Dialling up the wireless dream

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Late in October last year, a couple set out from Vancouver for a day of sailing. Within a few hours, they were in trouble. The navigation system on the boat had failed, and fog was masking the land.

Where did they turn for help? Their cellphone. They called their wireless provider, Telus Corp., C and its employees were able to locate the boat using global positioning system (GPS) technology and direct them to the nearest town. By nightfall, the couple had safely reached shore.

The incident underlines the remarkable transformation the cellphone has undergone since it was introduced over 25 years ago. Back then, it was used mostly to make calls. Now, it can take pictures, send video clips, broadcast TV shows, and even help locate us when we are lost. In emerging markets, it’s the first phone that many people have ever owned.

The sales figures are astounding. There are 6.6 billion people in the world. In 2006, nearly a billion cellphones were sold, according to research firm Gartner Inc., which estimates another 1.13 billion were snapped up last year.

Cellphones are everywhere these days and capable of performing almost any task – or at least that’s the industry’s hope. (Graham Roumieu)

The most advanced wireless markets are in Asia and Europe, whether measured by the number of cellphone owners, the popularity of mobile TV and gaming services, or the introduction of cutting-edge features.

North Americans, and Canadians in particular, have been slower to adopt some cellphone services, but there are changes afoot that could disrupt that market this year.

In Canada, the government recently decided to set aside some wireless spectrum, or airwaves, for new entrants to bid on in a coming auction. It’s hoping the presence of new competitors will lead to lower prices and greater innovation.

There’s more evidence of change in the United States. Apple Inc.’s C iPhone was the world’s hippest cellphone last year. Internet giant Google Inc. C is pushing for devices that will work on any wireless network, rather than being tied to a specific cellphone carrier, a change that the U.S. government has decided to adopt for part of the spectrum it is auctioning off this month.

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FISH FINDER:

It may not be the creepy chip implant from science fiction movies, but consumers are still being tracked – through the cellphone in their pocket. More devices are using GPS chips, which allow a wireless service provider to pinpoint a customer’s location within metres. Even without GPS, wireless carriers can still hunt down a subscriber based on the signal the phone sends out to nearby cell towers.

Despite obvious privacy concerns about who has access to the data and how they will use it, the sheer convenience makes such location services a hot area. Finnish cellphone king Nokia Corp. C obviously thinks so: It spent $8.1-billion (U.S.) to buy a maker of digital maps to put on its handsets. Google is also keen on this technology, and its mapping service for cellphones gives people detailed directions and information about local businesses.

In Canada, Bell Mobility Inc. C and Telus both offer a service that lets anxious parents keep close tabs on their kids by following their cellphones. (That’s how Telus located the sailboat and the couple lost off the B.C. coast.)

Customers of Manitoba Telecom Services Inc. C can access a service to locate a taxi company in their area and connect the call. Next up, a service from Rogers Wireless Communications Inc. C that will provide information on the fastest routes for commuters trying to avoid traffic jams.

There are even more imaginative ways to use tracking and location services. One of the newest in Canada, the United States and Britain guides cellphone customers to the nearest toilet.

In South Korea, cellphones have become a secret weapon for recreational fishermen. SK Telecom C offers an “AnyFishing” service that displays details about water depth and temperature and even the location of schools of fish on a subscriber’s cellphone. A radio transmitter in the water sends the “inside” information to a receiver hooked up to the cellphone.

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LIFESAVER:

Cellphones aren’t exactly known for their health benefits. Their constant ringing can cause headaches. Other people are concerned about possible long-term effects from using cellphones.

Yet some companies are betting they will enhance, not harm, our well-being in the future.

Switzerland’s Card Guard AG C uses wireless devices to check a patient’s heart rate or glucose levels and sends the information back via cellphone to a physician. The doctor gets a much better overall impression of a patient’s health because he receives regular reports, rather than just running occasional tests at the office. The service is available in Europe and will soon be introduced in the United States.

Card Guard also recently launched a service in the U.S. under the Sensei brand that is the equivalent of Weight Watchers for chubby technophiles. The cellphone becomes a diet coach, telling people what to eat, how to exercise and even giving them motivational pep talks. It could come to Canada as soon as 2008.

It’s still wishful thinking to believe that cellphones will cut down on doctor visits any time soon. Michael Gartenberg, a director at Jupiter Research, says there are a lot of issues to iron out in this area, including privacy concerns and figuring out where to send and store the information. “Probably it’s something that’s going to be a little bit further out …” he said.

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THUMB WRESTLING:

Games on cellphones are certainly handy for killing time during a bus ride or while waiting for a friend to show up. It’s no wonder that global mobile gaming revenue is expected to jump from $2.9-billion in 2006 to $9.6-billion in 2011, according to a report last year from Gartner.

Gamers in Canada have a wide array of titles to choose from, including classics such as Tetris and Pac-Man, action games such as Deer Hunter, and Texas Hold’em for the poker crowd.

In the future, look for mobile games to follow the evolution of their bigger-screen cousins. Nintendo, for example, has a big hit on its hands with its Wii video game console. Instead of pushing buttons, players move a motion-sensing remote control. Japanese wireless trailblazer NTT DoCoMo Inc. C is trying to replicate that innovation for cellphones. In its new bowling game, subscribers move their cellphone instead of a heavy ball and then watch the screen to see if they got a strike.

Although the small screen and keyboard can quickly turn a fun time-filler into an eye-straining, cramp-inducing experience, Gartner predicts mobile video games could eventually be more popular than the Wii, Xbox, or PlayStation consoles sitting at home.

“Given the ubiquity of mobile phones in many markets and the ease of game-play, mobile gaming is expected to reach more of the global population than has been the case for traditional PC and console gaming,” Gartner analyst Tuong Huy Nguyen said in the report.

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MOBILE TUTOR:

Cellphones, with their games, music and e-mail, have proven to be much more distracting for students than the folded notes and paper airplanes of the past. Text messaging also makes them effective tools for cheating. As a result, some school boards have expelled these devices from the classroom.

Not everyone believes that is necessary. They argue the devices offer potential educational opportunities, since so many kids and young adults own them and carry them everywhere. Moreover, cellphones, unlike some teachers, have no problem holding the attention of students.

“Mobile technologies have the potential to provide Canadian learners with increased access to information and learning materials, and to support learning and working ‘on the go’ and from anywhere rather than from a specific location at a certain time,” Mohamed Ally, an associate professor at Athabasca University and Simone Laughton of the University of Toronto Mississauga Library wrote in a 2006 mobile-learning study.

But while there is plenty of research in the field, it’s difficult to find real-life examples. Athabasca, which offers online and long-distance learning, believes it’s the leader in Canada. Students can get access to its digital library from cellphones, and download learning materials for computer science and English as a second language courses. “That’s where the students are,” said Athabasca professor Rory McGreal. He says they like the convenience of learning in such places as a bus, but high data charges are a drawback. He added that Europe and Asia are further ahead in cellphone learning.

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ROAD WARRIOR:

It’s the dream of many a business traveller – packing only a tiny cellphone that can handle all kinds of work on the road. But don’t ditch your laptop just yet.

“People will be like superheroes of days of old having a collection of all these nifty gadgets, and depending on where they’re going and what they’re doing, deciding which of the gadgets they’re going to take with them,” Jupiter’s Mr. Gartenberg said.

The BlackBerry has clearly done a good job of solving the problem of keeping up with e-mail when out of the office, turning a generation of business types into “CrackBerry” addicts.

Connecting to the Web or creating documents on a small wireless device, however, is trickier. For the most part, the miniature screen is not up to the demands of reading and navigating these images. Moreover, typing for hours on a keyboard that is many times smaller than the real thing requires a lot of patience, and virtual versions that project a larger keyboard onto another surface are just emerging.

For now, the laptop is better suited for tasks beyond e-mail. Hooked up to a cellular or WiFi network, it’s worth the added luggage on the road.

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GOLF ON THE GO:

Star Trek’s Captain James Kirk, a.k.a. William Shatner, flew to Toronto last year to plug Rogers’ video calling and television services for cellphones. It’s a product that has hogged the limelight in recent years as wireless carriers try to persuade customers to tune in to the small screen. It may sound cool like the gizmos on Star Trek, but video on cellphones still needs some work.

Video’s leap from TV sets to tiny cellphones has been an amazing development. In 2005, Rogers, Bell and Telus all started rolling out cellphone TV services and have since expanded their range of services to include YouTube clips and even full-length movies.

Nevertheless, even on the fastest 3G wireless networks, the experience is a far cry from watching a show or movie at home. To begin with, there is the picture, which is blurry and sometimes freezes. Wide angle camera views during sports games can make the players look more like stick men, and good luck finding the ball in a golf tournament. Getting news on the go is practical, but the shrunken headlines and sports scores are nearly impossible to read.

The selection of shows is also limited. Along with sports and news, there are music videos, weather updates, and a few specialized services such as The Learning Channel (TLC). But forget watching Grey’s Anatomy, House or other prime time hits.

For now, the TV-watching cellphone user is a rare species. There will have to be big changes to get more customers on board. Faster wireless networks in the future will help, allowing more frames per second and therefore a cleaner picture. Moreover, video clips and shows would probably look a lot better if they were shot with the small screen in mind.

“A two-inch screen or a three-inch screen isn’t a 30-inch screen and it needs to be treated differently,” Jupiter’s Mr. Gartenberg said.

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WIRELESS WEB:

Internet service on cellphones hasn’t lived up to its potential, according to research firm Yankee Group. The research outlet figures that it should be a $66-billion market by now, but instead is a mere $9.5-billion. Yankee Group cites a number of barriers, including the lack of “affordable and reliable” Web access on cellphones.

Anybody who has tried to connect to the Internet on a cellphone knows it’s a frustrating experience. First of all, it’s slower than on a land-line Internet connection. In part, that’s dependent upon the speed of the network, but also because the devices aren’t built to get the most out of that service. As well, media and retail organizations are only starting to catch on that they need to tailor their websites for the smaller screen.

Web access on cellphones presents some unique opportunities for retailers, according to Myron Flickner, who works in one of IBM’s research labs. For example, retailers could provide a wireless Internet connection that lets customers look up store or product information on their cellphone, he said.

The confused approach to the mobile Internet should change in 2008, Jupiter’s Mr. Gartenberg predicts. He said it’s not about delivering the entire Internet to the phone, or even just the basics. “The best efforts going forward are really going to be those that try to unite these two things together and realize that the phone is a different experience,” he said.

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WALLET KILLER:

Of all the possible cellphone services, one of the most compelling is also the most difficult to deliver. Imagine pulling out a cellphone to pay for a coffee, a bus ride or even groceries.

Right now, there are only a few areas where cellphones can be used as electronic wallets in Canada. Cellphone payments for parking have been around for a couple of years. More recently, Bell launched a service that lets people pay for movie tickets with their cellphone.

Royal Bank of Canada C is thinking big. It recently joined forces with Visa to test “contactless” payments that would let wireless subscribers move their cellphones past a card reader to pay for purchases. The hope is that this system could arrive in stores in just over a year.

Mr. Flickner of IBM also predicts consumers will receive a lot more coupons on their cellphones this year. Despite such enthusiasm, other countries have clearly been quicker to embrace the idea of mobile money. In Europe, consumers grab their cellphone to pay for train tickets or Coke in vending machines. Some banks and technology companies in France are testing cellphone payments for a wide range of products and services, including clothing, groceries, hair cuts, and meals.

Once again, though, Asia is the leader. NTT DoCoMo of Japan says a cellphone can take the place of most contents in a purse. Customers can use their cellphones when they shop at various convenience stores, buy snacks from vending machines, and make purchases online. NTT DoCoMo cellphones also take the place of paper tickets when passengers check in at airports or board a train. And they are used as keys and ID cards in some buildings. McDonald’s Corp. C even plans to accept cellphone payments in Japan.

So why does so-called mobile, or m-commerce, at times appear more complicated than decoding DNA? There are a few stumbling blocks. Cellphones are easily lost, so there need to be rigorous security features for consumers to feel comfortable using the device as a debit or credit card. Retailers would also have to do a lot of work to get all the systems in place. As well, it’s easier if all the cellphone carriers in a region work together to ensure there is a common system.

Then there are the cellphones themselves. Bar code scanners that use the cameras in wireless devices don’t work that well, according to Mr. Flickner. In other words, shopping with the cellphone is some time off.

“It’s going to be an evolution versus a revolution,” he said.

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BOOMBOX:

Apple’s iPod beat the wireless carriers to the music market. Since then, they’ve been trying to catch up. After all, Apple showed them just how lucrative digital music players can be. Six years after it introduced the iPod, the company sold 10.2-million of them in the fiscal fourth quarter, and it’s also generating revenue from its online iTunes music store.

Now music cellphones are the norm. Using extra memory cards, they can store some 4,000 tunes. Bell, Rogers and Telus all have introduced their version of iTunes, offering hundreds of thousands of songs to their cellphone subscribers. In 2006, they expanded their music offerings to include satellite radio. It’s not the full service, though, with only 20 or so stations.

Worldwide, cellphone subscribers spent $13.7-billion on music last year, a figure that is expected to soar to $32.2-billion by 2010, according to Gartner. Ring tones account for $7.13-billion of the 2007 amount. Consumers purchase ring tones to identify callers, and keep updating them to stay current. Music magazine Billboard even has a ring tone chart. The latest one is rather eclectic, featuring DJ Khaled’s I’m So Hood alongside Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Brothers Theme.

In at least one instance, Canadian wireless subscribers can be thankful they’re behind when it comes to cellphone services. South Korea’s SK Telecom offers – horror of horrors – a karaoke function for cellphones. Imagine how much more unbearable the commute home could be.

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SOCIAL BUTTERFLY:

An occasional e-mail or phone call isn’t enough to keep up with friends during the week. Instead, Generation Y constantly issues computer updates on their every move, sharing details and photos through social networking websites.

The next frontier is the cellphone. Social networking sites throughout the world, whether Facebook and MySpace in North America, Cyworld in South Korea, or Mixi in Japan are making the jump from the personal computer to the cellphone. It’s a natural fit since many cellphones now have cameras and video players, so users can record their activities on the go. One service called Kyte, which is now being tested among some users, actually lets them create their own TV channel starring themselves, producing their shows on cellphones.

“I could take a picture of where I am and show you where I am at this very moment and post it on the Web, I could send it to your phone, I could put it on the blog,” said Jill Meyers, an analyst at research firm In-Stat. “It’s very, very current. People like that.”

Along with updating the world, these sites can also help friends hook up. For example, Dodgeball, which was acquired by Google a few years ago, sends text messages to a user’s friends to let them know where to meet up. It also alerts users when their Dodgeball “crushes” are near.

There are even services to deter pests. In Japan, women can download a program on their cellphones that flashes warning messages to gropers to keep their distance.

Source: The Globe and Mail

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