Thursday, 1 May 2008

Evolution Matters

From brick-size must-have, to multifunctional personal assistant: The mobile phone completes 35 year of commercial existence. But the process of natural selection for this specie doesn't seem to stop here...

The distant 03 April 1973 marked a new step in the history of telecommunications. It was the day when the first official call from a mobile phone was made in public. The demonstration, conducted by the General Manager of Motorola at the time, took place in the streets of New York (for amazement of passer-bys) and used an Australopithecus-brick-like phone weighing about 1 kg that does not resemble the models available now.

Despite the immediate interest for this new technology in the 70’s it still took a whole decade for portable phones to reach the market, with the US launch in 1983 of the first commercial networks in the world, based on analogue technology. In the UK, the service started in 1985 and the first devices (Neanderthal-large-sized and costing around £2,000) quickly became popular among business people interested in the “status” that this technology could bring.

However the break though for the mobile technology happened in the mid 90’s, when analogue networks started to be replaced by the new digital technology. This permitted not only the increase of lines but also the introduction of novel services, such as SMS. Technological developments also set the norm for smaller Homo-Sapiens-devices, with longer battery time. A worldwide expansion of mobile phone operators also happened in this period, contributing for a massive widespread of mobile phones users throughout the globe.

Worldwide Expansion - From that moment on it didn't take much for mobile phones to become the essential accessories of the contemporary times that we are used to.

In 2007 it was estimated that the number of people subscribed to mobile phone services in the world reached 2.7 billion and by 2010 it is estimated that the number will soar to 3.3 billion. Researches show that most of the users today are still concentrated in wealthier countries. In Japan, the US, Scandinavian countries and Britain for example it is believed that around 80% of the populations use mobile phones regularly.

Many developing countries also have been registering a rapid usage expansion. In Brazil official reports currently indicate 108.5 million of users, almost 60% of the country’s population. India and China are considered other important emerging markets.

In Africa usage figures are still low if compared with any other part of the world. It is estimated only 50 million people, or 7% of the whole continent’s population have access to mobile phones; even then the technology is considered essential for the continent’s development as it is giving opportunity to many poor rural communities, to get information from the larger centres, commercializing agricultural products and engaging with governments and other public structures

Social Changes - Through the years mobile phones have been subject of many critical views. Academics for example have linked their use with “promotion of bad manners”, and “loss of sociability”. Many negative associations also have made the headlines, with the technology being linked with several medical problems (such as eye damage; body cells harm; and RSIs); this without mentioning the use of mobiles in new phenomena, such as text bulling and the “happy slapping”.

Regardless all possible concerns, the benefits the technology can bring seems to be higher and people appear to be developing increasingly dependency on their mobile phones. A survey from the Ofcom with UK users found out that many people believe they “could not live without their phone”. The study indicates that overall, people prefer using mobile phones to landlines. It also suggests that 10% of households rely exclusively on mobiles to make calls. Furthermore the mobile phone industry is said to have higher revenues than the traditional telephony.

Constant upgrades - In 35 years of history, the devices also evolved at a very fast pace, standing generations away from the original Australopithecus-like models. New mobile phone are increasingly converging with other Medias, aggregating many new functions, such as high megapixel cameras , music player, internet browser and file storage. Not surprisingly they have been constantly dubbed as “Swiss army knives of consumer electronics”.

The profile of users also changed dramatically. While in the beginning the technology was a privilege of business-people, today it’s universal, regardless gender, age and class. The way people employ their devices also passed through significant transformations. According to a research conducted by the carrier Orange, talking over the networks is becoming a secondary activity, since more than half of subscribers are using their mobiles primarily for other things such as texting, sharing files and listening to music. The success of music tracks downloading for mobile phones, which this year in the UK is expect to generate £30 million illustrates the situation.

There are currently many predictions that eventually our mobile phones will become the single piece of technology we’ll carry, able to do the works originally created for many other devices. The introduction of the Smartphones, with even more advanced capabilities (including intelligent predictive text systems) might confirm such forecast, proving that we are finally reaching the Homo Sapiens-Sapiens era of the mobile telephony.

(In)dispensable Little Things

It is almost impossible not to come across them. For many people they are often rather clever than useful, but once you get hold of these gadgets and gismos you wonder how you ever lived without them. As a hint of what is available in the market here goes a list of new ingenious inventions from Taiwan manufacturers never seize to amaze us.

Can’t wake up? Try this! This is a flying alarm clock with a propeller. When the alarm goes, propeller flies into the air and you can only switch it off if you can find the propeller and put it back on the clock. It Works with 4 AA batteries and costs £ 21.00

If your problem is boredom at work and you need something to keep you awake, this little device can be a solution! You place it behind your ear and by looking at the speed of head movements, determines whether you are falling asleep or not. Once it detects that you are falling asleep, it wakes you up ‘gently’!

Are you interested in the paranormal? Want to see ghosts or 'shadow people'? Are you bored and have got nothing else to do? Now you can create your own shadows! Fill your house with 'shadow people' based upon your own shadow! Disturb your friends by only hanging the screens up at night! Hang the Shadow Magic glow screen on a wall, place something or someone in front of it, fire the strobe flash, and the shadow cast on the screen will linger for 20-40 seconds. Then use the light pen end to add your own highlights and enhancements. The shadow glow screen can be used again and again. (WARNING! If you are doing it yourself, you might need to set up your camera’s flash!) The screen measures 23"W x 28"H, and it costs US$ 20.

If you use RSS, you might like the “rsstroom” reader. It uses wireless connectivity and prints on the toilet paper news from RSS 2.0 and atom feeds. This device is configurable through a web browser and can be set to print an unlimited number of feeds in random or alternative mode.

If you are concern about the environment but still need to recharge your batteries, you might be temped to try the UVEE UVSC-1s Universal Solar Battery Charger. In direct sunlight, Uvee's solar panels convert solar energy into electricity which is automatically saved to its integral Li-ion battery. The charging process takes 4-7 hours for a full charge. When there's no sunlight available simply charge the Uvee with the supplied AC. Uvee's supplied power adaptors can charge a huge range of portable devices including: Mobile phones, PDA’s, iPod’s, digital cameras, satellite Navigation devices, MP3 Players, PSP’s, DS Lite and many other small electrical appliances. This ecologically correct gadget costs £ 24.99.

No, it’s not a modernized LP. Coway designed this dish cleaning-wand to provide you with an easier way to remove dirt and agrochemicals. This device uses megasonic sound waves which induces microcavitation, shaking impurities loose from surfaces and makes it easier for you to clean fruits, meats, dishware, pots and pans and flatware with little or no detergent. The price is not announced yet.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Mobile instant messaging grows, but users still strive to have a good texting experience

This beginning of year has been marked by the 15th anniversary of the first commercial SMS sent in history (over the Vodafone UK network). In such short period of time the mobile text message became one of the world’s most popular forms of communication. Just to have an idea, it is believed that last New Year’s Eve over 43 billion SMS were sent globally by mobile phone users to wish their loved ones a happy new year. And for the course of 2008 it is estimate that 1 trillion text messages will be sent worldwide. In the UK only, new figures show that nearly 5,000 text messages are sent every second.

Motivated by the successful trajectory of the SMS, big players in the mobile market seems to be been increasingly investing in the development and diffusion of new messaging formats and technologies, such as mobile advertising, mobile email and mobile IM (Instant Messaging). The latest is actually been tipped by Mobile Europe as the technology that will have the fasted popularization in the next few years. Similar to PC-based instant messaging services, the Mobile IM is said to be already used by 26.7 million subscribers in Western Europe and in 5 years it is estimated that this figure will increase to 80 million subscribers.

In this entire scenario however, there is a detail that amazes: despite the increasing figures and the establishment of a text culture in society, manufactures and third parts still seem do be doing little to make the user life easier while texting. Typing a message today in any kind of handheld device requires the same effort as it used to a decade and a half ago.

Whoever tried to use the T9 or XT9 system (which comes embedded in many new devices in the market) might strongly agree with that. Instead to simplify the composition of messages, T9 manages to transform the task in something extremely annoying. It never seems to give the word that you want and many of the suggestions it gives are actually not valid words. Because of that, it is not surprising that many users still prefer to disable the predictive text from their phones ant type the letters one by one, like in the early days of the SMS.

A comedy sketch recently added to YouTube, and a discussion in the “SMS text news forum”, exemplify well the problem. They ponder for instance why curse words are not included in the T9 database, while lot of “silly non-words are included such as shiv, pigt, and others”.

There is who believe that such problem might affect not just people’s patience but also their social relations. According to a guide created to teach people how to use text message in romantic situations such making up and for asking out dates one of the primordial rules to be observed while texting is: don’t be a bad speller! (a tip that seems to be hard to follow if you are using T9).

It is good to know that slowly new alternatives for the annoyance of T9 start to appear in the market, such as the Adaptxt predictive text solution, already mentioned a while ago in this blog. The main advantage of this new system is that it seems to be based in artificial intelligence, instead of compression of algorithms, so there’s no “guess work” while typing a word, like in T9.

The problem is that phone makers and as carriers still seem to be reluctant to replace the redundant T9-like systems. If they could listen more to users’ complains in this matter, they probably would start to pay more attention to these new alternative solutions capable to improve the way people text.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

A Grey Matter Challenge: Brain Training Applications for Windows Mobile Devices

After their quick popularizations, thanks to a long series of Nintendo DS titles, the brain training games seems to be gaining space within the Windows Mobile platform. From basic to advance levels there’s an increasingly variety of realises aiming to transform PDAs and Smartphone into workout machines for your grey matter.

Brain School Brain Trainer
, by Mastersoft has 20 different puzzles (involving concentration, analytical reasoning, numeracy, etc), each at 5 increasing levels of difficulty. Like on a school, you have to work your way up from year 1 passing exams and collecting A Plus stars as you go. There are 4 years to pass and 100 stars to collect! The navigation is simple and on-screen instructions easy to follow. There are versions for PPC and Smartphones (WM 5.0) both at £10.22. Trial versions are also available for download.

Advanced Brain Trainer - Deluxe Version, by Filao follows the same style as the DS trainers. It offers 9 kinds of exercises, such as Speed count, Drawing over, Memo square and Shape counter. There are 3 game modes (Exam, Practice and Arcade), which can be set to different difficult levels. The questions are introduced by a “brain coach”, who can be chosen by the user. The coaches can also analyze your results, motivate and guide you through your mind's enhancement. It can be downloaded for £10.24 and it is compatible with Windows Mobile 5.0 for Smartphones and Pocket PCs. Demo versions are offered.

Spb Brain Evolution for Smartphone includes 10 development mini-games and provides two independent game modes, one for measuring the user’s brain status, and one for improving the user’s abilities. Some of the mini-games offered are Arithmetic, Quadronica, Memorics, Encyclopaedia and Sudoku. It is compatible with WM 6 / 5 / 2003 and costs around £10.00 (US$19.95).

Resco's BrainGain
for Pocket PC (WM 6 and 5) offers a collection of nearly 40 brain training programs divided in memory, numerical and analytical categories. The style also reminds the DS training games, with a character presenting the questions and functions to evaluate the users’ mental capabilities. It also offers a comprehensive guide and it’s optimized for one-hand use. A demo is available and the full version costs £10.24.

If you are into games, one of these application might be a good choice; no matter if you want to “improve power of concentration, memory and reflexes” or just relax, kill some time and have fun.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

News on the go: Are PDA and Smartphone versions of newspapers really handheld friendly?

Reading the daily edition of your favourite newspaper on a small handheld device is certainly a very convenient way to keep up with current events (and escape the hassle of folding and unfolding large sheets of paper while commuting). But despite the increasing popularity, it seems that these mobile news editions still lack in basic design and usability principles that could improve a lot the users’ experience.

Media companies all over the world seem be targeting heavily this market for "news services on the go". Basically all the big well known newspapers and other journalism companies already have made available their PDA/Smartphone editions (or news channels), with especially created mobile content. Some examples are The Times, The Guardian, Le Monde, BBC, CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

There are 2 major companies providing the technology for this: AvantGo (which offers a large selection of free content) and Roundpoint (with a smaller number of publications offered via paid subscription). Both technologies are compatible with Windows Mobile devices and the content can be downloaded, either OTA or via synchronisation (between the handled and a PC connected to the web). The process is not difficult, but sometimes it can be slow.

Up to here, there’s no problem; the setback is that accessing some of these mobile editions isn't such a joy. Based in HTML, the pages incorporate several elements from the web which on small screens do not seem to be well optimized.

A recent academic research evaluated major mobile news services available in the UK and noticed that all of them show some degree of design and usability problems. On the whole, menu items and commands are too close too each other and thus easy mistaken by the stylus; editorial elements that could improve readability are underused (i.e. subheads, summaries, etc), as well are hardware functions, which constrains one-hand navigation with. Another important issue is that texts tend to be too long, requiring extensive and tiresome vertical scrolling (and there are no features such markers or widgets to aid with that).

The ITN news channel (from the ITV group) is an example of poor design: The page elements are cluttered; links and pictures are badly positioned and there is not even a logo or name identifying the publication. The Guardian is another channel not very pleasurable to navigate, especially on a Smartphone. Page items are
too close too each and there are still ads and other unnecessary elements.

The BBC News channel is not bad. It seems to be more organised than the others so far, but it has too much information displayed together and no white spaces are used to give a rest to the readers’ eyes. Another annoyance is that there are no shortcuts to move directly from one article to other, so the user is always forced to go back and forward to the main menu.

The PDA version of The Times manages to deliver a slightly better navigation experience. It has still some issues, but it is doing well in some points. The main menu is easy to visualise and the headlines are well spaced. It also uses visual cues, such as bullet lists and subheads in bold, as well as shortcuts. Other that doesn’t seem bad is the mobile version of the news agency Reuters, which uses a clean layout and good colour selection.

Overall it appears that some of the major design problems exist because media companies in general seem to be reutilizing the same material that is published in their newspapers and news websites for the creation of their mobile editions. Therefore, particular design solutions, respecting the physical and contextual characteristics of PDAs and Smartphones, end up being neglected.

It's a little disappointing, but since handhelds are a fast-growing medium it might be just a step away for them to be no longer regarded as secondary mediums for the delivery of news.

Monday, 14 January 2008

How to transform your Windows Mobile device into a personal travel assistant

If you are one of these people always on the move, why not explore the potentialities of your Pocket PC or Smartphone? Clever applications can help you to convert your WM device into the ideal travel organiser and companion.

The latest version of WorldMate Professional, created by MobiMate is an all-in-one travel application. It offers most of the basic information that people is likely to need while away, especially on a business trip. There are 5 world clocks, a world map (with cities localizer), global 5 days weather forecast, a currency converter, measurements conversion and a table displaying clothing sizes in different countries.

The Pocket PC version also brings a Tip/Tax Calculator and a Travel Itinerary Manager (where you can record details from flights, hotels, car rentals and meetings). All these services are free of charge, but if you want, you can subscribe for the PRO version (US$39.95 for Smartphone and US$74.95 for Pocket PCs), which offers extra services such as Satellite Weather Imagery and Real-time Flight status (covering most of the airlines).

Overall the MobiMate is easy to use. It has lots of comprehensive graphics, works on a multilingual platform (English, French, Italian, German and Spanish) and the user can also select some of the functions to be always displayed on the Home Screen.
The basic version can be downloaded for free at the MobiMate website.

Pocket Earth 3.4 (by Informap Technology Center Inc) is another clever application that can help you to find your way around the globe. It displays an interactive set of 3D maps of the Earth, with VGA resolution (640x480). The user can locate cities by name and measure distances from multi-points. There are also colourful atlas maps in different formats (e.g. physical, political, etc), as well as sun and moon info. In addition the application brings useful information about several cities of the world, population and time. Other advanced features are GPS support and real-time weather forecast. It works with Windows Mobile Pocket PCs (2000 and all later) and can be bought online for around £10 (US$ 19). A trial version is available.

Not as complete, but also informative is the latest version of the Kai's City Info (made by Kaisoft /Pocketkai). It comprises as database with 472 Cities of the world. For each of them it gives information such as time-zone index, phone codes, airport codes, latitude/longitude, summertime, location on the map and GPS position (when available in the device). It also calculates the distance between two cities and time differences. It works with all versions of Windows Mobile for Pocket PC (from 2000 to WM6) and can be downloaded for around £5 (US$ 10).

Even if you are not on the road very often it still worthy to have a look in any of these applications, since you can get a lot of interesting information from them.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Next generation of UI applications adding a cool-looking to Windows Mobile devices

A while ago the Windows Mobile team announced the creation of “Neo”, an innovative user interface for an upcoming T-Mobile Smartphone (Shadow). This imbedded application converts the homescreen (“Today”) shipped by Microsoft into a cool-looking page, full of plug-ins, which animates when the user navigates up and down.

Now it seems that a new trend has started, as more of these UI applications start to become available, promising to add more interactivity and fresh appearance to the static Windows Mobile interface (that hasn't changed much since the Pocket PC 2nd Edition/2003).

Spb Mobile Shell adds a Vista inspired look to Windows Smartphones and Pocket PC interface. The initial screen can be customized to use for example analogue or digital clocks, display chosen elements and change between different colour themes. The menus are designed for one hand navigation and contain not only programs, but also actions. The Vista style icons and animation make it look really nice too. This application costs around £15 (US$ 30) and can be downloaded at the spb software house website or at the O2 XDA and Dell Axim pages.

Home”, is a new application from “Pointui” (pronounced point-you-i), which transforms the Today screen of Pocket PCs into an animated interface, very similar to the iPhone. Each of the Today items (clock, date/calendar, tasks, etc.) occupies one full page, and there are also pages for new functions such as wheather forecast and animated launchers for applications. The user can control it via touch or thumb with the directional button. It is easy to use and looks great. The software is a BETA version; compatible with Windows Mobile 6, 5 and 2003 and it can be downloaded for free at the Pointui site.

After checking on any of these cool applications you’ll realise that there’s no more reason to be ashamed with the current appearance your Windows Mobile UI.