Thursday, October 13, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (3/2)

The Industrial  Revolution, came in 2007.

In 2007, Steve Jobs descended from his ivory tower and gave us… The iPhone. Which was actually not a phone at all… Steve introduced the iPhone as… "the best iPod ever"… 

The original iPhone was a bit of an enigma. Technically, it lacked a number of modern features (the original iPhone couldn't do Picture Messaging, didn't use the fastest connection available at that time, and had a relatively poor quality camera).

But also added a few that were nothing short of revolutionary. No other phone, no other mobile device, at that time used a glass screen (glass is really difficult to manufacture compared to plastics). Or a directional sensor so it could detect it's orientation. Or used "multitouch" in a touch-screen concept. Or touch-based zoom. Or a touch-screen without a stylus, for that matter...

Looking at this list, you could say that Apple, in its "iPhone Culture", abandoned technologies that existed-but-were-not-used and added technologies it felt would vastly improve the user experience.

By doing this, Apple succeeded where all others had failed. The iPhone was responsive and intuitive. It was the "phone you wanted to use". And even with a slow connection, the thing felt fast. Which turned out to be more important than the actual megabits/second you could transfer.

Though, like the first steam engines don't compare to the modern internal combustion engine, the first iPhone, while revolutionary, was nothing like what we have today. In a few short years and at fairly regular intervals, the iPhone got upgraded.

It learned faster connections, how to copy/paste, a better camera, send picture messages, listen to voice commands, video chat, and, especially important, it learned to add apps.

The smartphone civilizations had rediscovered the concept of "apps" from our Ancient Times. And now these apps could be bought directly from the smartphone (rather than requiring a computer first). Many of the apps had to be paid for, but the price was kept low (an important lesson learned from the iMode and iTunes successes) which made it very easy for people to buy them in the millions.

Apple had set a new standard. And the bar was set extraordinarily high. Nokia had never given its competitors that big a run for their money.

Actually, the iPhone Culture was so far ahead and different, that the old mobile phone civilizations were left behind stunned and embarrassed. Nothing they had even came close. Some are still stunned today (Nokia), or are all but extinct (Siemens, Palm). And smaller ones suddenly found new vigor and opportunity to grow. HTC and Samsung first among them. This opportunity was found in the Android Culture.

The Android-culture made it's real entry into the world, and acted as a kind of counter-movement to the iPhone Culture's (which demands you to be part of the Apple Civilization), but being the closest alternative to it. Many tribes and civilizations jumped at it to quickly bridge the gap with iPhone Culture. Although to date, Android Hippies are still seen as the iPhone Yuppie's "less stylish" and "more clumsy" cousins.

Love it, or hate it, the iPhone, and Steve's vision behind it, was what was needed to finally spark the Mobile Internet Revolution. Mobile Internet usage rose with over 5000% in AT&T's network in the few years after the iPhone was released.

So, in the end, what we now, quite commonly, refer to as a 'smart phone' has had quite a history, for its short lifetime, but a key thing that seems to be a defining characteristic of it would be the capability to combine several sources of information and provide new and interesting things with this to the user.

Initially mostly very serious and businesslike, with calendaring and e-mail, but increasingly frivolous, apocryphal and more fun, with things like Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter now available, in some workable sense, from the palm of your hand. 

Smart Phones, or rather, what the people using them, can come up with is actually quite exciting. More than what Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, HTC, or Nokia, allow us to do with the phones, the people are thinking of new things they want to do. And 'apps' have allowed these things to become available on the phones in an amazingly fast way (no longer requiring a new phone to be released to incorporate the new feature).

And with this, a rather lengthy and roundabout way, I hope to have given an idea of what makes a modern "Smart Phone". And how it came to be.

(*) Image (c) Apple Inc.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (2/2)

Barbarians conquered Rome...

And after the relative enlightenment of the Pax Romana came the Dark Ages.

But somehow, a tiny corner of civilization had survived and thrived. Where things were horribly failing in Europe, in Japan, the "iMode" service had taken off already several years prior. And it was a hit. But iMode "was not" something that WAP "was". It wasn't about technology. What it was, was about things people wanted to do. And, in Japan's case, about things young people wanted to do.

These were two rather interesting differences with the assumptions made by the "big phone operators" in Europe and the US. They aimed the 'smartphone' at relatively righ business users, charged a mint, and didn't consider teenagers and students as a cash-able market. They didn't just miss out on the opportunity of mass-marketing, they also missed out on listening to what people actually wanted to buy.

In Europe, phones were boring. Even the smart ones.

In Japan, the phones had colour screens, could play 'polyphonic ringtones' (the ability to 'beep' in different shades of 'beep'), were 'always online' using (again) faster internet and many of them got a built-in camera. And the phones got a very special feature... Many of them grew a tiny metal loop somewhere at the bottom.

No business person could imagine what it was for. Neither could their 'smart' phones.

Teenagers, students, and (statistically significantly more) girls and women, however, could. They all attached "Hello Kitty" phone decoration accesories to it.

All of these new things a (smart)phone could do sparked a new revolution, a Renaissance, if you will...

Slowly the new ideas drifted across the globe, new thinking about use of phones and networks. And "listening" to what the consumer wanted. The time of the first iPod and MP3 players had dawned. The idea of 'multimedia' phones started to trickle through. As a result, the networks learned how to send picture messages, and the phones learned how to play music.

The age of the camera-phone had arrived. Funny thing though, hardly anybody seemed to be using it… Too cumbersome, too expensive and too difficult, compared to texting… But apparently we liked being able to put a picture in our addressbooks, as nearly every phone in the market spawned a lens…

Especially potent seemed to be the combination of Phone with MP3 player. Sony relaunched its "Walkman" brand as MP3-player phones. And it was convenient, you didn't need two gadgets anymore to make phone calls and to listen to music.

But despite what all the 'seers and sages' of the large telecom companies were predicting, normal internet was still not something phones did. And "mobile data" was still not a big thing for the operators.

Mobile internet was still too expensive. Still too slow. Not just the connections, but the phones themselves were slow. Really, really, slow. And their screens too small for proper browsing.

There seemed to be something blocking real progress there, something in the way mobile phone people were thinking that did not match with what consumer people wanted. In that sense, the lessons of the WAP cataclysm were never fully understood.

It was time for the Industrial Revolution...

[*] Image (c) NEC

Thursday, September 29, 2011

An apocryphal history of the "Smart Phone" (1/2)

I had some issues with the length and quality of this post, so I broke it up in parts.

Some time ago a friend asked me "What actually is a smartphone?"

While we joked about it, we never actually answered the question. And, thinking about it, I found that the modern "smartphone" is pretty much an evolved concept. Here's my little take on the 'history' of the smartphone and how it came to be what it is today.

During what, in terms of Mobile Telecommunications, would have been Ancient Times, when mobile phones were something of the Elite and the Internet at any speed worth mentioning was something restricted to a few well-connected (…) Universities and major Corporations, there was… the PDA…

The PDA, or Personal Data Assistant, was a geek's dream and hope. The PDA allowed data to become mobile, without the need of a cumbersome laptop. It was hand-held and allowed you to run a host of applications, albeit very small ones. A company called Palm was the absolute and only market leader and its Palm Vx had conquered the known world.

They offered applications for download and these applications were Legion and a proper PDA allowed you to fine-tune your 'apps', as they were called back then, to your specific need. 

The little gem I owned had an alternate and customizable desktop-application, a StarTrek turn-based strategy game, a decent calendaring app, a gas/mileage app, and a host of very geeky but cool things (like an app that emulated the sounds of a star trek tricorder if you waved the thing around).

Many PDA's had one more trick up their sleeve… They had an infrared-port, through which these amazing devices had a window out into the world that was not strictly wire-based, and allowed short range communications with, say, a laptop or a (then rapidly gaining in acceptance) mobile phone… 

At the height of the PDA's reign, the truly committed geek could actually connect to the internet with it, through his Mobile Phone. This at the amazing speed of 9600 baud, or roughly 1/10.000th of the speed of a decent DSL line these days. Browsing to a website was cumbersome, slow, black&white and expensive.

We might compare this time to a kind of Pax Romana, where a surprisingly high level of civilization was achieved with fairly limited means.

Then, an upstart Finnish company, called Nokia, decided that it could be a fun idea to cut out this bothersome infrared bit and simply weld the mobile phone modem onto the PDA into a single device. They called it the Nokia 9000 "Communicator". When you flipped it open, it was a PDA. When you kept it closed, it was a (rather large and cumbersome, even for those days) mobile phone. 

But what made the Communicator into the first true "smart" phone, was the fact that the apps running on the Communicator were aware of the capability of communication; in stead of a few dedicated tools (on the PDA) that were meant for nothing but communication over the serial/infrared port, the Communicator's apps often had ways to integrally make use of the advanced communications means at their disposal. Thus the Mobile Internet was born…

As the Communicator was aimed mostly at very rich business men who couldn't be bothered to do cool stuff like emulate star trek tricorders with their phones, the ability to add and customize 'apps' largely went away.

Phone's got equipped with slightly faster "modems" (about 1/3333th of the speed of a modern connection) and got web browser software that did "WAP". But. rather than offering things to do with it, Mobile Phone Providers started pushing the technology.

WAP came with a lot of pomp and fanfare and ended whimpering in the corner. The Internet Bubble burst. The Telecom Bubble burst (but not before operators had paid a mint for the vaunted 3G licenses auctioned by the governments).

The Mobile Internet Revolution stumbled.

Barbarians conquered Rome.

And Civilization was plunged into a Dark Age of Mobile Telecommunications.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Like such an awful many today in this world, I stop and remember. Remember "9/11" ten years ago.

Remember the day, the thoughts, the things I did, the words I spoke, the phonecall with my girlfiriend, the road I traveled home, the disbelief, the shock, the absolute horror as the buildings collapsed, the angriness at CNN for not bringing any NEWs, but endlessly repeating what I already knew, yet, at the same time, the anxiousness, and fear, to find out, "what next"...

I've visited New York, a couple of times. Once before, once after. I've seen the skyline from the Empire State Building both when the Towers were still there and when they were but an outline on a bronze plaque.

The city is a vibrant place, truly with a magic all its own. It's a city where I saw the owner of a hot-dog stand get robbed, and the robber get chased down by a bystander on inline skates, to be handed over to the police a few minutes later.

It's also a city where the first thing that greets you in Central Park can be the police officer investigating the chalk outline of a body nearby, while the next thing you run into is a group of attractive twenty-somethings jogging on their morning workout as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

In a place, where everything goes faster, is closer, and has more impact, the event with such far-reaching and deep-rooted effect on our global society was, without a doubt, a pivotal moment in history.

I mourn for a world that died that day. And with a certain sadness I look at the world we got in its place. One where we have learned to distrust before we trust. Where the excuse of security and false sense of safety precedes the principles of liberty, privacy, respect and democracy. Where a country that prides itself on it's core value of freedom can have an Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and not even feel that they are measuring with a double standard.

But at the same time, it is the energy and spirit in New York, and its people, that show me that not all is lost and there is some hope yet in human nature. It's in their iconic firefighter-hero from that day that we see individual man at his/her best; performing a duty, at great personal risk, to help a perfect stranger, regardless of colour, or calling, to live another day.

New York also shows that things must, and will, move on. Regardless of politics, recession, presidents, governors, and mayors, The City "abhors a vacuum". And I look with admiration to the work being done at the Ground Zero site. Where a country and a people that I sometimes mock for their crassness and their 'industrial lack of subtlety', are constructing with respect, beauty, serenity, and yet with a typical American scale and New York sense of practicality, the new World Trade Center.

I look forward to the day of a next visit, when I can walk across the new World Trade Center and 'feel' the impact the place had on us and our world. To when I can ascend the Empire State building once more, and admire the new skyline. I'm sure the bronze plaque will also still be there.

Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an era; Space Shuttle

This evening, NASA launched the STS-135, the last Space Shuttle mission in its 30-year Space Shuttle program. The first launch was in 1981 and throughout my entire conscious life, the Space Shuttle was, simply, there.

It was the best-available way for humanity to reach space, but even more than that, the shuttle represented manned space-flight. It spoke to the imagination and ambition.

I've always been a big science-fiction fan. From an early age on (cheering for the Colonies with my dad every time they escaped the Cylon menace in the original Battlestar series, enjoying Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Buck Rogers, Star Trek and imagining myself to be a new Jedi Knight) space and our ascent in it was a given, not a question. To me, it simply was where the future lay.

As a symbol, Shuttle was a science-fiction geek's tentative link to these future worlds we could only read, watch movies, or fantasize about. The Shuttle was our "window" through which we could see and imagine, it was the tiniest of glimpse of what it would be to launch a "USS Enterprise", a "Discovery One" or a "Heart of Gold", someday, sometime in the future. Shuttle made StartTrek "real".

Not bad for what was, essentially, a rocket-powered, overpriced, under-capacity, but manned, freighter.

I was 9 years old when the Challenger disaster happened. And I remember how the "regular programming" on tv was interrupted by a single, solemn, message, maybe two lines of text, telling us about the event that had just transpired half a globe away. This was something that should not, could not, have happened. It was the first time (though obviously not the last time) in my life, that I can remember, that news really and truly left me shaken. Somehow this event had... damaged... my certainty in the future.

But the two catastrophic accidents are far eclipsed by Shuttle's achievements. Each facilitating new leaps in science and growth of humanity's "awareness"; Spacelab, Magellan, Galileo, Hubble, supplying Mir, building ISS, the list goes on and on...

With Shuttle's... departure... as with Concorde, I do feel as if we say goodbye to an achievement, without a "next, better, thing" to replace it. Spaceflight costs a lot of money and has a lot of risks, but mankind never got anywhere by only doing the sensible thing. I can confidently say that I was inspired by the vision of Shuttle, long before I could grasp its science and engineering. I can only hope that our younger generations may find something as equally inspiring.

The final mission is on its way now and I hope the crew has as safe and spectacularly successful a mission and return as they had a launch.

Thank you Atlantis, Challenger, Columbia, Discovery, Endeavor, Enterprise.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Iron Ring of +1 Engineering

Some time ago I was chatting with some friends from Canada, when I noticed they both wore a similar "iron ring" on their pinky. When I asked about it, they told me a story about a bridge in Quebec, that collapsed (repeatedly, it turns out, when I checked on Wikipedia) as a result of poor judgement on the part of the overseeing engineers.

While it is a myth that the rings that are given to Canadian engineers today, in a ritual called "The Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer" are made of the steel of this bridge, the ritual (and the Obligation taken therein) is a reminder of the responsibility that comes with an Engineers' power and responsibility to "build structurally sound".

Their story made me pause, and think. Not only think about all those folks in the world who we have met on our travels who are "allowed" to call themselves Engineer with nary the ability to differentiate a nut from its bolt, but also about the (relative) triviality with which I think about my own engineering degree.

Upon my graduation, while it neither being devoid of effort nor of a sense of accomplishment, I have always felt disappointed in the content, the "weight", of the (Computer Sciences) study I attended. I often felt, and still feel, that the school's primary interest was in "delivering me to market" in as short a time as possible, rather than to mold me into a professional and responsible Engineer.

Thankfully, I believe that the time I spent in College was well-spent in learning to be independent and that many of the actual technical, practical, skills I still use in my work today I picked up during that time, but outside the classrooms, being disciple to UNIX Guru's.

And while I am grateful to the College for giving me a way of thinking, an engineer's approach to a problem, the story of the Iron Ring made me feel that, perhaps, we have somehow lost, or forgotten, to convey a similar sense of responsibility to our engineers as they do in Canada.

A lack of this sense that may have given rise to some interesting side-effects.

For one thing we seem to have lost our sense of duty to deliver Sound Engineering.

Under pressure by management, who are driven by a completely different set of beliefs and sometimes seemingly have done away with morals altogether, we all too often succumb, like my College, to their never ceasing demands for lower cost, shorter time to market, etc., etc.

With a predictable, and often catastrophic, result in the delivered product.

Well, catastrophic? Am I exaggerating on purpose? Or are we trivializing what is essentially the perversion of our professional ethic?

Does it really matter that much if my iPod skips a number?
If my cell-phone doesn't connect one in every ten thousand calls?
If my car's engine management system doesn't give me optimal mileage?
If my GPS system has a few meters higher deviation if I leave it on for more than a day?

What if this engine management system and the GPS deviation cause a missile defense system not to fire?
Or the number my iPod skipped is a heartbeat deviation the monitor system missed?
And if I am, essentially, the product of such a shorter time to market, what does that say about me as an Engineer?

If doctors are expected to swear an oath "to do no harm", and even lawyers are bound by a system of professional ethics (the "bar"), why are we not, as Engineers, both bound and empowered by our principle of Sound Engineering?

And why is there not an ethics model for managers limiting them in the extent to which they can ask us to forego said principle?

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a small existential crisis to deal with.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Ambigous Data

Usually, when I use the word "ambiguous", it means that someone was not very clear in their explanation or documentation.

Having an installation procedure that can be interpreted "ambiguously" generally means I stay up long hours to "unambiguously" explain why the server is broken.

Even worse, if the two words in the title, taken together, are applied to the results of a verification test, it means some people wasted a lot of time.

But... with one of my bosses sending entertaining tweets and posting pictures from the seminar he's attending in Dubai, and I myself looking forward to a few days in London, I find myself contemplating the chosen title in a different context...

Well, in all fairness, it needs a third word. Universal. Ambiguous, Universal, Data. Meaning that data access should be available everywhere, and be so "without us having to be explicit about wanting to access it" (in the getting-access-to sense, rather than a lets-do-away-with-privacy-sense).

Currently, roaming data fees for someone using Twitter, Foursquare, Latitude, Facebook, Layar and watch a Youtube or two, could rival the gross national product of some (non-oil-producing) 3rd-world countries. And, while mobile and location-based services are cool, I find myself reprehensive of freely using them in an environment which I know my mobile device would consider "not it's home network".

This reprehension is both direct, as I wouldn't like to pick up the tab if I used my private device, and indirect, by the sense of responsibility the previously-mentioned boss would "incur upon me" after having to pay the tab if I used my corporate device to do in London as he did in Dubai.

And yes, this is a completely unfair (and presumptive) comparison. One I take creative license on to be able to make the previous paragraph work the way it does.

But... I digress...

Thinking about this makes me wonder how much "less" the telco's would make if their revenue on data would come from pure volume rather than right-to-access. Lowering the threshold would presumably increase the volume. An economics-101 calculation might prove or disprove my gut-feeling that, currently, the restricted-access/roaming model is actually cutting them out of a huge volume of (micro-transaction) revenue.

Conversely, the lowered threshold would work it's magic on the availability of, and access to, any location-based, or (mobile) social-media, applications. Where "Layar" was the first one (to my knowledge) to coin the term "enhanced reality", once "data" would become accessible to us like, say, air, would it finally become as transparent a part of our lives like text-messaging now has? Should it be?

Are the telco's really best-served by their "monopoly" on access to data? The attitude that you need to "deal with them" (and pay through the nose) before you are allowed through the gates...

Or would they be best served becoming a silent partner? Quietly receiving the millions-upon-millions of fractional parts of everybody universally adding their proverbial two-cents ambiguously from anywhere in the world?

I know I'll be posting a few opinions from London...

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Which way does happiness lie?

Thomas Jefferson wrote, in the United States' Declaration of Independence, that

"We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

So the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. Everybody is "allowed" to pursue being happy.

This is great news!

Now, which way does happiness lie?

No... really... Could someone point me in its direction?

Ummm... And... if I'm not sure where happiness lies, or what it looks like, then how do I pursue it?