Monday, January 30, 2006

Trends: Cell phone jammers

Cell phone jammers, those devices that can block cell phones signals from working, are getting more and more popular, and as new devices come up, they are also getting smaller. The latest CX-200 is tiny, fits in a pocket, costs $70 and will block all cell phones in a 3-meter radius. There are some more expensive ones that will block a whole room.

The main reason for cell phone jamming is to remove the noisy ringing and conversations. Places like theaters and other public places often use those devices to enforce a "no cell phone" policy. However, there are still issues with these devices. First, someone could use them to disrupt other people's activities. Then, there are those cases when cell phones are critical, such as for doctors and security officers. Until there are precise laws in place to govern what is legal and what isn't, the whole jamming business will remain a questionable practice.

On the ground: Gates wants smartphones for everyone

As an alternative to the $100 laptop project, Bill Gates last week proposed to the World Economic Forum that smartphones could be built to be linked with a TV and keyboard and turned into a computer for people in remote locations. Everyone is going to have a cell phone, and it makes sense to use it to bring them the power of a computer.

While it's a view that I agree with, and I think it's a fine idea to help bring computing power to poor nations, one has to look at the reason Microsoft is making these comments. I'm sure Gates wants to help the poor, but there are reports that Microsoft was disappointed that the $100 laptop is going to run Linux, and if they could convince some international organizations to adopt their idea, it would put Windows Mobile back into front view. Note that the $100 laptop project recently received the support of the UN.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Trends: Message acronyms

Text messages have a limited lenght and typing on a cell phone keyboard isn't the most confortable way to type. So people have started using acronyms to specify various things, but they can become confusing. In some countries, like Japan, they go even further and have a text messaging system that accepts more than just ASCII characters, but hundreds of little icons like a car, a house, a dog, and so on, so someone could say he was going home with his car to see the dog. Here are a few sites dedicated to text messaging:

Here's a list of acronyms and smiley faces.

Basic information of texting language.

Net lingo with another list of acronyms.

Text message charts.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

On the ground: Roaming overcharges

Roaming is a well known term in the mobile industry and technically means that the user is on any network outside his home network, but is mainly known because of the surplus charges that apply everytime a phone is in roaming mode. The way it works is that your provider has a network of cell towers to cover its phones, called the home network, and then gets agreements with any number of other providers to allow its phones to use their towers, which your provider will pay them per use. It may have roaming agreements with other providers in the same country, and providers in other countries, as long as the technology used is the same. For example, Telus has a roaming agreement with Bell Mobility in Canada to allow its phones to work on the Bell network, and it also has agreements with Verizon in the US to allow international roaming on its network.

Roaming allows users to use their phones in other countries, and that's very good. It's also a reason why standardization is good, and why most of the world is using GSM. The problem comes with the fees associated. Roaming fees is one of the best way for providers to charge people, and depending on the country and the contracts, the fees can be quite high. Ofcom is now investigating many providers to see if they overcharge for roaming as part of an European Commission initiative. Some of the main issues seem to be from possible anti-competitive behaviours, and the fact that users are often unsure what the exact fees are when roaming.

Friday, January 20, 2006

On the ground: Cell phones and cancer

Do cell phones cause cancer? That's actually a very old question, something people have been wondering since the very first cell phones have started being used. There's lot's of conflicting information, but recent studies all point to the simple truth: no. A recent study from England said that after a 4 year research at the Institute of Cancer Research involving over 2000 people, they found no evidence of increased risk.

Now this isn't to say that cell phones have no risk of any kind associated to them and should be left in the hands of young children. There are various risks when using cell phones, such as financial risks (overtalking and getting huge bills) and security risks (kids being solicitated with text messages), but the risk for cancer is not a concern. Like all things, it's up to the individual to decide if the benefits outweight the risks, and for the vast majority of people in the world, it's worth it.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Trends: Survey shows people want more out of their phone

A new survey by Sprint shows recent features that US customers want in their phone:

"Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) said they would use their wireless phone to retrieve maps or directions.

Cameras remain popular with wireless users, with 55 percent expressing interest in the product.

Walkie-talkies and ring tones are also popular with consumers, each cited by 48 percent

Internet access garnered 43 percent interest."

More results are shown at the link above. Overall it's pretty much as expected, and the numbers are following a growing trend which is that people want to do more and more with their phone, leading to the ultimate convergence device.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Canada: Election results by SMS

For all those who won't be in front of a TV on January 23, now you can get instant election results on your cell phone from anywhere, thanks to CTV and the Globe and Mail. The two news sources will offer election results up to the minute thanks to a new service by Magnet Mobile Inc. Cell phone users can send the word "GLOBE" to "ELECT" (35328) on their phone and receive results.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

News: Cell the book

A new book from Stephen King called Cell will be released later this month. It's about cell phones, or rather what happens when you get a creepy phone call on one! But the interesting part here is that they offer ring tones and cell phone wallpapers about the book.

The marketing team for the book will also send more than 100,000 text messages to advertise the book, something that hasn't been done before for a book. It remains to be seen if a cell based marketing will be successful to promote an horror book about cell phones.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Trends: Phone cloning

There's a report today about how cell phone cloning is way up in Korea despite massive attempts to stop cloning, with 6,574 cloned phones in 2005 compared with 858 in 2004. Cloning is done by listening to the airwaves and capturing the ESN and mobile phone number of a handset, then using them in a new phone. This is very hard to do, but possible for both GSM and CDMA phones. It used to be a huge problem with analog phones, and Ted Rogers, the CEO of Rogers Wireless, had his own phone cloned a few years ago, but it's less of an issue now, although the number of cases is rarely known.

There is no way to directly know if your phone was cloned, and the first indication comes when someone uses a cloned phone, since their calls will appear on your bill. Many providers have security features that raise a red flag when calling patterns change, like if you're mainly doing calls from Toronto to other Ontario cities, and one month your bill starts showing calls from Syria and Iran. However you remain responsible for all calls made on your account, and if those security protections don't work, you may be left with a $12,237.60 bill to pay.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Article: Web 2.0 for mobile

There's a lot of talk in the geek space about Web 2.0, which is basically just a buzz word to refer to interactive, dynamic web sites offering services, and eventually whole applications on the web. Examples include GMaps and Writely. But how does this apply to cell phones, where you usually have a slow connection, a tiny screen, and a web browser that barely supports the basic web protocols?

There's been a lot of work in the mobile web space this past year, and a lot of marketing. Verizon even uses Mobile Web 2.0 to sell its service, when in fact it's still WAP pages, with the main difference being that it's being pushed to the phone (automatically refreshes).

Yahoo! and Google seem to be the first players to go further than simply making WAP pages and try to bring the first steps of web integration into cell phones. Both Yahoo! and Google have mobile portals, offering a mobile oriented page for cell phones allowing for searches, as well as mobile alerts using SMS and various other basic services. But this year, they are both going one step futher, and are going about it in different ways.

Yahoo! partnered with Nokia and created Yahoo! Go, which is a huge Symbian application that completely transforms any supported Nokia phone into a Yahoo! device. It integrates with your messaging, contacts, photos, and keeps them synced in real time with the Yahoo! services. It's so far the most integrated application ever seen. When you enter a contact on your phone or on the Yahoo! site, it's synchronized right away with each other. When you get an e-mail, it's pushed to your phone. You can transfer photos to your Yahoo! account as soon as you take them, and you can use Yahoo! Messenger at any time on your phone. They have also partnered with Motorola to do the same thing.

Google decided to go a different route, and instead used their existing personalized home page and made the personalized home page for mobile. It's basically a page that is synchronized with the site which is the Google page you can customize, and whenever you make a modification there, it is reflected in the mobile version. This means that all the content you have on your home page is formatted for a mobile screen and displayed on your phone. Note that Google also has started to make actual phone applications such as Google Local for Mobile but for now they don't integrate with anything else. One funny thing is Google also partnered with Motorola.

The next step in this web 2.0 integration will be to truly make use of all web protocols in modern browsers such as Opera for mobile, and ditch the old WAP only browsers that crash every 5 pages. With the help of next generation high speed networks such as EVDO and UMTS, we'll finally have the software and bandwidth required to really have interactive web apps on our phone. All we'll need next is someone to take advantage of it.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

On the ground: Satellite phones

Boeing announced yesterday that they will build 3 satellites for a new satellite based service by company MSV. The satellites should be launched in 2009 and 2010 and will provide a new commercial satellite based cell phone service.

Satellite phones have always had the big disadvantages of requiring bulky hardware and being very expensive. But the big plus is that these phones will truly work everywhere, at least as long as you have a satellite overhead. In the past, various companies tried to offer commercial satellite phone services, but all had limited success, many not surviving. With technology advances however, maybe this one will be another story.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On the ground: DMB rollouts

You may not know what DMB is, but chances are if you are in South Korea, China, Japan or many European countries, the services provided by it will be heavily marketed to you over the next years. DMB stands for Digital Multimedia Broadcasting, and it's a standard way to transmit satellite (S-DMB) or terrestrial (T-DMB) based multimedia signals, such as TV channels, to mobile devices, mainly cell phones. It's a very popular technology in South Korea and is being launched in many other countries this year. Pantech released two new devices this week that take advantages of this service in South Korea, and Samsung is trying to hook up China.

Other than in Asia, Europe is another place where DMB is starting to take shape. Germany is doing tests with the technology. DMB is competing with another standard for Europe and North America adoption, DVB-H, and usually North American carriers like to take completely different routes when they implement new technologies, so it's unlikely that we will see it take hold there. Still, there is an attempt to standardize the world on one standard for the delivery of video broadcasts to cell phones, and even if we end up once again with the US going in a different way, standardization is good for customers.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On the ground: SMS notices

The Brownsville airport started offering SMS notices to people when a flight is canceled or delayed. That way anyone can stay current on the status of their flight while on transit. It's the third airport in the US to do it, and more will undoubtly follow. It's just the latest of many services using SMS to keep information current to consumers.

There are various listings of SMS services, such as Google, Yahoo! and bulk services such as Clickatell. The most important kind of alert, and one that has only really emerged since 2001, is a way to use SMS to alert others in case of an emergency. There's also services that exist purely to deliver SMS alerts when a tsunami or earthquake occurs and today's announcement of RadioShack and Cingular's campaign to sign up to 1 million users to AMBER alerts. Of course, it's always best to research these things before you may need them.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Article: Camera phone features

Historically refered to as Camera Phone, a camera on a phone now is a standard feature. However, all cameras are not created equal, and it's true for those on cell phones as well. There are differences in resolution, quality, zoom, file formats and photo handeling. Let's see the main things to look for when shopping for a cell phone.

The main feature, and the one that is usually advertised, is the resolution. Most low or mid-range phones come with a VGA camera. The resolution is shown as either VGA or an amount of megapixels, such as 1.3 MPx or 2 MPx. Without going into too many details, it's important to know that this is the main thing that will decide how good your pictures will look, because a higher resolution means you have bigger pictures, or more details in them. A VGA camera will save pictures in 640x480 format, which means 640 pixels horizontally, and 480 vertically. To find out how many megapixels that is, you take 640 * 480 = 307,200, which is 0.37 megapixels. So as you can see, going from a VGA camera (0.37 MPx) to a 2 MPx camera will make a huge difference. You can do the math for higher resolutions too. A 1.3 MPx camera will make 1280x1024 images, and a 2 MPx camera will make a 1600x1200 picture. Overall, a VGA camera will make poor pictures in almost all cases, simply because it's such a low resolution, but a 1.3 MPx or higher camera will be fine for printing photos.

The second feature is the zoom. Note that unlike old analog cameras, those on phones can have 2 types of zoom. The camera itself can provide a zoom, which is usually pretty good. But they can also specify a second zoom value, which is really just the software inside the phone taking the image, and zooming in, which is completely useless, since any image manipulation program can do that, and it reduces the image quality. So if you want to take images from far away, you will want a high enough zoom. Note also that while many camera phones now come with a flash, these flash are usually quite poor, and will do nothing for far objects.

Once the picture is taken, you have to be aware of which format the phone will save it as. You can always save it in the phone and come back to it using the phone's software, but at some point you'll want to save it elsewhere or print it. Also if you want to take lots of photos, you may want to buy a phone with an expansion slot, however even saving the photos to a removable flash card does not mean the photos on that card can be read on any computer or printer natively. It varies depending on the phone. Most phones will save files as jpeg, which is the common image format for web sites, however jpeg is a compressed format, and while useful as a space saving measure, it is the second reason (after camera resolution) why an image may be of low quality. This varies a lot between phones, and you can only find out what the resulting files will look like if you try it out.

Another aspect of photo manipulation to be aware of is what your provider does. Most providers will sell you a phone that is setup to use their own systems, and many of them will either easily allow you to, or often even require you to save your photos directly on their servers, using the cell network. This means that you will be unable to save the photo to your phone and transfer it to your computer via Bluetooth or wi-fi, and may even cost you some money for every photo you take because of bandwidth fees for sending it to the server. This is a very important part to check with your provider.

Lastly, the only way to be sure is to try it out, often at a store or with a friend's phone. To avoid being locked in, you can also decide to buy an unlocked phone or go with a provider that doesn't restrict their phones so much. Overall, recent phones deliver very good pictures, some going up to 7 megapixels, but if you want the highest quality or do professional photography, you will need an actual camera.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

On the ground: Fuel cells

Fuel cells are batteries using liquid chemicals that can power or recharge a device, by using external sources such as hydrogen and oxygen. For years now various companies have promised to bring fuel cells to cell phones and other mobile devices, to solve the old problem of shorter battery life in modern devices.

It seems that this technological breakthrough will hit the selves this year after all, according to Medis Technology at CES. They will sell a $19.99 Power Pak which will be able to recharge batteries, providing an extra 60 hours of battery life to an iPod or 30 hours for a cell phone.

The main issue with fuel cells is the complexity of making small ones. Last year Nokia stoped development on some fuel cell projects because of complexity and logistics problems. We're not yet at a point where we'll see hydrogen powered cell phones, but it may not be too far off.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

News: CES announcements

CES is underway this week in Las Vegas, and like every year, there's a lot of new gadgets that get announced and demo'd. If you're interested in new devices you should check out the full coverage.

Some of the interesting announcements are a bunch of 3G enabled phones that take advantage of the high speed networks that every provider has been working on in the past year. With both EVDO and UMTS being deployed in a big hurry in North America, it was to be expected.

Motorola also announced a Bluetooth keyboard for text messaging. It also includes an LCD screen so you don't have to look on the screen. This could be useful for casual text messagers but people who text a lot may be better off using a device with a keyboard integrated.

It also seems this year CES will be a lot about video, and this may turn out to be the year of video. From a host of recent portable video players, to satellite based video services, soon we'll be able to watch anything, anywhere.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

On the ground: 10GB hard drives for phones

Cornice announced new 8GB and 10GB mini hard drives, around 1 inch in size, that could fit in mobile devices like cell phones. This will allow devices to have much bigger memory sizes than with flash, currently around 30-40MB for internal memory and up to 2GB (soon to be 4GB) for expansion cards. The new drives also represent important advances in technology, including lower power consumption, better skip control and more robustness when dropped. Cornice is predicting that millions of phones will have these drives by 2009.

Studies are predicting that mini hard drives will be a key point to allow cell phones to compete with the higher end MP3 players such as the 20GB and 30GB iPods over the next years. This may be true, but we must be careful from jumping in that bandwagon too fast, as there are still some issues with having hard drives in mobile devices. First, any hard drive is going to use a decent amount of battery power. So with the bigger space comes less battery life. Also, most mobile devices don't have internal moving parts for a reason. When you introduce moving parts, the robustness usually goes down, and the risk of mechanical problems goes up. So it seems these may remain for a niche market, especially with flash cards of 4GB and bigger starting to appear on the market.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Trends: Holiday greetings by SMS

A recent survey by an AOL firm found that a large number of people are sending holiday greetings by text messaging this year, as opposed to the traditional greeting card or even web based cards. Europe is again ahead of the curve, with up to 92% of people in Italy sending "Happy New Year" messages with their cell phone. It's not surprising that these numbers are jumping way up. One study showed that in June 2005, 7.2 billion text messages were sent, up from 2.8 billion last year.

Text messaging use is sure to continue rising in 2006, pushed mainly by teens. While North America lags behind Europe and some Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, new fashion phones and new services are helping. In the US, the RAZR dominates the market in sales, and it's not because of it's technical breakthroughs, it's because of it's look.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

On the ground: Galileo GPS system

Last week, the first satellite of the new Galileo project was launched. Galileo is an european project to launch a series of satellites to provide a civilian version of the GPS system. While GPS is free for civilian use, it is run by the US military with no guaranty that the system will remain available for free. The European Union decided to launch it's own system that will be civilian and have enhanced services.

The system will have several levels of services, the most basic one being global positioning, which will be free for everyone. The positioning will also be much more precise than with GPS, with more satellites being visible from any point, at least in Europe. Commercial services will also be available for subscription fees, and eventually more services will be available to devices with a Galileo chip, such as search and rescue services, weather alerts, movie listings, and more. The system is expected to be completed in 2010.