Mobile phone internet 'blind alley'

The mobile community and the vendors serving it need some "mindset shifting", says user interface specialist Scott Jenson.

The mobile community and the vendors serving it need some “mindset shifting”, says user interface specialist Scott Jenson.

The Minneapolis-based Jenson, who is being retained to lead MediaLab South Pacific’s mobile research group, is probably best known for his work on GUIs with Apple in the 1990s, including the Newton interface.

There has been a “naïve” attempt to apply PC concepts like web access and bulk data transfer to the mobile arena, he says, and this has largely failed in the market.

“Mobile phones are successful because of voice and SMS,” he says. These media “extend social protocols through distance and time” and this is clearly the set of capabilities that appeals most to consumers. The most promising avenues for research are extensions of these concepts.

Jenson, in collaboration with Matt Jones of Waikato University’s usability lab, is deciding on suitable avenues of research in wireless mobile use, as well as “proselytising” the promise of the medium.

The research will be “user-centred, putting the technology on the back-burner”, Jenson says. The team will develop a new application of mobile, “give it to people and watch it fail”. The failure, as reported by users and as evidenced by watching and videotaping them using the device, will tell the team how to modify the idea, or to start down a new path. When the users start expressing obvious enthusiasm, the researchers will know they’ve got something, says Jenson. “I don’t think that’s been done with what’s on the market today.”

A simple example of an extension of popular applications is voice SMS — the capability to attach a voice recording to an SMS message. This is available on many phones but most users don’t know it’s there, and when they find out, the sequence of operations required to use it is so complicated that it has no appeal. “The technology exists, but we have to implement it in a way mere mortals can use.”

Once that capability is in place, a platform and a motivation exists to make all voice-mail accessible through the mobile, Jenson says.

The text “conference call” among four or five people is another promising area.

Synchronising people’s schedules for a meeting is an obvious application.

Once the research starts, he expects the team will discover other needs. “Other issues that users have in their lives.”

The user-centred stream of the research aims at being “technologically naïve”, considering only uses and usability. On the other hand, the team also expects to produce “technology insight papers” on what technologies are available and what their strengths, weaknesses and opportunities are.

The main reason for involving this country in the research is that New Zealand wants to do it, he says. Most countries are “blinded by standards; they’re sitting there waiting for the big boys [in standards associations and vendor companies] to make up their minds”.

MediaLab chief Michael Gregg says the project is looking for government funding. “But until we ascertain the robustness of the research, we can’t cost it.” Much will depend on the extent to which actual prototype devices are produced. But the budget is expected to be “in the hundreds of thousands of dollars”.

“We don’t ever want to sell product. We want research funding from multinationals, who will then be given access to the intellectual property,” Gregg says.

Getting social

Scott Jenson envisages participants signalling through the wireless connection the mode of social interaction they’re in at that time.

“If your office door is closed and I see you have a phone in your hand, I know this is not the time to interrupt you,” he says, but a remote attempt at communication currently lacks those cues.

He sees much wireless communication consisting of such tiny packets of data, saying things like “I’m in meeting mode; I’ve noted your call and my phone will call you back automatically when I’m free.”

One of the benefits of third-generation mobile technology, he says, will be “proper networks” with every phone having its own IP address, so servers will no longer be needed for one phone to pass a message to another.

Jenson envisages wireless in time taking over the load from a significant amount of landline infrastructure. There are trivial, but crucial mismatches here such as the lack of a multiple-extension system.

“If every member of my family, living in the same house, has their own phone, it should still be possible to phone the house, using [a number allocated to] a virtual phone, and whoever’s there will pick up the call.”

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