Lady with smartphone

Being mobile

How smartphones are reshaping our lives, homes, relationships, health, transport, entertainment and more.

How many times have you updated your Facebook entry from your mobile today? What cool apps have you downloaded this week? And how long is it since you last beat the traffic by being re-routed by your GPS-enabled handset?

Even if this does not describe you, it certainly describes a large and rapidly growing sector of society.

Bold, PR-puffed predictions of what this sector would be doing with its mobile phones have often been wrong. Many services promoted by mobile operators failed at first - including WAP, group calling,'picture messaging, mobile TV, and location-based offerings - although some found success years later. New technologies such as 3G appeared unnecessary for years, because there was little need for their speed and capacity. Conversely, the successes of texting and, more recently, the app stores, were completely unexpected.

Then, thanks to an abundance of appealing apps, the 3G networks were suddenly not enough - they became congested through over-use. Now, video calling - which has been predicted for at least 50 years - may have found its platform in FaceTime on the iPhone 4. Time will tell.

Many of these failed predictions shared an assumption that, because a service is possible, it will succeed. But 'being mobile' is much more complex than charting the rise of technology, important though that technology is as an underlying enabler. It involves understanding users' requirements, the eco-systems and value chains and hence the behaviour of the key actors, the reaction of complex systems such as healthcare to new concepts - and much more.

Everyone thinks technology moves quickly, particularly in computing and communications. This is true, to a point - the technologies that affect handset design, such as storage, screens and processors, are changing quickly. But the cellular and Wi-Fi networks that carry the calls aren't on such a rapid development cycle. We are coming close to physical limits on the amount of information that can be transmitted over the available spectrum, and to economic limits on the number of basestations that operators can afford to install. The net result is that networks evolve slowly over years, if not decades. This trend has been masked by recent claims of ever higher peak data rates for cellular, but the practical data rates achieved in real systems have changed much less quickly. With increasing congestion, they have often gone down rather than up.

Technology trends

One key technology trend worth watching is the move towards increasingly hierarchical networks, in which most communications end up being carried over very small femtocells, moving to larger cells as users move away from their homes and out of urban areas. This is partly in response to the limits reached for larger cells and partly a recognition that users are deploying Wi-Fi at home. Devices will learn to find small cells and use them to download large files, synchronise content and run applications such as video calls. But because such cells are not always available, applications will download video files whenever it is easy to do so, in anticipation of them being needed later.

The 'green' agenda will also have an impact on wireless technology and usage. Wireless systems consume power and the more systems there are, the more power gets consumed. Technologists are working hard to reduce the energy requirements for each system but there may be a consumer backlash against a proliferation of wireless devices, for example if consumers end up paying to power multiple home nodes.

Applications

There are almost as many incorrect assumptions about mobile applications as there are apps themselves. Operators assumed that the point of mobile apps was to save time or enable users to do on the move what they do at their desks. In practice, users have embraced apps that are little more than pastimes, or that provide different services than those available on a home computer.

Perhaps a better way to look forwards is to think of the mobile as a gateway. For example, a mobile can be a tool that provides access to Facebook, or a mechanism to download and run games and other apps. Taken to its logical conclusion, the mobile could access a site such as Facebook, which then provides a choice of onwards communications channels - such as a voice call to a friend. The mobile becomes a portal and the networks become data pipes that enable the basic connectivity. This approach would affect operators, who would find their relationships with customers undermined and their networks being used as little more than a utility providing data access - just like those of a fixed-line ISP. Social networking may be enhanced with features such as automatically sharing location information with trusted friends, and enabling video capture from a family mobile. Such applications would have to access features on another handset - but wouldn't need the operators' help to do so.

Location

Location-based services are likely to become more common. Basic 'where am I?' and 'how do I get there?' apps can be extended, for example by adding congestion information, offering tips on using multiple modes of transport and the pleasure of alternate routes. Sharing location information with others is also in its infancy. Although Google Latitude enables you to locate your friends it only works in certain cases with certain handsets. A 'whereabouts clock' for the kitchen that shows the location of family and friends is still not available although it's technically simple to do. Applications that overlay virtual information on the real world are also beginning to offer what is being touted as 'augmented reality'.

The home

A number of wireless applications are based in or around the home. Over half of all mobile calls originate in buildings, most entertainment is consumed in the home, some parts of healthcare happen at home and new concepts such as smart grids could use home networks to control electricity demand. Many homes now have broadband Internet connections and wireless distribution using Wi-Fi and this forms a platform for many applications. An increase in the number of home applications seems likely, although the 'smart home' is still some way off - the costs and inconvenience of enabling wireless connectivity to the heating, doors, appliances and so on still outweigh the benefits.

Healthcare

Mobile applications could add real value in healthcare. With increased pressure to keep patients at home longer, wireless systems can monitor vital signs, ensure pills are taken, track patients and alert healthcare professionals as needed. This is an interesting example in which the business case is compelling and the technology mature, and yet not much has been done. Healthcare professionals tend to resist change; new healthcare systems require rigorous testing; and patients often do not want to be continually monitored. Such systems cost money, and it is often the case that the body that provides the funds is not the one benefiting from the savings. Unexpected side-effects, such as increased hypochondria and loneliness, also need to be taken into account. Despite these difficulties, this is an area where pressure on resources will make the introduction of mobile-based solutions to particular illnesses very likely.

Being mobile

So what will 'being mobile' mean in the future? It will be more to do with lifestyle than it is to do with solving everyday problems. Owning a mobile will be a little like owning clothing - you need clothing to stay warm and decent but most people buy it for its appearance and feel rather than its practicality. Mobiles have a lot of parallels with clothing - they are always with you, they make a fashion statement, they are needed for basic functions but are chosen for the other things they can do.

It will also be about reaching for your mobile in almost every situation. If you want some information, to know where to go next, to know where someone else is, to compare the prices of goods, to find the answer to a quiz question, to see what your destination looks like, or just to keep up to date, then the automatic response will be to pull out your mobile.

Being mobile is about having similar facilities when mobile as when at home or in the office - in a way it is about reducing the inconveniences of being mobile to the extent that people do not see being on the move as any different from being stationary. It is about staying connected to friends and family, to social networks and more while on the move in ways that only reveal your mobility if you want to. It is about being mobile on your terms.

It will also be about utter reliance on the mobile - a general equivalent to that moment when you threw away your paper maps because you started to accept that a satnav can be trusted to always work and to be more convenient than a physical map. Being mobile is also about travelling light - because your mobile (and its charger) is all that you need.

It is about entertainment - for filling in time while out and about and for distractions during the day. It is already a replacement for newspapers, magazines, books, music players, portable video players, games devices and more.

For some, being mobile will be about using the mobile to manage disabilities or medical conditions, linking the mobile to sensors and automating calls to medical services if needed. But this will be on the patient's own terms and to help with specific issues, rather than just providing general health validation.

It may also be more about ephemeral communications than lots of 'valuable' communications. It is unlikely that wireless will significantly change transport, life at home, or indeed life more generally. It won't be about turning on the home heating while on the train or automatically booking train tickets when there is congestion on the road. It'll be about fun.

Being mobile will be about using handsets to entertain in a spare moment. It will be about the handset as jewellery, as an object of beauty and fascination. It will be about social connectedness, with the mobile enabling many forms of communications with many communities. Of course, the mobile will still let you to make calls and return emails - but it already does that. Being mobile will be so much more.

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them

Close