lives? Not many.

New ideas

Are there other ideas that take advantage of the capabilities of a smart phone and meet a real need? I think there are many, and I'll talk here about one, which I would love to see implemented.

Imagine a service on your smartphone which took advantage of its computing ability, its knowledge of your location, and its connection to the internet. Imagine that you could specify a destination and a desired arrival time, and this service could go off and discover all the ways you could get to that destination at that time, then present you with the options, and then book your chosen options, and finally remind you about when you needed to get moving to get there, and guide you through the process.

For example, I might want to fly from my home on the Gold Coast, Australia, to a hotel in Hong Kong. The software would start by attempting to find a route from start to end. Once it knew this, it would attempt to find services on this route, starting with the most irregular and expensive (ie. the flight from Australia to Hong Kong), and then work down to the simplest (eg. getting to and from the airports). Then it would present me with a range of "best-case" options (no point confusing me with lots of almost-identical options), and I would choose what I wanted for the various legs. Remembered preferences (for example, I prefer the train over driving) would make the choices easier by prioritising them so my most likely choices are the first ones I see. Finally, it would take my choices, book them for me, and keep the e-ticketing information.

Then, when the time came to make the trip, the software would remind me when to start (maybe by putting appointments in my calendar), would present the e-ticket information when I needed it, and would guide me through the confusion of interchanges, and so on.

All of this information is available on-line today. All of the technology required to do this is available. Much of the infrastructure, such as mapping and routing technology is freely available for this type of "mash-up".

What's missing is a good UI running on the phone, which integrates well with the phone's capabilities (its small keyboard and screen, its calendar database and positioning technology), and provides fluid, friendly interaction.

There are obvious add-ons to this service, such as the ability to find and book accommodation given your parameters and choices. An even more powerful addition would be the ability to carpool with others who are heading in the same direction. Sharing aggregate data with transport providers could even allow them to improve the quality and efficiency of their services.

Mass market?

The question is, are these types of services useful for many people? Do they have mass market appeal?

If the purpose is to plan large-scale trips like Austalia to Hong Kong (or even interstate within large countries), the answer would have to be no. However, if the technology can handle small-scale trips like meeting someone in an unknown pub at a certain time, then this is far more useful to the general user.

The tipping point is based on usability and price. It has to be easier to use the phone to discover, book, and schedule your trip than it is to do it yourself. If you are looking at a regular trip (such as a commute), it's unlikely that you'd use such technology, unless it gave you benefits such as carpooling or a discount ticket (from the transport provider to encourage use of such services so that they could better implement their services). But an irregular, but still planned trip using public transport -- such as a weekend outing, or a meeting with the mates or for work -- presents planning and information gathering demands that a smartphone could easily perform.

Personally, the idea of being able to quickly and easily find my way to a meeting, without wasting time at connections or stressing about figuring out the best way there, sounds like a dream come true.

The key to these ideas

Perhaps the key to this approach is to understand the smartphone as an "invisible" tool. A tool that is simply the conduit for desires and information. The idea I've mapped out can include peer-to-peer functionality (with carpooling), which many believe to be a key to success, as well as information and service delivery.

This is the beauty of smartphones: they can span so many "worlds" that they can do all sorts of exciting things. Let's not just create "mobile" versions of existing, desk-bound services, let's try to create truly unique services with the capabilities available right now!

1 comment:

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