Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On the ground: GSM world coverage

I found this nice little map (PDF link) a while back from GSM Association, which shows GSM coverage on the entire planet. It's very nice looking, and really goes to show that the world runs on GSM (or 76.2% of the world to be precise). We can clearly see which areas are covered, and as far as developed countries go, it's almost everywhere.

The map shows numbers as well, like over 2 billion GSM users, 38% of them being in Asia / Pacific. It also shows how fast people are getting phones. One thing that would be nice is if they showed frequencies. Right now there are 4 popular frequencies (850, 900, 1800, 1900 MHz), with a couple more being used in odd places like 450 MHz. Most phones sold are either dual-band or tri-band, but at least if you get a quad-band GSM phone, you can clearly see why they call it a "World" phone.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Trends: Videotones

Five years ago ringtones were something most people didn't know about, now they are a billion dollar industry. Millions of people buy and download ringtones featuring their favorite artists, and providers are hitting the jackpot selling them. They are mostly bought by young people, although a recent survey shows women buy more ringtones than men.

Now however, that's all about to change. Introducing: videotones! Nokia will release videotones in India, which are simply music videos that will play when your phone rings. How successful will this be? Well seeing how other cell phone related businesses have been successful, and seeing how far companies will go to invent new products that will bring more money, it's a good bet that they will sell, at least for certain people.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Trends: Cell phones changing China

Cell phones are changing the world in many countries, and in more than one way. From helping developing countries like those in Africa, to helping people to speak up and spread the truth against government lies in China. It's well known China is a repressive country, where facts are what the government decide they are, and news sites can only report what is permitted. Even the Internet has the famous Great Firewall of China. But people found cell phones can be used everywhere to contact others and spread information. During the SARS crisis, cell phones played an important role in China to get the word out when the government was denying everything. Both with calls and SMS messages, China is now the number one country to use cell phones to spread information.

There are over 380 million cell phones in China. A recent survey indicated that over 250 millions would be added within 5 years. Most buyers will be new users, and some fashionable owners changing their current ones. There's more than 5 million new phones sold every month, and the leading vendor is Nokia, whose sales boomed 77% since the start of the year, but China also has some companies exporting phones.

Trends: SMS games getting big prizes

Hey it's hardly news that SMS is a hugely popular activity, and even SMS games are something that's very attractive in many countries, but we're now seeing big prizes attached to these games. Last month, New Zealand hosted Push The Button, which was a Battleship game played over SMS messages. More than 115,000 people participated, sending 5.4 million short messages. There were over $150,000 in prizes and the ultimate winner would be able to press the button to sink an old navy ship on November 13. This video shows the spectacular sinking.

In South Africa, Yebo Millionaires is a chance to win up to R1 million and other prizes including cars, in their SMS game. The show is shown every Tuesday night, and the 16 million Vodacom customers can then send a sequence of letters by SMS to get a chance to win prizes. On November 1st, 5 winners received R20,000 each. And those are just small examples of what's going on in the SMS gaming world. Several games and quizes are available to those who can find them.

Friday, November 25, 2005

On the ground: ESPN phone launched

So it's now been announced that the ESPN phone is now for sale online. And what a bad way to do it. As far as I can see, that phone is basically a Sanyo MM-9000 running on the Sprint network, that comes with an ESPN theme and a Java applet that connects to the ESPN site and get various ESPN exclusive content. Big deal. Basically they want people to buy a phone at a premium price, pay more every month, and be locked in their service, just for the privilege of having access to their content.

Here's my view on this. That company has content, and they need consumers to go buy that content. They should do whatever their users want so that we decide to go get their content, not the other way around. This increasing method of trying to do everything they can to restrict, bundle, reinvent the wheel and charge more money is getting very annoying in the cell phone business. Rather than create a whole phone, cell phone service and application, restricting that content to people who gets their whole package, they should offer the service to everyone on a mobile Internet site. If they want to offer enhanced things that can't be done on the mobile Internet, and really really wanted to make an application, then how about giving that Java applet for free and just charging for the actual content. My real problem with this is how they are portraying a simple theme and Java applet as a whole phone and cell phone service.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Trends: Tiny computer or big phone?

The road to convergence is something I love to talk about. It's the meeting of several devices into one. There are many ways to reach convergence, and since it's the future, people try to convert every type of device into a do-all one. A smart phone nowadays is a combination of a phone, PDA, camera, music player and multimedia portable device. Historically, we've seen 2 trends in making smart phones. First, companies take a phone and add PDA features, to make a smart phone, such as this Nokia 6682 one. Others take a PDA, and add phone features to it, such as what Palm did with this Treo 650.

One other conversion being done a lot less is taking a laptop and shrinking it into an acceptable format to fit into a pocket, the ideal smart phone size. Some recent ones include the OQO and this newly released Flybook micro-laptop. Generally, they are built on PC hardware and are able to run normal PC applications such as Windows XP. This Flybook has 1GHz processor, 512 Megs of RAM and a 80 Gigs hard disk.

The problems with all these tiny computers is the tiny keyboard, and battery life. To run normal PC applications you can't rely on just a touch screen or a keypad, so you need to have a full keyboard, and the keys have to be tiny. Also, since a PC takes a lot of power, and you don't have the space to put a big battery in the device, the battery life is going to be aweful, with barely 1 or 2 hours of usage. The verdict on tiny computers for now is very poor, however the good news is that they are trying, and when we reach our mythical dream device, able to do everything, we'll have learnt a lot on the way there.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Article: Mobile Internet explained

There is a lot more than meets the eye in the two words "mobile Internet". The fact is that there are several levels of connectivity in mobile devices, and the level you have will decide what applications you can use, and what Internet services you can connect to. Generally speaking, there are 4 different levels, and the level of access you have depends on what your provider offers, which services you subscribed to, what your phone supports and how your phone is configured.

First, the most basic level would be being able to send SMS and MMS messages, and perhaps e-mails. Basically any cell phone today will be able to send and receive SMS messages, and if your cell phone has a camera you'll be able to do MMS. You may also be able to send e-mail messages, perhaps by sending a message to a specific SMS address called an e-mail gateway. These services are usually provided for free, with a per-use fee. With this limited access you won't be able to even start the built in browser, even less use a network application.

The second level would be the ability to browse WAP pages (text and image sites aimed at mobile devices) to connect to your provider and buy games and ringtones. Starting at this level, providers will start displaying the famous key words "mobile Internet" everywhere, with little details on what that means exactly. The most basic features of that key phrase would be to have a WAP browser, being able to connect to your provider's mobile portal, and that's about it. The key here is that providers want to sell you ringtones, games, wallpapers, screensavers, and everything they can possibly can. Of course if you were careful, you bought a device that allows you to upload your own files with a USB cable or bluetooth, so you don't need that crap. Unfortunatly, for many providers, "mobile Internet" stops there, unless you sell out cash. And even for this premium service of being able to buy more stuff from them, they will charge you an extra monthly fee, and you won't be able to access any real web page or use network applications.

The next level is where it starts being interesting. If you have access to the actual Internet, and not just the sub-set of WAP pages your provider decided, then you can browse any web site that has set a WAP portal. Even better, if your device is powerful enough, such as a smart phone, you can use a real mobile web browser to replace the built in WAP browser, such as mobile Internet Explorer or Opera. Even cell phones with Java support can use Java based browsers like Netfront or Opera Mini. This means you can also send and receive e-mail, and get any web based service that the Internet offers. Usually to have access to this kind of connectivity, you will need to pay a monthly fee, and you'll have a set download size limit that you need to be careful about. Be aware also that there can be limitations with this service, such as your provider blocking certain ports so that you can't use IM (instant messaging), chat or map programs, and also many will block streaming of audio and video content. This is where people may see that they are able to browse the web, but wonder why applications they download don't work, because they require a full Internet access, such as accessing a different port.

The last and best level of connectivity for a mobile device is really having full access to the Internet. This means not having to go through your provider's proxy server, not having any filtering applied and being able to use all protocols. This full access is what enables you to not only browse all web sites, but also use some popular programs such as Google Local for maps and directions, and Agile Messenger for IM. The level of access you have is dictated by your provider, and that's why there is more to ask than simply if your particular phone supports "mobile Internet".

Now that we definied the levels of access possible, let's see what can block you from having the prefered, full access. There are two components that come into play: your provider and your device. Your provider is the one that has the final word, and who decides what you can access. First of all you need what's called a data plan, which is something every provider will offer. There are usually several data plans offering different amounts of download sizes. The price will obviously vary a lot with the various sizes, but one important thing to note is some providers will offer unlimited plans, which may be a lot more cost effective for heavy users than having to pay extra for several MBytes of data, since some applications require a lot of bandwidth. Note that for prepaid it can vary: some providers will require that users subscribe to a data plan, while others will let all prepaid users have access to all their services, and only charge them on a download usage. Lastly, almost all providers will block all data access by default on new users, and you need to simply call in to have the data block removed. It's a way to prevent users from accidently using data services without knowing about the extra costs.

For the device itself, once you have your necessary access from your provider, you need to configure the phone to use it. There are 2 types of settings for network access on most phones: network permissions and access point configuration. A network permission is simply a setting you set for each application that say if it's allowed or not to use the network. It will usually ask you once you start the application, but if not you can change it by going into your application manager. This is one common cause of problems when an application refuses to connect when you know other applications are working, simply because the permission is denied. The access points configuration is a phone-wide setting that tell the phone which servers to use and can be more tricky to setup. This will usually come configured when you buy the phone from your provider. If it didn't, or if you bought the phone elsewhere, you need to call them up and ask for the settings and configure them yourself. Some modern phones will also accept special smart messages that your provider can send to configure your phone remotely. There's also often several access points configured in the phone, for different uses, and finding the right one to use is simply a matter of trying them. Lastly the names of those access points don't necessarily mean anything. For example, an access point called internet.com has no relation to the web address of the same name, since it uses a different naming scheme.

There's no real way to know what kind of access you have other than trying. Problems with network related issues is one of most common topic on forums, such as having an application being able to access the network and another not, or not being able to access some features or sending e-mails. Part of it is a configuration problem, part is providers doing some filtering, and part of it is a misunderstanding between being able to browse a WAP site not necessarily meaning that you will be able to run a full Internet application like Google Local.

On the ground: Virtual providers by the dozen!

I'm not sure how profitable it is. I'm not even sure how viable it is in the long term. But the world of virtual providers is getting crowded! Yesterday, Circle K announced they will offer cell phones at 2100 stores. These are convenience stores owned by Alimentation Couche-Tard inc. Basically they will offer prepaid phones with their own brand, provided by a company named Ztar. This company also announced earlier that they will make phones branded for 7-Eleven which will be available in 5300 stores.

Basically, a virtual provider is a company that uses a real provider's network to provide a cell phone service. For example, both of these are going to use Cingular's network. This means the coverage will be the same as what Cingular offers, and the features available to them are what Cingular has. The interesting part for the users is that these companies try to offer lower prices, since they have a lower cost from not having to maintain an actual network, and since they only offer prepaid services they don't really cut into the real providers profits. The problem is that consumers need a service that is there for the long term, especially for their phone services. Virgin Mobile started doing just that in Singapore in 2002. It took less than a year for them to close shop. Now they started the same service in Canada. Only time will tell which of these will remain, and which will go under.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Article: Mobile podcasts

Podcasts. Maybe you know what they are, it's a technology becoming more popular every day. A Podcast is simply an audio show posted on the Internet for people to download. It's usually mainly talk, with some music, and you use an application that can read feeds of podcasts you subscribe to, and every time a new episode of your subscribed feeds gets released, the program downloads them automatically, and if you have a mobile mp3 player, it can upload to it. There are currently several thousand podcasts available, on all possible subjects, ranging from a one person amateur show down in a basement, to professional productions.

The most popular application to find and download podcasts is iTunes. It's easy to use, and virtually all the podcasts are easily available in the podcasts tab. You can search for and subscribe to the podcasts you want, and get the latest episodes delivered to you automatically. If you have an iPod or one of the iTunes phones, it can upload the files directly so you can listen to the podcasts on the road. If you have a smart phone and you can upload MP3 files to it, then you can do it manually since almost all podcasts are available in MP3 format. The shows dealing with mobile technologies is what we'll cover right now, including some of the most popular ones, so here are my favorite podcasts.

One show that has been going on for a while is This Week in Tech. It's from Leo Laporte and is a weekly chat between him and guests about technology. It's been in the top 20 for a long time and is a very professional show, up to date on topics they cover.

Another popular show is the Engadget weekly podcast. They cover gadgets, including cell phones and all things mobile, and is one of the best places to get news on the latest gadgets to be released.

A somewhat different podcast, but still about technology, is IT Conversations. This podcast features the popular technology conferences, and broadcast the keynotes from various speakers from these conferences. They publish a few of them every week, and you can get a whole conference over a period of 6 months.

NerdTV is one podcast that is done by an actual TV station, PBS. It's also a video podcast, since it's a TV show, but it's also available as a MP3 download. The show features one guest per show, usually people who have been in the technology industry for a long time.

A specific topic, security, is covered in great depth in the Security Now! podcast, also from Leo Laporte. It's another of my favorite shows, and provides real information on how to secure yourself, both wirelessly and on the Internet.

There's also a new service aimed to provide a network of podcasts directly to phones, so you don't have to transfer them, called Mobile Podcast Network. This is a software program you can download from their web site, and run on your phone. From the program, you connect to their directory of podcasts and can stream or download any podcast directly to the phone. You can also add more podcasts to the directory.

Lastly, there are some podcasts dedicated to mobile devices, but they are less known than the ones above. These include the N-Gage arena podcast, the Grassnet Tech Talk and the TPN Mobile Media show. And one I actually found interesting was episode 8 of Josh in Japan which is just about cell phones in Japan. All these podcasts are available on iTunes, or you can subscribe using your favorite RSS application from their web sites.

Monday, November 21, 2005

On the ground: More iTunes phones

So the ROKR E1, the first phone from Motorola to have iTunes built in, has been a big let down. It's been in the news a lot, from problems with the phone, the fact that iTunes is limited to 100 songs, and other issues. But now it looks like Motorola is doing all it can to not let the experience be a failure. Reports indicate that a new ROKR will come in 2006 and it will fix most of the issues people had with the original one. It will allow up to 1000 songs, which is the big plus, and it will feature a better camera and a standard headphone jack. The RAZR will also come with iTunes in the V3i model.

So far Apple, which really owns the biggest share of the legal music download market, has stuck with Motorola to bring iTunes to the phones. There is however room for improvement. Being able to transfer music from your PC to your phone isn't new, at least unless you have a crippled phone, and all iTunes does in this case is automate the process, since you don't have to first convert the songs to MP3. What would be new would be a way to buy from the iTunes music store directly from the phone. Earlier this month, Sprint launched the first music store that could really be done entirely on the phone. But it has problems too, like high costs, up to $2.50 for a song.

One day everything will be compatible, from the various computer based Internet music stores, to the various music players, all phone models, and phone based stores. But it's going to be a while, and it's mainly the various companies that are the biggest problem, and also all the DRM technologies they put in their services. For now, while they don't like to admit it, the fact remains that the biggest market share as far as mobile music is concerned, is downloaded MP3 files, from various less than ideal sources.

On the ground: Samsung wireless camera

It seems after cell phones massively went into camera territory, Samsung is bringing the camera into phone terrority by adding multimedia features, a large screen, wireless and download capabilities to their latest announced digital cameras. If it's successful you can be sure other manufacturers will follow.

A camera with video download features is one thing, but one with a MP3 player and mobile TV? Samsung really seems to be trying everything they can possibly think of, and I'm not sure how well they will be able to sell these things. Maybe one day phones and cameras will be able to meet at the middle of the convergence tree.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Trends: Phones for kids

The Washington Post did a study that show lots of kids use cell phones. 14% of 10-11 years old up to 82% at 18. Providers have been promoting cell phones to kids for a while now, but there's always been an issue with parental controls, and the idea of young kids being able to make calls to anywhere. A new phone called the Firefly Phone solves that problem and has been for sale in Canada for a few months. Cingular will soon introduce it in the US, aimed directly at 12 and under.

The basic idea is that the phone is small, easy to use, has only a few buttons, and is locked down by parents. The parents set a few numbers in the phone and the kid can only call those numbers. On prepaid, the kid can't go over the amount of minutes available. I guess it can be a useful emergency device for young kids, but it's unlikely that anyone who meets people in their school who have real cell phones will be satisfied with this. NTT DoCoMo seems to be going the other way using real phones with kids features.

On the ground: $100 laptop for the developing world

A while ago, the MIT introduced a concept to build a $100 laptop which could be distributed to millions of children in developing nations. The aim of the project is to allow kids that could normally not afford a laptop to get one and use in their country.

The laptop was introduced today at the UN, and features a 500MHz processor, networking capabilities, and can be hand cranked to restore battery power, in the case there is no available electricity.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Trends: Survey finds sloppy smart phone users

According to the Mobile Usage Survey, 1 out of 3 mobile computer and smart phone users do not use a password or PIN code to protect their devices. Yet many of these store important information on them, including passwords and other corporate information. The survey also reported that 22% of the interviewees said they lost their device in the past.

All mobile devices that allow you to put important information also have some protection built in. Smart phones often offer a wallet application, that you should protect with a PIN code. While emails and files are often left unprotected on the phone, you can often set a password on the file itself, or set the device to ask for the PIN on bootup.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Article: Memory, RAM, ROM, flash

The amount of memory a phone has can actually result in multiple, different answers, and to make things harder a lot of web sites confuse the different types. In general, these are the types of memory a phone can have:

* ROM: This is non writable memory, containing the basic operating system of the phone. When you do a hard reset and format the memory of the phone, what's on the ROM is what stays and why your phone can always be reset to factory settings. The amount of ROM a phone has is irrelevant since you can't add things to it.

* Flash / internal memory: The amount of internal memory, or flash memory, is the space inside the phone where programs reside and where you can store messages, contacts and files. It's usually the number you see when you look at a phone description and it says, for example, that the Nokia 6620 has 12 Megs of memory. Note that if you are trying to save data such as a game on your phone and your phone complains about memory issues, this is probably what it needs.

* RAM: This is the temporary memory used to run programs. It must not be confused with the flash, since it can't be used to store data. The memory is cleaned every time the phone is turned off. This is very rarely written in descriptions, but it's very important since it dictates how many programs you can run at once. Some tools can tell you the number, such as FExplorer for S60 phones. The 6620 has 26 Megs. Note that when trying to run a program, if it complains of memory issues, this is what it needs.

* External memory: This is simply the external flash memory cards that can be added to the phone. Many phones have extension slots now, but you need to be aware of the maximum size they support (128 Megs, 512 Megs, 1 Gig and so on), and also the type (MMC, RS MMC, MiniSD, and so on). There are not a lot of differences between the various types other than physical size and power consumption. Some recent models also introduced some DRM (copy protection) capacities.

When shopping for a phone, especially a smart phone, it's important to have all the numbers. For example a Nokia 6682 has less RAM than a 6620, and will have more problems running multiple applications. Finally one last type of memory you may encounter is SIM memory for GSM phones. This is simply a very tiny amount of memory on your SIM card to store contacts and messages. The only benefit is that it stays with your SIM instead of in the phone.

Trends: So I like Star Trek

I've watched all the Star Trek episodes, from the Original Series, The Next Generation, Voyager, DS9 and even some Enterprise episodes. Well not all the Enterprise episodes, but you know. One fact many people are realizing more and more is that the world we live in today, as far as technology goes, looks a lot like what they predicted in Star Trek. Many devices have even been inspired by the TV show.

People have been noticing before that our PDAs look a lot like the tricorders. Cell phones look like the early communicators. And LCD displays look like the Enterprise display panels. As for the transporter, well that's not here yet. But still there are a lot of similarities, and it's not a coincidence. This weekend there was a show on Discovery Channel called How William Shatner Changed The World where we learned a lot of engineers that developed these devices were actually Star Trek fans. So when a concept worked on the show, it made sense to try and create it. For people still living in the Star Trek universe, they can have a true communicator, but they'll have to wait a bit since it's been delayed.

I think the concept of device convergence as we know it now with smart phones is not a new concept at all. It's just that now the technology is here to make it happen. Because back in the 60s there were actors playing explorers in out of space, carrying a device very much like that, that someone envisioned almost 50 years before it would become reality, with simply another name.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Article: Wireless security

This article isn't strictly on mobile phones, but it's on wireless security, which applies to wireless routers, notebooks, PDAs and even upcoming wifi smart phones. The reason for it is not to explain the details of it, just to raise awareness to the reason why security is important. For a very good technical security discussion I suggest listening to recent episodes of the Security Now! podcast. There's also other long papers and articles on the subject such as this one at ArsTechnica. I won't attempt to duplicate their effort, but just to point out the important things that end users need to worry about when using wireless technologies.

There are 2 types of security issues when using a wireless network. First is unauthorized use, and the second is data collection, usually done with packet sniffing. The first thing you need to do when dealing with wireless access is to prevent unauthorized devices from connecting. Most routers can be configured to have MAC Address Filtering. This is a very simple list of addresses of devices that are allowed to connect. All you have to do is go in the properties of every computer or device to find their MAC address (their unique network interface address) and input them on that list. Be aware however that this will just prevent casual unauthorized access, such as someone connecting to a nearby access point by mistake. Hackers can spoof an address and bypass that easily.

The second item to enable on any wireless network is encryption. Now there are 2 types of encryption protocols available on any recent device: WEP and WPA. WEP is the original protocol and is badly written. It's very easy to crack the code of a WEP encryption and you should avoid it unless it's your only choice. WPA is a very strong encryption, and it's what you should use if available. Simply by turning on WPA encryption, and selecting a strong passphrase that you input in your router and all devices you want to connect, you are then safe from any kind of attack. The good passphrase is however the key, because selecting WPA and leaving the default passphrase or picking a simple phrase composed of english words will not do you any good.

It's estimated that over 35% of wireless networks are completly open and unsecured. The worse part is that many of the things you do, such as getting emails or sending passwords to any unprotected web page, is done in the clear. So when using wireless, either as a simple home network or using a mobile device at a hotspot, the one thing you need to be careful about is to use WPA encryption, or at least WEP if WPA is not available, to protect yourself. Other solutions include VPNs, but that's a whole other subject.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Article: Flash for mobiles

Cell phone applications are usually done either in Java, BREW, or in the case of smart phones, in the native language of the phone such as Symbian or Windows Mobile. Recently however, there's a new player that got interested in entering the market: Flash.

Flash is a popular language from Macromedia used mainly to make interactive web sites. You may recall web sites you visited that feature games or other interactive animations, and those usually use Flash. Now enters Flash Lite, the mobile version of the player, able to play flash movies and applications. Flash Lite is a Java player that supports a subset of the standard Flash language, and it includes a development kit for developers. It's not ready for end users yet but you can buy the mobile player for $10. The development kit intended for developers is free.

There's already some applications available such as the ones at the Flash Lite Exchange contest. The main advantage of Flash Lite over using Java is the Flash language, which makes development of interactive and animated movies easy, and the resulting file is pretty small. While this language is only starting to appear in the west, in Japan it's already part of DoCoMo's i-mode experience, and comes on several devices.

It's hard to say if Flash Lite will become a popular language. One thing that needs to happen for that is the player must become free, and it needs to come pre-installed on many phones, or at least be downloadable easily from the phone. Also the player currently only supports playing Flash movies on the device, not from the mobile web browser. If Macromedia does everything right, it may be a success, like it was for the web.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Trends: Mobile devices for models

I listened to this week's NerdTV podcast about mobile phones. NerdTV is a show from PBS where Robert X. Cringely interviews a technology person for an hour. This week they interviewed Anina. She is a model in Europe, and she discovered the world of mobile phone, how it would completely revolutionize her day to day live, and she became a geek and even a developer of mobile web pages. She gives very interesting examples of how she introduced the mobile technologies found on smart phones such as SMS and mobile web blogging to other models and how it helped them, as well as the various issues encountered by a very mobile person who travels the world to very remote locations all the time.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Trends: Sports to be the driving force behind cell phones

One little known fact is that porn is in large part responsible for broadband Internet access having reached so many homes in only a few years. For good or for bad, that's the number one content that broadband users get. This industry however has stayed away for the most part from both cell phones and mobile devices in general. The main reason seems to be that these devices are very actively pushed to kids. Now it seems it's another driving force that will push cell phones in the end of many users: Sports.

It would appear cell phones are becoming sports central for many people. From SMS based game results, to mobile web based information, and streaming video with live game footage, the features for sport fans are endless. For example ESPN reached agreements with many companies to provide information and live feeds to cell phones. But information is not all that's available. There are sport games from various companies, such as Madden for mobiles from EA Sports.

Providers are also betting on sports being a driving force behind cell phone purchases. Rumors in industry insiders hint that the providers are betting big on the FIFA World Cup in Europe to attract users to higher end cell phones able to display streaming video, and to their high speed networks. Then there's also all the phone branding issues that play in. There's nothing like having a phone with a face plate featuring your favorite sport player.

Article: Branded phones and unlocking

Cell phones are usually bought from the provider you're going to use. When you go to a store, you're going to buy a Sprint phone, a Fido phone or a Vodafone phone. In reality, the providers have nothing to do with the actual phone creation. They make deals with manufacturers like Nokia, Motorola and Samsung to provide them with phones that are branded for them. A branded phone will usually have the logo of the provider on the phone and the startup screen, but it could also include a customized firmware, some additional applications, some applications removed, a SIM lock, and some crippled features.

The main problem with branded phones is the crippled features. For example, a branded phone will only work on that provider's network. Also, the provider will want you to only use its service for downloads and any other use you may make of the phone. Crippling can be as simple as disabling an IM or web client on the phone since the network doesn't support that feature, but it can also be much more severe such as disabling bluetooth for file transfers between your phone and your computer, to try and force you to use their expensive store for ringtones, games, music and wallpapers. Some phones will still allow you to transfer with a data cable, assuming you have one. Some providers will also allow you to enable some disabled features such as web access if you call and complain.

The other problem is the locking part, also refered to as SIM lock, which prevents you from using the phone with another provider. The solution to this is called unlocking. You can either buy an unbranded phone that is already unlocked, and will work on any network, or you can take a branded phone and unlock it to access disabled features or change provider. Unlocking can be tricky, and you should be aware that it will likely disable any warranty your provider is giving you, and an unlocked phone can be damaged if you don't know what you're doing. Fortunatly there are simple solutions, such as buying an unlocked phone on eBay. There are also companies you can send your phone to that will unlock it for a fee.

To unlock the phone yourself you will need to know the manufacturer and model, and then search on the web for the proper codes to input to unlock it. Be careful however since some models have multiple codes, depending on the firmware version, so you'll need to find that out too. Note that not all phones can be unlocked with a code, and some phones allow you a certain number of attempts before locking you out. You may also need your IMEI number to find the proper code. Some codes will also restore disabled features such as the AppLoader on Motorola phones.

Crippled features is not something we think of when we shop for a new phone, or something we expect when we receive a phone that advertises bluetooth only to find it disabled. The fact is providers make most of their money with fun stuff like ringtones and games, when in fact if you have a data cable or a bluetooth dongle you can transfer your own files to the phone for free. My dream of the perfect smart phone would be a totally unlocked phone, and there are phones out there that come with no disabled features, so it's important to check on that if you want to use the phone to its full potential.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Trends: VoIP calls using wifi

This is really a big plus for cell phone users. A phone that supports both the cell network and wifi, allowing you to make a VoIP (Voice over IP) call over the Internet whenever you are in range of a wireless access point. This paradise is guarded by none other than your own cell phone provider. Fortunatly, the technology is coming and there's nothing any of them can do to stop it.

It's been a subject of rumors and conversations for a few years: Phones that could support VoIP calls, either over the cell network itself, or over bluetooth, and more recently over wifi, like TruPhone, an application that was announced as being able to connect any Nokia S60 phone to a VoIP service, but failed to show any result. The amount of bandwidth required, and the fact that wireless hotspots are becoming so popular, make wifi the ideal solution. While there are not a lot of phones supporting it now, there are quite a few that were announced and they are coming.

Last year Skype, the most popular VoIP network currently, announced a Pocket PC version allowing anyone with a Pocket PC device to connect to their account. Today they announced a new Skype phone allowing you to easily connect to the Skype VoIP network at any wifi hotspot. It's not the first VoIP phone, Vonage has one too, and some information has appeared about the Linksys WIP330, another VoIP phone. They're still not perfect, but it's getting there. Some providers are even trying to take advantage of the new technologies like the Rogers Home Phone.

Next year will really be the year of the smart phone. There are simply tons being announced, and many of those will support wifi. Of course some providers hate the idea that we'll soon be able to bypass their network any time we're within range of a wireless signal to switch our calls over the Internet, but with technologies like UMA and WiMax, I'm convinced it's coming, and we're already seeing some interesting offerings, like Cingular offering wifi hotspots to go along their EDGE and wifi cards for laptops.

Monday, November 07, 2005

News: Google Local for mobile

Google released Google Local for Mobile. It's a Java application for phones that tie into Google Local and Google Maps. It looks somewhat like Mobile GMaps, but with directions and such. It's nice to see Google come out with mobile support., and here is my review from playing with it for an hour.

First of all it won't work on every device. You need a Java enabled phone, which really means almost all non-BREW phones. Then you'll need data access, and a mobile browser. You then simply go on http://www.google.com/glm to download it.

The application shows the map in full screen, with a menu on the right softkey allowing you to do searches and change to satellite view. One nice thing I noticed right away compared with MGMaps, is that the scrolling is smooth instead of being one screen at once, which is very nice. The zooming is also easy to use. Browsing the map is fast enough and the images are loaded like the web based version, one square at a time. It does however take a lot of bandwidth and a simple search will run you into over 100KB of data so make sure you have an unlimited data plan.

For the search function, it's also very nice. The search is basically run on Google's Local service so it's just as powerful, and I had no trouble finding my address. While the web site says it only works in the US, it worked fine in Canada. When trying to get directions, you can either enter an address, or select a point on the map that you already searched for. It will then show you a route and take you across every road one at a time, scrolling the map as needed.

Right now it doesn't support GPS, and really the solutions for real time positioning are rare and expensive. For example, many of the GPS devices that attach to phones sold on eBay do not come with North America maps. Also even if you do manage to get a device with the proper maps, no other application will work with it. For now if you need GPS you're better off with a dedicated GPS device. Hopefully it's something Google Local for Mobile will add in the future.

Overall I think it's a great program, and while many are reporting problems with installing it on their phone, which is to be expected with so many different phone types and providers, once you get it running it's a very useful tool.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Article: Best Symbian applications and games

Looking for applications and games for your S60 smart phone is always a challenging thing. There are tons of them online, but they are from a large array of web sites, some less reputable than others. Also most of them are not free, they are either shareware or worse, commercial only. Here's my experience of what I consider 'must have' apps for a S60 smart phone. Except when I say otherwise, these are freeware.

FExplorer is the most widely used file manager tool. The built in file manager does not show everything. This does, and it has tons of features. A word of advice however, since you see the system files, inproper use of this tool will break your phone.

Doom for those old school gamers is one of the most popular game ports. There have been several ports of it to the S60 platform, and this one by WildPalm is available for free.

Wolfenstein 3D / Spear of Destiny If you liked Doom you will like these newly ported Wolf3 and Spear games.

Opera The Opera web browser is, in my opinion, the best browser for mobile phones. It's the only program I paid for, but since then they released a Java version called Opera Mini and this one is free. It's available for S60 and displays almost every web page.

Agile Messenger is the most popular IM supporting AIM, MSN, ICQ and Yahoo. There's some confusion on if the program will change it's price in the future and start charging users, but for now it's available for free with no expiration date.

Mobile GMaps is in my opinion an awesome application. It's a mobile frontend to the Google Maps site. It displays any map or satellite photo, but watch out your data usage as the charges may go up quickly if you don't have an unlimitted data plan with your provider. Google recently released their own Google Local for Mobile too.

Real Player is a popular application that plays Real media, as well as MP3 and 3GPP. It comes by default on most devices but if you don't have it, you can download it here.

OGG Play is another popular media player for OGG and MP3 files.

CellTrack is a tool that displays technical information about the tower your phone is connected to.

Metro is a very useful application that can display routes across the subways and bus lines in many cities around the world.

jmIRC a small Java based IRC client for mobiles. It can be very useful if you need to check up on an IRC server.

Virgin Radio Mobile is a mobile client for the Virgin Radio stations. It's a Symbian application that can connect and stream 3 stations playing music.

There are lots of other applications and games, and you can get them from My-Symbian or All About Symbian. There's also emulators that you can try, allowing you to play NES or Gameboy games on your phone. You should be careful however, there are virus files out there for Symbian devices, so the same warning applies as when downloading PC software: don't download things from unknown sources.

Friday, November 04, 2005

On the ground: Africa, the forgotten continent

When we talk about cell phones, we usually think of Europe, with it's saturated market share, North America with it's booming enterprises and Asia with its developing markets. We rarely think of Africa, which we usually link to undeveloped countries, poverty and AIDS. The fact remains that more than 100 million people in Africa have a cell phone. In South Africa, about 57% of the population owns a cell phone.

There are two reasons cell phones were a huge hit in Africa. First they are cheap, especially compared with land lines which cost a fortune to set up in these countries, because of the vast distances and hard terrain. Even compared with a computer, where the barrier of entry can be very high because of the cost and also because most homes don't have stable electricity, the cell phone is an attractive technology. Then, they are easy to use and very useful. People use them to communicate, where before they needed to walk everywhere to talk. Entrepreneurs use them to do business. And it goes much farther than simple voice calls, with some people strapping them to elephants and using them with mobile Internet to track livestock.

One new application that is in the news these days in South Africa is cell phone banking. In these countries, few people have a bank account, banks charge high fees and require a lot of paperwork. A company recently started offering virtual bank accounts, where people could store their money safely and then use their cell phone to make transactions, at much reduced costs. It's a huge hit and could even bypass credit and debit cards in the same way cell phones leapfrogged wired lines.

All this is becoming big business, attracting investors worldwide. Yesterday Vodafone announced they will buy $2.4 billion stakes in South Africa's Vodacom. As cell phones conquer the world, and with smart phones becoming the next big thing, it all helps lowering the digital divide and connecting everyone, whether you live in downtown London or on top of a hill in Kenya.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

News: N80 = sweetness!

Nokia released information on it's 3 new smart phones, the N71, N80 and N92 at the Nokia Mobility Conference. They are the latest of many smart phones to be announced by Nokia in the last months and look very sweet, especially the N80. From reading user comments on the web, it seems everyone is eagerly awaiting the N80 and forgetting about earlier announced models such as the N70 and E90. It sports everything someone would need in such a phone, including quad band, two UMTS frequncies, 40 MB internal memory plus a SmartSD slot, wi-fi and a 3 megapixel camera. Now if only it came in a clamshell format!

My prediction is 2006 will be the year of the smart phone. Between all the recently announced Windows Mobile and Nokia phones, all due to ship at some point in 2006, we'll see a real war going on between the various platforms. It should be very interesting, and my recent article on smart phones will certainly look very different in a year. If I had to bet on a winner, I'd go with N80 or i-mate SP5.

Some upcoming smart phones:
HTC Wizard (Late 2005)
HTC Tornado (Late 2005)
HTC Apache (Late 2005)
HTC Muse (Mid 2006)
Samsung i300 (Early 2006)
Nokia N90 (Late 2005)
Nokia N91 (Early 2006)
Nokia N71 (Mid 2006)
Nokia N80 (Early 2006)
Nokia N92 (Mid 2006)
Motorola Q (Early 2006)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

On the ground: Streaming video for high speed networks

Sprint announced along with Cox, Comcast and Time Warner, that they will invest in a $200 million dollars project to bring video content to their customers, including their upcoming EVDO high speed network. This is just the latest announcement in a series of streaming video offerings from various providers. For several years now companies have been setting up deals and new ventures to bring streaming content to the mobile place, like the well known MobiTV. It seems everyone is pushing live video, streaming clips and TV channels to cell phones. But who really wants to watch TV on their cell phones? Why are all the providers pushing this technology?

The answer is simple. All the providers are building high speed, next generation networks. EV-DO for Sprint and Bell, and UMTS for Cingular and Rogers, with more following. The fact is most cell phone users do not need these high speed networks. Voice calls certainly don't need it. Even casual data users can download from the existing networks at a very acceptable rate of about 2-3 minutes for a MP3 song. While the market for mobile television may be pretty damn small, at least for now, streaming content is the best thing to show off the speed of your network. To get high quality video, you need broadband. So the plan is to offer a service compelling enough that users will want it, and want the quality of these next generation networks. After all, no provider wants to be left behind with an 'older' network while everyone else is using new technology, and these deployments cost several million dollars, so they have to get people onboard somehow.