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April - 2009 - issue > Technology
Mobile Phones The Convergent Device for Ubiquitous Computing
Sankalp Saxena
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Mobile phones have rapidly become an essential and integral part of our daily lives. We feel as if a part of us is missing if we forgetfully leave our mobile phones at home – so much so that many times we go back to retrieve this pint sized gadget in order to make ourselves ‘complete’ again! No other technology has, so quickly and pervasively, become an integral part of our ‘being’ in the last decade or the preceding years. Approximately 4 billion people today are touched by a cell signal, and cell phone penetration has exceeded 2 billion connections globally. It continues to grow at a mind-boggling speed. This revolution is very apparent in India itself as we add approximately 15 million new connections a month! Gone, thankfully, are the days where one would submit the application for a telephone and wait, wait, wait, and wait (you get the point) for over a year for the connection and the telephone department personnel to come and install the landline instrument at the carefully selected spot in your house! Prasad batoo – phone ka connection mil gayaa!!

An often-asked question is where is all this headed? Captured below are my thoughts on what direction the mobile movement might take in the years ahead. I am not by any means an expert, pundit, or guru, but instead I am simply an avid user of this technology medium as well as an avid developer of mobile-centric applets, which push the envelope further on what we can do with our pint sized gadgets.

For starters, we are about to witness the birth of our Global Mobile Identities (GMIs), as the paradigm of number portability will extend well beyond a given geography and telco combination. Our GMIs will be as ubiquitous as our email IDs are today, and the concept of ‘changing’ our mobile numbers based on what country or city we presently live in will (and needs to) become obsolete. Our GMIs, each of which is as unique as our phone numbers are today, will move with us as we shift from one town to another or from one country to another. Furthermore, our GMIs need not be numerically indexed and can be a combination of both alphanumeric characters – as is the case with our email IDs. Ultimately our email IDs and our GMIs can plausibly converge into one, and based on the medium by which a user is initiating a communication request – he or she can select whether it should be a voice call, an email, or simply an SMS. The telco provider with whom we provision our service in the new location will simply register our GMI in his service registry and we will never have to give out a new phone number to our friends again! Cellular networks will continue to be intelligent enough to ensure billing engines calculate call charges based on our GMI roaming patterns.

The next paradigm shift that will take place will be indexed to the widespread provisioning of high-speed over-the-air (OTA) networks – like WiMax, 3G, and 4G. Mobile phone usage will no longer be ‘bucketed’ into voice or data buckets with a host of confusing monthly plans or access costs. Instead, plans will converge into one single digital data bucket. Monthly service provisioning will be linked to plans sold around total data usage per month. We will buy 1GB or 10 GB or Unlimited plans per month from telcos and will consume this across voice, value added services, mp3 downloads, mobile TV, network games, and so on. As ultimately all provisioned services on mobile devices are nothing more than digital bits and bytes being moved to and from your device. The digital nature of mobile services will blur the divide between a simple voice call and a multi-player network game being played by five friends across five countries. The move to convergent billing on total data used per month will also provide significant revenue upside for the telcos, as they will see ARPU increase exponentially. Without such a catalyst telcos, understandably, might not want to move in the digital bucket direction.

The widespread integration of GPS chipsets along with significantly improved digital mapping information will vastly improve the usability and adoption of location based services. Imagine landing in Paris and using your mobile phone to locate directions to the Louvre and then to a fabulous Indian restaurant for dinner in the evening – all from wherever you happen to be in the city at that moment. Else, imagine visiting San Francisco for the first time and meeting your friend at a nice restaurant ‘somewhere’ in the vicinity of Pier 39 and receiving step-by-step directions to the location of your friend’s phone. This would of course be based on his or her accepting your mobile request to provide your phone with their location – somewhat akin to pairing two devices via Bluetooth but getting well beyond a 10 m radius. Paper maps, in which we have to first find a common point of reference to start charting directions, might be driven to obsolescence faster than we imagine.

Device designs will also radically morph, as mobile phones will become adaptive modular gadgets. Devices will seamlessly integrate into our clothing, become wristband accessories, or be simply hidden in our ears (like our current Bluetooth headsets). The ‘mobile cores’ could also interconnect into other mobile modular components depending on the task at hand. Take, for example, playing a multi-player network game (5 friends, 5 countries again) – for this ‘experience’ you might want to snap your mobile core module (tiny component) into a larger portable LCD format – say, a 5” or 7” LCD module that will come with its own high capacity battery and game away to glory. Once you are done gaming, you would simply snap out the core mobile module, place it in your ear, and use the native voice activated menus to call your friends. SMS and email messages received could, in this miniature device format, be read back by the text-to-speech (TTS) voice agent resident on your mobile core and you could simply dictate a response or opt to call the person back. You wouldn’t need to carry a 5” LCD format device all day everyday, post the gaming session with your friends, when a simple Bluetooth like mobile core would meet your usability requirements for the next several hours or even days. Furthermore, your 100 GB mobile device, with a few of the latest movies or your PowerPoint presentations, could connect wirelessly to your 50” LCD TV or projector and stream content to this device. This would be a far more conducive and useful medium to watch ‘mobile TV’ as opposed to trying to watch a TV serial on a 2.4” LCD and to con yourself into believing that straining your eyes to watch video content on a 2.4” screen is actually pleasurable. Try watching CBNC on a 2.4” LCD and see if you can read even one stock quote or chart on screen. Snap-in modular components will come in all shapes and sizes and will allow you to adaptively use your mobile device in far more innovative and multi-purpose ways than what we are accustomed to today.

There apparently are patents already filed, which will enable one to have ‘scent-sory’ experiences via our mobile devices. Scan a barcode of a new perfume ad in the newspaper with your phone camera and voila your phone will give you a whiff of this new perfume. Your phone will come with a set of base scents preloaded into tiny cartridges and the scanned barcode would contain a predetermined recipe for mixing these base scents, in varying percentages, to give you an emulated whiff of this new perfume. The actual perfume could be far better but this approach would give you a near indicative whiff and would provide advertisers with a great new way to promote and sell their ‘scent-sory’ products!

The list of innovative uses which are currently in development and which will be introduced to mobile users goes well beyond the length of this article. I’ve included a few as food for your thought to illustrate the ubiquitous computing capabilities coming soon to the pint sized gadget we now call cell phones. Wikipedia defines ubiquitous computing as a “post-desktop model of human-computer interaction in which information processing has been thoroughly integrated into everyday objects and activities. As opposed to the desktop paradigm, in which a single user consciously engages a single device for a specialized purpose, someone ‘using’ ubiquitous computing engages many computational devices and systems simultaneously, in the course of ordinary activities, and may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so.” Trust me – the mobile phone is the convergent device for ubiquitous computing!

The author is Chairman & CEO, Moveo Systems
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