Monday, December 18, 2006

The Mobile Phone

Over the years, the question "what is a mobile phone" has raised different responses. From a rich man's toy, it evolved into an essential device for making calls. Now it's a bit more confusing - "phone" doesn't seem right for a device that plays music and provides email access, and the British slang "mobile" seems a bit vague.

There's a revealing connection with the misnomer "Personal Computer". PCs are not personal - we share them at work, at home, and on our travels. They used to be personal, but then the internet happened, and with it the ability to log on to any website from any PC.

It’s far more appropriate to call mobile phones “Personal Computers”, because they are truly personal; we feel naked without them, wherever we are. And due to that same factor - the internet - they are becoming general purpose computers.

In the next couple of years the internet will take pride of place in the mobile phone. For example, imagine if your mobile phone was synchronized with your email account, so you could visit Hotmail from any PC and update your phone address book, view your missed calls, listen to voicemails, and phone someone up, as if from your phone. And it would work the other way round, too - you could read your Hotmail emails and instant messages from your phone. This would provide a unified communications service, with a single ‘inbox’ containing email, instant messages, SMS text messages and voicemails, accessible from anywhere.

How many of us have lost their phone address book along with their phone (or even when upgrading phones)? The unified communications service avoids all these issues by storing the details on a website and synchronizing with the phone.

And what if you could automatically access all your phone's photos and music via your email account? And if you uploaded more to your email account, you could view them too via your phone?

During its path to becoming a truly personal computer, the mobile phone will become a device for accessing your Hotmail or Skype or iTunes account while on the move.

From a business perspective, this creates a huge dilemma for the mobile industry. Does Vodafone become just a mobile ISP? Or does it build a website to compete with Hotmail, Gmail, Skype and iTunes all at once?

From a technical perspective, the vision highlights the absurdity of the .mobi domain and other attempts to create a 'walled garden' - they are betting against the internet. Once you allow phones to access the web, they are exposed to creativity that will overcome any attempt at central control. Small screen sizes will always be a limitation, but there’s a lot you can do given a limited real estate if you really try!

From the customer's perspective, the mobile internet will finally enable the new world promised (but not delivered) of 3G - 'killer' new products and services enabled via websites. Many of these take advantage of physical proximity – see below for some ideas - but all of them rely on the web.

For example, what if your phone had swipe-card functionality? This would enable you to make simple purchases without carrying your wallet around. And it would be internet-based – during the swipe, the phone would fetch a web page that asked for authentication and confirmed details of the transaction. Rather than typing a website into the address bar, the browser is activated by physical proximity. Creative informative and transactional uses will result from following web standards.

The personal nature of the phone could also be used to secure web transactions. Banks are introducing two-factor authentication to improve security, which augments the traditional password with a read-out from a physical device. Why should the phone not play this role?

Internet access will also be key to finally introducing mapping services on your phone. Why not use Google Earth on your phone? This would allow you to easily find directions, locate the nearest Chinese restaurant, or even receive warnings when your children wander.

And finally, one of the major gripes of mobile phones is their high international charges. The mobile internet would eliminate this, as there is no geography on the internet. All calls are the price of local calls.

The mobile phone is turning into the truly personal computer, and mobile web access will enable its functionality, from phone calls to emails to swipe card.

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