Category Archives: mobile

When mobile phones become networked sensors

The Coming World of Mobile Sensors does a great job illustrating how mobile phones will impact our future. We’ll soon think of mobile phones not only as communication devices but also as sensors. This talk on Sensor Networks at the Lift conference first changed the way I think of mobile phones back in February 2007.

Imagine mobile phones as sensors constantly recording your geo-location, speed, altitude, temperature, nodes in proximity etc. Let’s ignore privacy concerns for a second. The data could be anonymized for example.

Data for personal use only

Even if the data is not shared with other devices some interesting applications are possible, e.g.

  • Personal diary of locations – searchable
  • Tracking of commute time – recommendations for best commute time
  • Weather history – searchable
  • Live blog geo-tagged photos as you take them

Data shared with nearby nodes

Now let’s allow the mobile devices to communicate with nodes in their proximity:

  • Personal diary is now also aware of who you were with at any given moment
  • People you keep running into but haven’t met can be introduced automatically

A German startup called aka-aki built a social network on top these two ideas. Your Bluetooth enabled phone tracks other phones in proximity. It basically keeps a trail of who you cross throughout the day. Another way to meet interesting people. Love it!

Data shared between all nodes – centrally aggregated

The real power of mobile sensors emerges when they’re networked together and the nodes have access to all the data (e.g. aggregated centrally). This totally changes the applications that are possible:

  • Real time traffic for your commute (I’ve written about this before)
  • Real-time weather in all locations as well as weather forecasts
  • Heat maps of sensor density indicating events

What other applications can you dream up?

Nokia acquisitions: Navteq, Plazes and Symbian

Nokia has announced three interesting acquisitions in the last 9 months:

Navteq is the leading provider of Maps data for GPS, mobile devices and Internet. This acquisition will allow Nokia to provide improved location-based services and at the same time making it harder for competitors to get this data. Smart move! It looks like the acquisition hasn’t closed yet and is still undergoing regulatory approval.

I first heard of Plazes back in June 2006 from Laurent Haug. The basic idea at the time was to have members report their location and record their IP address (or subnet). The system would then assume that any visitor with a similar IP is in the same location. They extended this to mobile phones and cell towers if I remember correctly. A dedicated community emerged on Plazes (basically a social network around places). I didn’t end up using the service on a regular basis after trying it out. It looks like the product has come a long way since then and is now more centered around organizing social activities (with a corresponding place and time).

These two companies combined are a great foundation for location based services and applications! However turning acquisitions into new and exciting products is always a huge challenge. It’s been too quiet around Google and Dodgeball or GrandCentral for example.

The latest announcement is the acquisition of the remaining shares of Symbian to create the Symbian foundation [press release] and partially open source the OS. An interesting move given Google’s Android project and other closed source OS for mobile devices. It looks like Nokia wants to ensure that Symbian survives as an independent OS.

Nokia’s shares have been on a downward trend for a while now. I hope these acquisitons will start the turnaround.

Disclaimer: I have owned several Nokia phones and the brand has always kept a special spot in my heart. I do not own a Nokia phone (or shares) right now. And I’m eyeing an iPhone.

Traffic-based driving directions – Microsoft’s clearflow

Mashable reports that Microsoft is introducing a new technology called ‘clearflow’ that calculates driving directions based on current traffic conditions. I will have to try it during rush hour.

They’re using GPS devices to enhance their data sources:

“collecting trip data from…employees who volunteered to carry G.P.S. units in their cars.”

I suggested using mobile phones not too long ago. More sensors equals more accurate data.

Know your audience – and spell check your creative!

I recently received a newsletter from AT&T thanking me for choosing AT&T and stressing how lucky they are to have me as a customer. This was immediately followed by an invitation to visit a store! No special offer, reward or anything. But that’s not the point here.

The headline reads “lucky. glücklich. chanceaux.”.

Congratulations on being international! The French translation is obviously wrong and should be “chanceux” unfortunately. I’m the first one to admit that foreign languages are tricky but screwing up a one word translation takes some skills.

Why German and French? What about Spanish and Chinese?

What I don’t get is why they picked German and French. This would make perfect sense in Switzerland but not in the US. Spanish and Chinese would have been more powerful in addressing important local populations. Note: The newsletter closes in Spanish with “Muy afortunado!”.

Further reading: I wrote about another AT&T marketing blunder not too long ago.

Get to work faster with more accurate traffic reports

I spend more than 2 hours a day commuting to work. Accurate traffic conditions and avoiding the worst delays and accidents are key. I’m using 511.org and Yahoo! and Google Maps to get up to date information on traffic. Note: Why don’t the maps services offer an easy way to look at your commute every day?

I’m convinced that we can improve on the quality of the traffic reports. And I found the ideal data source: The mobile phone providers!

More sensors = better data

Think of a mobile phone as a sensor. Thousands of cars are using a given section of the freeway at the same time. The mobile phones in the cars can be tracked by the carriers. Plotting the movements on a map will result in the most accurate and up-to-date traffic conditions. We could have the average speed for any given quarter mile in real time!

Red/yellow/green – what’s the trend though?

Most traffic services currently use green/yellow/red to indicate the speed of the traffic. This is insufficient. Will yellow turn into red or green? The time dimension is lacking here. A simple arrow indicating the trend for the last 10 minutes would help. E.g. It’s yellow right now and has been getting slower in the last 10 minutes.

Speed graphs including historical information

This could be further enhanced by adding a graph for the speed where the x-axis represents the last 30-60 minutes or so. This could even be a 3D graph adding the data for the last 7 days.

Privacy

The privacy of the mobile users has to be protected obviously. No tracking of individuals is allowed. Only the aggregate information is to be used.

Cell Phones Going Mobile

I’ve seen a trend here in the U.S. (a slow evolution, can’t tell when it started): More and more people start calling ‘cell phones’ ‘mobile phones’. Is this the States catching up with the rest of the world? ;) Or is this limited to the Silicon Valley?

In related news: I accessed Yahoo! Mail on my RAZR for the first time (actually twice this weekend). I was stuck somewhere and had to look up some information. Useful although a little slow (I was using the browser). We still have a long way to go with the mobile phones. I know that mobile applications are going to be big (ask the kids) but don’t quite get it yet myself…

It is still early days for mobile applications. And the market is very complicated with the variety of phones and providers. I hope Yahoo! keeps investing in this field even if the returns are small right now. It will be really hard to enter the market later.

Cingular, Please Fix Your Website

While looking around for a new mobile phone I was stranded on a blank page on www.cingular.com. The source looked like this:

<!– Vignette V7 Hybrid V6 Tue Aug 01 03:27:09 2006 –>

<form name=”frmCingIdx” action=”/index_b2b_orange” method=”post”>
<input type=”hidden” name=”ClientIP” value=”xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx” />
</form>
<script>
document.frmCingIdx.ClientIP.value = “xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx”;
document.frmCingIdx.submit();
</script>

I can’t reproduce this anymore. Note: The xxx.xxx was my real IP.

Buying A New Mobile Phone

My Nokia 6100 died today. It’s been through a lot in the few years that I owned it. I’m really sad to see it go as it served me well.

Now the big problem is what kind of phone to get. In principle I only use it to make phone calls, send SMS and write stuff down in the calendar. But I could see myself using a camera and maybe even surf the web or read email (you know, like the kids today).

It must be small and light with decent battery life. At least tri-band. Bluetooth would be cool in case I get a new computer and want to hook it up. IrDA for backwards compatibilty. EVDO? Not necessarily. And I don’t really like flip phones (too fat, antenna sticking out).

As I’m with Cingular, my choice is limited to this. I hear people raving about the RAZR, Q, Sidekick 3 and Treo 650 but I’m not really convinced of any of these. So here is my short list based on what’s available online at Cingular.

- Nokia 6061: Only dual band, flip phone
- Nokia 6102i: 850/1800/1900 MHz (900 is missing), IrDA, EDGE, Bluetooth, Yahoo! IM, 128 x 160 Pixels
- Sony Ericsson Z525a: Quad band, Bluetooth, IrDA, Yahoo! IM, antenna is not sticking out, 128 x 160 Pixels
- RAZR V3: Quad band, Bluetooth, antenna is not sticking out, 176 x 220 Pixels

Heading over to Yahoo! Tech to see what others are saying about these phones. Maybe Cingular has more at their stores?