Archive for the 'Mobile phones' Category

The future in your pocket

[link] Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

If a year is a long time in politics (and it is), then it’s an eternity in communications technology. Fourteen years ago, about 400 million people were using the internet. Today, the number of net users is pushing the 3 billion mark. But that’s not the really big news. What’s truly startling is that 2 billion of these folks are getting their internet connections primarily via smartphones, ie, handheld computers that can access the internet as well as make voice calls, send text messages and do the other things that old-fashioned “feature phones” could do.

This is startling because smartphones are a relatively new development, and when they first appeared less than a decade ago, most of us thought that they would remain an elite consumer product for a long time to come, staples of affluent professionals in the industrialised world, perhaps, but of no relevance to poor people in the developing world who would continue to be delighted with crude feature phones that could just about do SMS.

How wrong can you be? We underestimated both the power of Moore’s law and human nature…

Read on

The phablet controversy

[link] Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

iPad_Mini

Wading through the throng in an Apple store the other day, I had a look at the new iPhones. The iPhone 6 didn’t seem much of an advance on my 5s, but the even-bigger one, the 6 plus, seems odd. It’s far too big to be a credible phone, but too small to be a useable tablet. So why, one wonders, will people buy it?

One answer, I suppose, is that people buy preposterously large Samsung phones, even if they do wind up holding something the size of a dinner plate to their ears. (Or making calls surreptitiously, using headphones.)

Ages ago, I bought an iPad Mini with a SIM card for writing on the move, and kept my phone for texts and the occasional voice call. The Mini has turned out to be one of the most useful gadgets I’ve ever owned. Just big enough to be useful; just small enough to slip into a jacket pocket. The new iPhone isn’t a persuasive argument for abandoning that system. It ain’t broken, so I won’t be fixing it.

So is it good to talk… again?

[link] Sunday, September 28th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

To the technology trade, I am what is known as an “early adopter” (translation: gadget freak, mug, sucker). I had a mobile phone in the mid-1980s, for example, when they were still regarded as weird. It was the size of a brick, cost the best part of a grand and exposed me to ridicule whenever I took it out in public. But I didn’t care because the last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, used the same phone and he was cool in those days. Besides, it had always seemed absurd to me that phones should be tethered to the wall, like goats. I still have that Nokia handset, by the way: it sits at the bottom of a drawer and I sometimes take it out to show my grandchildren what phones used to be like.

Over the decades since, I have always had latest-model phones – just like all the other early adopters. And of course I used them to make phone calls because basically that’s all you could do with those devices. (Well, almost all: one of mine had an FM radio built in.) And then in 2007 Steve Jobs launched the iPhone and the game changed. Why? Because the Apple device was really just a powerful computer that you could hold in your hand. And it was a real computer; its operating system was a derivative of BSD, the derivative of Unix developed by Bill Joy when he was a graduate student at Berkeley. (Note for non-techies: Unix is to Windows as a JCB is to a garden trowel.)

The fact that the iPhone could also make voice calls seemed, suddenly, a trivial afterthought. What mattered was that it provided mobile access to the internet. And that it could run programs, though it called them apps…

Read on

Why Apple Pay was the big news from Apple

[link] Sunday, September 14th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

In the long view of history, though, the innovation that may be seen as really significant is Apple Pay – an ingenious blend of contactless payment technology with security features that are baked into the new iPhones. Apple Pay will, burbled Tim Cook, “forever change the way all of us buy things… it’s what makes the iPhone 6 the biggest advancement in the history of iPhones”.

The idea is to do away with the rigmarole of having to pull out a credit/debit card, insert in a store’s card reader, type a pin, etc. Instead, you simply bump your iPhone (and, eventually, your Apple Watch) against the store’s contactless reader and – bingo! – you’ve paid, and the store never gets to see your card. Why? Because Apple has stored the card details in heavily encrypted form on your device and assigned each card a unique, device-specific number, which is accepted by the retailer’s contactless reader.

This only works, of course, if the retailer has already signed up with Apple. Cook claimed that 220,000 US retailers have already opted in to the system, as well as six major banks, plus MasterCard, Visa and American Express – which means that 83% of all US credit card payment volume can theoretically already be handled by Apple Pay.

If true, this is a really big deal, because it puts Apple at the heart of an unimaginable volume of financial transactions. In a way, the company is now doing to the card payment business what it did to the music business with the iTunes store…

Read on

Mobile phones: huge industry, no new ideas

[link] Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Leave aside the fact that it was Apple that triggered the most recent explosion in the mobile industry – the smartphone revolution – and ponder what was actually on show in Barcelona. The answer, in the words of one astute and unsentimental observer, Professor Barry Avery, was: “Many phones, little innovation.” (Shades of Yeats’s pithy description of his – and my – native land: “Great hatred, little room.”)

“The message coming out of this year’s event,” wrote Avery, “is that while there are lots of new phones coming, we shouldn’t expect a great technological leap from any of them. Most of the phones are incremental updates, running the latest version of Android’s mobile phone operating system KitKat.”

Avery is too polite. The truth is that the mobile phone industry has run out of ideas. Every single smartphone in the market is basically just a variation on the Apple iPhone theme. And the variations, such as they are, are looking increasingly – and desperately – baroque…

Before visiting the UK, reset your phone to factory settings

[link] Thursday, July 18th, 2013

Visitors may not know this, but maybe they should.

Officers use counter-terrorism laws to remove a mobile phone from any passenger they wish coming through UK air, sea and international rail ports and then scour their data.

The blanket power is so broad they do not even have to show reasonable suspicion for seizing the device and can retain the information for “as long as is necessary”.

Data can include call history, contact books, photos and who the person is texting or emailing, although not the contents of messages.
David Anderson QC, the independent reviewer of terrorism laws, is expected to raise concerns over the power in his annual report this week.

He will call for proper checks and balances to ensure it is not being abused.

The Facebook pathogen

[link] Sunday, April 14th, 2013

This morning’s Observer column.

Infectious diseases, says the World Health Organisation, “are caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi; the diseases can be spread, directly or indirectly, from one person to another.” Quite so. Just like Facebook addiction, which also spreads from person to person and has now reached pandemic proportions, with more than a billion sufferers worldwide.

The Facebook pathogen doesn’t kill people, of course, for the good reason that dead people don’t buy stuff. But it does seem to affect victims’ brains. For example, it reduces normally articulate and sophisticated people to gibbering in the online equivalent of grunts. Likewise, it obliges them to coalesce all the varieties of human relationships into a simply binary pair: “friends” v everyone else…

Hackers and casuals

[link] Monday, March 11th, 2013

Fascinating blog post by Ajay Kulkarni, a developer. He argues that Android users fall into two categories — Hackers and Casuals.

First, there are the Hackers, the original Android users. The ones who bought the G1, the Droid 1, the Nexus 1, who invested in the platform because they believed in its fundamental philosophy: openness.

And this is who we normally imagine when we think of Android.

But in the last two years, Android devices have gotten cheaper, prolific in every carrier store.

As a result, there’s a new immigrant population in the Android community: the Casuals. These are the individuals upgrading from their feature phones, drawn to Android because of price.

Why is this interesting? Because the two groups approach — and use — their phones differently.

Hackers customize. They install their own keyboards, dialers, messaging apps, even home screens. Many are developers. They explore, they tinker. They love settings, settings, and more settings.

Casuals personalize. They like wallpapers and custom ringtones. But they don’t tinker. Many are late adopters to smartphones. They use Facebook, Twitter, and other popular apps, but they don’t explore new apps or technologies.

If you’re a developer, you have to approach each group differently. The post goes on to illustrate what that means in design terms.

Terrific post. HT to @charlesarthur for pointing me to it.

The hidden ironies of a Firefox OS

[link] Monday, February 25th, 2013

The news that there is going to be a Firefox Operating System has set the cat among the pigeons. GigaOm has an interesting take on it which is refreshingly alert to the irony of the carriers’ response to the development.

The fact that the carriers are lapping this up represents a moment of supreme irony: these are the same companies – largely former monopolies – that were all about walled gardens, the companies that wanted to replicate the portal-first, AOL model in the wireless world. And what happened to stymie that scenario? Apple happened.

It was the iPhone that really loosened the carriers’ grip on their product. Suddenly they were just providers of voice and SMS and data, not suppliers of value-added services. The revenue cut from app sales now went to Apple and Google, not to the operators. The walls to their gardens had been obliterated, and someone had set up much more attractive walled gardens elsewhere.

So back we come to this idea of the open mobile web. This is an area where luminaries such as Tim Berners-Lee have been on the warpath, pointing out very real problems with the iOS/Android model. These include the inability to share app-based content in a standardized way, and the inability to search across apps. In short: the loss of the level playing field that web technologies represent.

Firefox OS is designed to solve those problems. Weirdly, we can now witness the former walled garden proprietors genuinely extol the virtues of openness. By promoting Firefox OS, they cannot regain control – however, they hope to prise some control from the hands of Google and Apple.

The future’s mobile. It might also be bleak

[link] Sunday, December 9th, 2012

This morning’s Observer column.

But it’s when one sees how all these people access the net that the data leap into life. Meeker claims that the world now has 1.1 billion smartphone users, ie people who can access the internet and use the web via a handheld device. This trend is reinforced by other developments. A third of US adults now own a tablet or e-reader (up from 2% less than three years ago). And Apple’s iPad is the fastest-selling mobile device of all time (which, in the internet world, means “until the next Big Thing”). There’s a serious trend here.

The really staggering figures, however, are those relating to how people use their mobile devices. They already account for 13% of all internet traffic. This year, 24% of all online shopping on “black Friday” in the US was done via mobiles (up from 6% two years ago). And Meeker claims that in May this year mobile internet traffic in India overtook PC-based traffic.

What do these statistics mean? Well, basically they imply that the future’s mobile. We’re heading for a world in which most people will access the internet via handheld devices – phones and tablets. And this is a really big deal. On the one hand, it will make it easy for billions of people to integrate the net into their daily lives, with all the benefits that that can bring. On the other hand, it will greatly enhance the powers of corporations that few of us have any reason to trust.