Six Mobile Breakthroughs

Courtesy of TechWeb A century ago, communicating in a hurry meant sending a telegram. If you needed to go yourself, you went by train. Flash forward to today's world of e-mail-ready smartphones and 3G wireless access. If you think those are handy, then get ready: Newer technology is emerging that will significantly change how we stay in touch when we are mobile -- nearly as much as telephones and airplanes have changed lives over the last 100 years. We asked several futurists and industry experts to describe these mobile technologies and their impact on our lives. They aren't talking about maybe-someday technologies, but applications that will be here in the next year or two. Some of them are even starting to be available now. It's a good time to be mobile. Pay By PhoneOld way:Pull out your wallet and pay with cash, debit card, or credit card.New way:Your cell phone acts as a mobile wallet; you wave the device at a point-of-sale reader to make purchases. The idea of using your phone to make payments has been around for several years but is finally gaining serious traction, starting in Japan where NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular carrier, launched its mobile wallet program in 2004. Now, according to Karen Lurker, communications manager in the U.S. for DoCoMo, there are almost 12 million handsets in the hands of DoCoMo users that support the company's mobile payment system. These phones -- and those that are expected to be introduced soon in the U.S. -- use a wireless technology called Near Field Communications (NFC). You wave the phone near a point-of-sale terminal that supports the technology, and it automatically pays for the item. How? DoCoMo handles payment two ways, according to Lurker. The first is DoCoMo's Osaifu-Keitai service, which enables you download credits worth as much as 10,000 yen per month, or about $95, to your phone via the company's i-mode data service. When you wave the phone in front of the terminal, the amount of the purchase is deducted from the amount of credit carried on your phone. The amount you actually spend appears on your monthly cell phone bill, according to Lurker. With the second method, the phone works like a credit card, with your bill being sent to you separately by the credit card company. Ultimately, you'll be able to download your spending information to software on your PC so you can monitor your expenses, Lurker said. A major limiting factor is that merchants must buy new point-of-sale terminals. However, that's starting to happen quickly in Japan, Lurker said. There are currently about 78,000 stores with terminals that support Osaifu-Keitai and about 25,000 that work with the credit card-like service, with DoCoMo projecting a rapid ramp-up, Lurker said. While credit card companies in the U.S. say they are working on supporting similar systems, NFC has had a few minor successes here. In particular, Exxon Mobil's Speedpass uses NFC technology -- you wave a "key" in front of a sensor on a gas pump, and the transaction is automatically charged to the credit or debit card you designate. Commanding PresenceOld way:You call, and if the person is not available, you leave a message.New way:Supercharged "presence" capabilities tell you where a person is, what time zone they're in, where they are going, when they'll arrive, the best way to get in touch with them, and much, much more. If you use instant messaging, you already know about "presence technology" -- it's the mechanism that tells you if somebody on your IM buddy list is online, offline, busy, or away from their desk. But soon phones and other mobile devices will have supercharged presence capabilities that not only provide details about your availability but also help make you and those you connect with far more efficient and productive. At a simple level, according to Chris Isaac, a partner in the PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory practice specializing in the wireless industry, you will be able to program presence capabilities so that the phone rings when specific people call while others are automatically routed to voice mail. These presence "rules" will be tied to your location, which will be pinpointed by GPS capabilities in your mobile device, and will change automatically as you arrive, leave, or are en route to specific locations. "The system will know, for example, if I'm traveling between my primary work location and a client," Isaac said. "I will be able to set it so that if some people call at certain times, they'll go to voice e-mail, but if my wife calls, she'll get put through." Microsoft, IBM, and others have quietly been hopping on the presence bandwagon. For instance, Microsoft put presence capabilities in its Live Communications Server 2005 to assist with collaboration on documents. IBM's Lotus Sametime is basically an enterprise-class IM system with extensive presence capabilities. Early examples of mobile presence-based services use your cell phone to pinpoint your location and send you relevant traffic information while you drive -- Google, for instance, is in beta testing with Google Mobile Maps, a system that provides real-time traffic information to your cell phone. But presence capabilities will go far beyond that, according to Scott Smith, a futurist for Social Technologies, a research and consulting firm in Washington, D.C. In particular, presence can be tied to other applications, he said. "Some companies are already using presence to know if somebody's free and what their conditions are -- can they receive a file (via e-mail), for instance," Smith said. "But presence applications open the door for all types of other things. If I'm a field service person traveling to a client site, what conditions can I expect when I arrive? The system will know where I'm going, what I'll be working on and can check to see if my car has the right parts in it." In the meantime, standards-setting bodies have been busy for the last several years developing common protocols for exchanging presence information. The completion of that process will greatly accelerate the development of applications that use presence. Internet Everywhere And Embedded In Everything -- At LastOld way:You travel around looking for a Wi-Fi hotspot or other way to connect your laptop to the Internet.New way:The Internet is everywhere and embedded in everything, from laptops and smartphones to intelligent alarm clocks and home infrastructure. Soon it won't be just desktop and laptop computers and mobile devices that will connect to the Internet. It also will be myriad other devices, ranging from video cameras to heating and cooling systems at home. And access will be available from virtually anywhere. Ubiquitous connectivity is already becoming a reality. Even medium-sized U.S. cities, for instance, have 3G data service offered by cellular operators, which provides typical speeds of about 500 Kbps. In addition to 3G, mobile broadband technologies such as mobile WiMAX will start being deployed widely in the next year. In other words, it won't be long before devices can be connected from virtually anywhere. The presence and location capabilities described above can also be integrated into these newly connected devices, according to our experts. For instance, say you are traveling and have an early flight. If that flight is delayed, the information could be sent directly to your Internet-enabled travel alarm clock, which could automatically reset itself so you can get a bit more shut-eye, PricewaterhouseCoopers' Isaac said. "Plus, the system could notify your assistant of the delay so that when they get to the office they're aware of the changes," he added. Embedding the Internet into all manner of items is not a new idea. Several years ago, appliance manufacturers were showing off Internet-connected refrigerators, microwave ovens, and the like. At the time, they were touting applications such as the ability for the refrigerator to sense when, say, you are almost out of milk. It could then, in that early vision, automatically order more milk for home delivery. However, things have changed since then, the experts agree. More useful applications are being developed. "Using the current 3G network, there are [potential] opportunities to interact with appliances in the home," said Karen Lurker, NTT DoCoMo's U.S. communications manager. "You could switch your burglar alarm on or off or have an alert sent to your handset if the burglar alarm goes off." A service called Roborior has already emerged in Japan; a robot armed with wireless cameras enables users to monitor their home while they are away. If it senses a break-in, Roborior calls homeowners' cell phones to alert them. In the future, Lurker said, systems are likely to emerge that can be set to automatically cool the house down (or warm it up, depending on the season) when you are a certain distance from home. Some vendors are starting to make home infrastructure applications available that work via text messaging, not only for heating and cooling systems but also for items such as burglar alarm systems. And at least one vendor offers control of ovens via cell phones so that you can start the cooking process before you get home. When these new applications will be widely available remains to be seen, our experts say. But all the pieces are falling into place. Ubiquitous MediaOld way:You pack your music and maybe even a video on your digital media player before you hit the road.New way:Download -- and upload -- all types of media on all types of mobile devices wherever you are. Music on dedicated mobile devices like iPods is old news, and television on your cell phone has been all the buzz for the last year. The real emerging trend is all types of media coming and going from phones and other mobile devices whenever and wherever you want. In the last year, the most talked-about type of mobile media has been television, but there's doubt about how successful TV delivered to cell phones will be. So far, it hasn't been a huge success in Japan, where these types of trends often get an early foothold. "Since April, all the major carriers in Japan have offered a handset model or two that can receive that kind of television, and they're selling pretty well," said NTT DoCoMo's Karen Lurker. However, Lurker said, studies have found that most of those who watch TV on cell phones do so in their home. "It's like when a kid is watching on a cell phone in his room because he doesn't like what his parents are watching on the family's television," Lurker said. The popularity of mobile TV may pick up dramatically, she said, when cellular operators start offering shorter shows that are formatted specifically for mobile phones. Lurker noted, too, that music downloading via the cellular network is starting to take off in both Japan and the U.S. In addition, several vendors are offering downloadable movies to PCs, a trend that surely will be extended directly to mobile devices in the near future. But Doug Neal, a research fellow for global systems integration firm Computer Sciences Corporation's Leading Edge Forum Executive Programme, said the real story may well be making media transmissions a two-way street. That means you could, for instance, send live videocasts of your vacation to family and friends. There is also an obvious business use for this sort of technology. "The use of two-way videophones will be important," Neal said. "If I'm doing business with you, I want to look you in the eye." This is another area in which NTT DoCoMo has taken a lead, and many hardware vendors have long been at work developing the chipsets and other technologies to make mobile videoconferencing common. When it comes to ubiquitous mobile entertainment, though, Smith, the futurist for Social Technologies, added a note of caution. While the technology is readily available, he said that cellular operators have to get more realistic about their media offerings, which he said are currently too expensive and too limited. "So far, the cost of getting on the Internet and downloading media [to mobile devices] -- well, it costs a lot and isn't that great an experience," Smith said. "The operators are going to have to give up some control, open it up and charge less." Today, he explained, cellular carriers want to sell you media but don't want you downloading media from sources they don't control -- but that will change, he added, when users reject the current offerings and as competitive technologies such as mobile WiMAX start becoming available. Easier, Better Health MonitoringOld way:The sick and elderly must find transportation to the nearest medical facility even for simple procedures.New way:Real-time remote monitoring of medical conditions saves time and money, and allows faster, more helpful emergency responses. Having your blood pressure checked takes just a minute or two. But if you are housebound, elderly or frail, getting to a place where your blood pressure can be taken, inserted into your medical records, and made part of a diagnosis can be a difficult task. The ubiquitous Internet, however, is improving that problem with basic measuring and monitoring equipment that is wireless-network-enabled. Instead of scheduling an appointment and finding transportation, patients can wear monitors that transmit their vital signs directly to their medical providers. That information can be automatically inserted in the patient's health records and reviewed by medical personnel. When emergencies occur, emergency response personnel can be given accurate information while they are en route to the patient that will help them respond better. Some vendors, such as Sprint, are already offering such capabilities, and they are likely to become more common as time passes. This has given rise to a relatively new type of health care called telemedicine. Many of the pieces have been in place for a while -- the American Telemedicine Association was founded in 1993. But the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the Internet is speeding development and, more important, adoption of telemedicine applications. According to the association's Web site, remote monitoring of blood pressure, blood glucose, and heart conditions is becoming more common. This sort of wireless transmission of health data is not limited to sending information to doctors. Increasingly, it will also help adults monitor their parents. "If you have a parent who needs attention but who lives somewhere else, you can know, 'Did Dad get up, has he taken his medication and, if he's sleeping, does he have a decent sleeping heart rate?'" Smith said. "There already are a couple of handsets that can deal with that type of information." Do You Know Where Your Kids (And Trucks) Are?Old way:Parents worry about where their children are and if they're safe. Trucking companies have the same worries about their drivers.New way:Real-time monitoring pinpoints location and even checks truck drivers for sobriety. Parents worry -- that's a given. But special cell phones can help. Last year, Japan's NTT DoCoMo released a cell phone for children that enables parents to track their whereabouts. "There are GPS capabilities built into the phone so the parent can find out at all times where the child is," said Karen Lurker, U.S. communications manager for DoCoMo. "If the child feels they're in danger, they can hit a button and a very loud alert is sounded. And if somebody tries to take the battery out, an alarm goes out to the parent. This phone is extremely popular." Another monitoring application using cellular data was created for a trucking company in Japan. A vendor developed a device that is similar to a breathalyzer that plugs into a phone with video capabilities, according to Lurker. "The (driver) takes the test over a live video connection with their headquarters," she said. "The video phone confirms the driver is the one doing the test, not somebody else." While the area of monitoring people in real time has a lot of promise, it's also easy to see the peril. "The ability to passively watch the movements of other people is interesting, but it's also dangerous," Smith of Social Technologies said. "The pushback comes when, say, you start watching where your spouse is or co-workers are. Obviously, there are privacy issues." Whatever the social implications, the ability to track the movements of others can save money and lower risks for enterprises, CSC research fellow Doug Neal said. It also can help consumers. For instance, an insurance carrier in England called More Th>n has a low-cost policy called DriveTime for drivers between the ages of 18 and 25 who promise not to drive between the hours of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. (when most accidents happen). The company installs a GPS in their cars, and charges a premium depending on how often they drive at night. "The presence of GPS changes the behavior of the driver," noted Neal.