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The Future of Mobile Communications

July 8, 2009


An article in The Economist claims that Marty Cooper is the most influential person no one has ever heard of [“Father of the cell phone,” 6 June 2009 print issue]. If you own a cellphone, you can thank Marty Cooper for changing your life. The article asserts that Mr. Cooper “has repeatedly spotted what lies ahead and led others towards the creation of new industries.” During this economic downturn, individuals who have a track record of identifying trends that lead to the creation of new industries and jobs should be considered national treasures and their brains mined for ideas. The article describes some of the trends that Mr. Cooper has spotted in the past and how they led to the creation of the modern cellphone.

“In the 1960s he was instrumental in the establishment of the high-capacity paging market … turning paging from a technology used in single buildings to one that could stretch across cities. He also helped popularise the quartz watch, by fixing a flaw in the crystals Motorola made for its radios, and then encouraging the firm to mass-produce the first crystals for use in watches. ‘Marty can see over the horizon and see how things should be,’ says Tom Wheeler, a managing director at Core Capital Partners, a venture-capital firm. ‘And then he makes them happen.’ The idea for the mobile phone first occurred to Mr Cooper in the early 1970s, at a time when cellular phones were unwieldy devices built into car dashboards and attached to a box of equipment—a two-way radio and a power supply—in the car’s boot. There were only a few radio channels available on which to make calls, and users often had to wait a long time for one to become free. But once Motorola put Mr Cooper in charge of its carphone division, he decided that such products should not merely be able to move around in cars, but should be small and light enough to be carried around the rest of the time. ‘I became a zealot for products being portable,’ he says. From idea to prototype took 90 days in 1972 as Mr Cooper sponsored a design contest among Motorola engineers—many from divisions he did not run. At a dinner he held that December, each engineer presented his own prototype. ‘We ended up picking the least glamorous phone,’ says Mr Cooper. ‘It was the simplest.'”

Simplicity, of course, is no longer what defines the modern cellphone (see my post entitled The Coming Age of Franken-products). But Cooper was not only an engineering genius, he was a marketing genius. He understood that the single most important thing that a new product must do is work reliably. Cooper’s first mobile phone might have been simple, but it was neither small nor cheap.

“The handset, called a DynaTAC, had 35 minutes of talk time and weighed one kilogram (2.2 pounds). Four iterations later Mr Cooper’s team had reduced the DynaTAC’s weight by half, and it was finally launched in 1983 with a list price of about $4,000.”

The article notes that Cooper faced stiff opposition from Motorola’s bean counters as the costs of his project continued to mount with little evidence that it would ever produce significant revenue. Like all visionaries, however, Cooper gazed into the distant future and saw the day when most people were able to own their own mobile phone. “It cost so much and took so long,” Cooper admits in the article. “But my focus has always been on the long-term technology vision.”

“Today over half the world’s population has a mobile phone, and it seems obvious that the idea would succeed. But many people within Motorola in the early 1970s wanted to focus instead on expanding the existing market for business-oriented carphones. ‘But Marty said “We’ll get this thing down to the size of the palm of your hand”,’ says Travis Marshall, a retired Motorola executive who worked with Mr Cooper. Most people at the time, he says, thought cellular phones would only ever be business tools, because of their high cost. ‘Marty kept preaching that the cost would come down and that it would become a consumer product,’ he recalls. ‘He hypnotised everyone at Motorola to follow him,’ says Sean Maloney, a senior executive at Intel, the world’s biggest chipmaker, who has himself spent several years championing WiMAX, an emerging mobile-broadband technology.”

The Economist praises Cooper for his ability to marry his vision of technology with its utility for consumers.

“Unusually for a technology visionary, however, Mr Cooper manages to keep the needs of users in mind, rather than becoming enamoured with technology for the sake of it. He recognised early on that mobile phones would offer people greater freedom and flexibility in their working and personal lives—unlike fixed-line phones, which are tethered to one place, or carphones, which cannot be taken everywhere. A further example is provided by the Jitterbug, a handset designed by his wife, Arlene Harris, which Mr Cooper helped bring to market. This handset, which is now sold by Samsung, has big buttons and basic features and is designed for elderly consumers. As handset-makers crammed more and more features into their phones, Mr Cooper and his wife realised that for some people, less is more.”

Having seen his vision for mobile phones turn into reality doesn’t mean that his visions have diminished. The article reports that “Mr Cooper thinks the real impact of mobile communications is yet to come.” That is good news. So what does he think the future holds?

“Things will get really interesting, he thinks, when consumers ‘get away from the concept of the cell phone—that implies talk and listen’ and new applications, based on sending data to and from mobile devices, take hold. There are already glimpses of the potential for mobile data in the success of the BlackBerry e-mail device and the iPhone, with its vast selection of downloadable software. But Mr Cooper feels strongly that such applications will be more likely to flourish if the world’s mobile networks, and the applications that run over them, are developed and managed by different companies, in an open model that mimics the internet. This is yet another idea that Mr Cooper has been pushing for years, says Eric Zimits of Granite Ventures, a venture-capital firm. ‘He is way ahead in this notion of a mobile internet,’ he says. Once mobile operators focus on providing the network—while leaving application development to the open market—competition will flourish, ‘so that consumers’ lives are improved,’ says Mr Cooper. Open access, he believes, ‘is just good business’. There are certainly signs that things are heading this way, despite the efforts of operators to avoid being reduced to mere ‘dumb pipes’. It may be another case where Mr Cooper has correctly identified the outcome, but it takes longer than expected to materialise.”

In the other words, the Franken-products I discuss in the earlier-mentioned post are likely to have a promising future, although their exact direction has yet to be determined. The mobile network envisioned by Cooper is the subject of a complementary Economist article [“Sensors and sensitivity,” 6 June 2009 print issue].

“If your mobile phone could talk, it could reveal a great deal. Obviously it would know many of your innermost secrets, being privy to your calls and text messages, and possibly your e-mail and diary, too. It also knows where you have been, how you get to work, where you like to go for lunch, what time you got home, and where you like to go at the weekend. Now imagine being able to aggregate this sort of information from large numbers of phones. It would be possible to determine and analyse how people move around cities, how social groups interact, how quickly traffic is moving and even how diseases might spread. The world’s 4 billion mobile phones could be turned into sensors on a global data-collection network.”

That sounds Orwellian and probably raises the hairs on the necks of libertarians; but the article also provides examples of how such a network could be beneficial and not just invasive.

“They could also be used to gather data in more direct ways. Sensors inside phones, or attached to them, could gather information about temperature, humidity, noise level and so on. More straightforwardly, people can send information from their phones, by voice or text message, to a central repository. This can be a useful way to gather data quickly during a disaster-relief operation, for example, or when tracking the outbreak of a disease. Engineers, biologists, sociologists and aid-workers are now building systems that use handsets to sense, monitor and even predict population movements, environmental hazards and public-health threats. A good example is InSTEDD (Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters), a non-profit group based in California, which promotes the use of mobile phones to improve developing countries’ ability to respond to disasters. Launched with seed money from Google’s philanthropic arm and the Rockefeller Foundation in late 2007, it has just released a suite of open-source software to share, aggregate and analyse data from mobile phones. Its first test-bed is Cambodia, where health-workers can send text messages, containing observations and diagnoses, to a central number.”

Such a use of cellphones could prove extremely valuable in developing countries where Internet access is limited but cellphone use is widespread. Privacy advocates, however, are skeptical about any use of personal cellphones to gather data. They are especially wary about how such data would be used for commercial purposes. Marketers, of course, are anxious to have access to such data. To try and deflect concerns, some companies promoting the use of mobile phone data collection are wrapping their commercial offerings around public good applications.

“Sense Networks, a company co-founded by Dr [Alex Pentland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology], wants to use the predictions derived from tracking mobile phones not only for commercial purposes—to produce real-time maps showing the most popular nightlife venues in a particular city, for example—but also for the public good. The company’s charitable foundation is working with Vodafone, a big mobile operator, the CDC and other collaborators to build an early-warning system for modelling and predicting the spread of tuberculosis in South Africa.”

Such efforts are unlikely to win over those concerned about privacy. “Some people find the idea of having their movements tracked in this way unsettling,” the article reports, “even when the data are anonymized and aggregated.” The Economist believes that there is value in using mobile phones to gather information and concludes:

“The best approach may be to combine voluntary (but potentially unreliable) contributions that are submitted manually with automated data capture that does not require user intervention, but may not capture the whole picture. A good example is the study of well-water contamination in Bangladesh conducted by Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia University. His project combined readings from remote water-sensors with queries and data which villagers keyed into their mobile phones.”

The Economist admits, however, that improvements in technology are going to make the temptation to gather data irresistible. As a result, your cellphone is likely to be part of a data collection system in the future — but you might not know who is collecting the data or for what purposes. Hopefully, some good will result from such efforts.

“Some computer scientists look forward to the day when mobile phones and sensors can provide a central nervous system for the entire planet. An abundance of sensors, they believe, will lead to two things. First, the amount of data will increase, allowing scientists to build more realistic models. Alessandro Vespignani of Indiana University compares the current state of affairs to weather forecasting a century ago, before satellites had provided meteorologists with the data to build and optimize mathematical models. When it comes to problems such as tracking and predicting the spread of diseases and other environmental hazards, he argues, scientists can never get enough data. Second, once people are able to contribute data to research projects from their mobile phones, it could provide an ideal way to broaden public involvement in scientific activities. This would be the next logical step after the popularity of web-based participation in scientific research, from folding proteins to categorising photographs of galaxies. Eric Paulos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, predicts the rise of ‘citizen scientists’ able to measure and sample their surroundings wherever they go. When people can report mundane variables such as the level of traffic noise in their street or the degree of air pollution at the bus stop, he argues, their outlook on science changes.”

Too often politicians suffer from a failure of vision which results in regulation always finding itself in a losing race with technology. In this area, however, the potential of mobile networks is clearly evident and it is an issue for which legislators should be able to win the race. Whether they will or not is a different subject. The article concludes:

“The technology is probably the easy part, however. For global networks of mobile sensors to provide useful insights, technology firms, governments, aid organisations and individuals will have to find ways to address concerns over privacy, accuracy, ownership and sovereignty. Only if they do so will it be possible to tap the gold mine of information inside the world’s billions of mobile phones.”

According to a third article in the same issue of The Economist [“The connected car“], your mobile phone may not be the only source of information for a mobile network. “Cars,” the article claims, “are becoming more connected, both to remote systems for navigation and information, and to each other.”

“A modern car can have as many as 200 on-board sensors, measuring everything from tire pressure to windscreen temperature. A high-end Lexus contains 67 microprocessors, and even the world’s cheapest car, the Tata Nano, has a dozen. Voice-driven satellite navigation is routinely used by millions of people. Radar-equipped cruise control allows vehicles to adjust their speed automatically in traffic. Some cars can even park themselves.”

The same privacy concerns that are raised about gathering data from cell phones are present in discussions about data that could be gathered from automobiles.

“There is also scope for new business models built around connected cars, from dynamic insurance and road pricing to car pooling and location-based advertising. ‘We can stop looking at a car as one system,’ says Rahul Mangharam, an engineer at the University of Pennsylvania, ‘and look at it as a node in a network.'”

The article points out that the connection most often used by drivers today is GPS, which is used for navigation purposes. But, it notes, every time someone gets into a car with a smartphone it makes the car part of a mobile network. The next step, the article predicts, “is to enable cars to communicate with each other via vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) networks, and with infrastructure such as toll gates and traffic lights via vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) links.”

“A new wireless standard called Dedicated Short Range Communication (DSRC)—a sort of Wi-Fi for cars—provides high-speed data connections over distances of up to 200m, and safety and emergency communications at lower speeds over distances of up to a kilometre from one vehicle to another, and between vehicles and roadside transmitters. So far the technology is mainly used in electronic toll booths, but it has many other potential applications. DSRC could be used, for example, to warn nearby cars of sudden braking or an airbag deployment, thereby alerting cars out of visual range and preventing or limiting accidents. It could be used to set up ad hoc networks to pass data between cars in order to, for example, signal icy spots on the road (many cars can detect ice as part of their skid-control systems) or co-ordinate ‘platoons’—groups of vehicles travelling closely together under automatic control. Other proposed uses include signalling the approach of emergency vehicles and ensuring that traffic lights give priority to buses and emergency vehicles. V2V features depend on a network effect—the technology is useless to a driver who is the only one using it—but a network could emerge surprisingly quickly. Dr Mangharam says his simulations and on-road tests in Pittsburgh, carried out in conjunction with the research arm of General Motors, have shown that V2V networking has benefits when as few as 3-5% of cars are equipped to exchange just four pieces of data—position, speed, direction and time—with other vehicles in the vicinity. As these drivers respond to their enhanced awareness, they influence the overall flow of traffic, benefiting everyone. Dr Mangharam reckons this level of adoption is at least a decade away.”

The biggest potential benefit of connected cars is accident avoidance. One analyst interviewed for the article claims, “By 2045 it will be impossible for a driver to impact another vehicle or drive off the road without the serious intention of doing so.” Still, drivers may resist being connected if that data could be used for law enforcement purposes or to generate risk assessments for insurance companies that could affect the cost of an individual’s auto insurance. Whether one believes that the benefits of networks will outweigh the invasions of one’s privacy or not doesn’t really seem to matter. The emergence of mobile networks appears inevitable. What remains to be seen is whether the technology will permit a person to opt out of the network if he or she wishes. My suspicion is that the public will eventually conclude that the benefits of being connected far outweigh the intrusions into one’s privacy. Who knows, we might even start behaving more civilly as a result.

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