Insight 6

This article was written by David Wood and published on the Symbian corporate website in February 2006

Insight 6: 3GSM, a celebration of incremental improvement

From the 13th to the 16th of February, I had the fortune to be immersed in a maelstrom of technology forecasts, which were being pronounced on all sides at the annual 3GSM gathering at its new home in Barcelona. Yet we all know that it’s a perilous task to predict the future of technology. The mere fact that a technology can be conceived is no guarantee that it will happen.

If I think back thirty-something years to my days as a teenager, I remember being excited to read heady forecasts about a near-future world featuring hypersonic jet airliners, nuclear fusion reactors, manned colonies on the Moon and Mars, extended human lifespans, control over the weather and climate, and widespread usage of environmentally friendly electric cars. These technology forecasts all turned out, in retrospect, to be embarrassing rather than visionary. Indeed, history is littered with curious and amusing examples of flawed predictions of the future. You may well wonder, what’s different about smartphones and about all the predictions made about them at 3GSM?

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s clear that many technology forecasts have overemphasized technological possibility and under-estimated the complications of wider system effects. Just because something is technically possible does not mean it will happen, even though technology enthusiasts earnestly cheer it on. Technology is not enough. Especially for changes that are complex and demanding, no fewer than five other criteria should be satisfied as well:

  • The technological development has to satisfy a strong human need
  • The development has to be possible at a sufficiently attractive price to individual end-users
  • The outcome of the development has to be sufficiently usable, that is, not requiring prolonged learning or disruptive changes in lifestyle
  • There must be a clear evolutionary path whereby the eventual version of the technology can be attained through a series of incremental steps that are, individually, easier to achieve
  • When bottlenecks arise in the development process, sufficient amounts of fresh new thinking must be brought to bear on the central problems – that is, the development process must be both open (to accept new ideas) and commercially attractive (to encourage the generation of new ideas, and, even more important, to encourage companies to continue to search for ways to successfully execute their ideas; after all, execution is the greater part of innovation)

The good news about the smartphone open revolution is that these five criteria are amply satisfied. As I’ll review in a moment, 3GSM 2006 was full of examples of incremental improvements to smartphones and smartphone products. For this reason, I personally have a high degree of confidence in predictions about the overall impact of smartphone technology.

Interestingly, whereas past forecasts of the future have often over-estimated the development of technology as a whole, they have frequently under-estimated the progress of two trends: computer miniaturisation and mobile communications. For example, some time around 1997 I was watching a repeat of the 1960s “Thunderbirds” TV puppet show with my son. The show, about a family of brothers devoted to “international rescue” using high-tech machinery, was set around the turn of the century. The plot denouement of this particular episode was the shocking existence of a computer so small that it could (wait for it) be packed into a suitcase and transported around the world! As I watched the show, I took from my pocket my Psion Series 5 PDA and marveled at it – a real-life example of a widely available computer more powerful yet more miniature than that foreseen in the programme.

As we know, smartphones unite and transcend these two technology success stories. Smartphones benefit wonderfully from the same engines of growth that have been responsible for two of the greatest long-running technology success stories in history:

  • The steady increase of computing power
  • The steady increase of communications – particularly the spectacular take-up of mobile phones

They also benefit from the application of ingenuity from literally thousands of companies, who engineer step-by-step improvements that adapt and build on the previous round of smartphone products and services. Step by step, users become more aware of the increasing capabilities of smartphones, and their expectations change. In parallel, the industry as a whole becomes more competent at satisfying and delighting users. That was what I saw, time and again, at 3GSM 2006.

For example, consider the “Advanced Call Manager” application created by WebGate JSC of Sofia, Bulgaria:

  • The application can answer incoming calls on behalf of users, automatically, in a variety of ways, depending on the status of the phone, and the person who is calling
  • It can be very useful in meetings, or at other times when you don’t want particular people to contact you!
  • People in the contacts list on the phone can be assigned onto a “black list” (meaning they always receive a busy tone when they call you) or a “white list” (meaning that the phone will alert you when they call, even when you are in a meeting), or onto a special “custom list” (meaning that they will automatically receive a personal SMS message if they call when you are in a meeting)

The Advanced Call Manager improves on the functionality of most of the phone applications that are built into the current generation of smartphones. In a similar way, the ShoZu application from UK-based Cognima Ltd improves the experience of uploading photographs taken by smartphones.

ShoZu is of interest to the rapidly growing community of people who upload photos to online community sites such as Flickr, Webshots, Textamerica and Buzznet. Camera phones are driving the increasing popularity of these sites. However, with normal camera phones, it can be a rather fiddly business to actually upload the photo. With smartphones, ShoZu enables a “one click” upload. When the user snaps a photo, the application immediately asks whether the photo should be “saved to web”.

The ShoZu service:

  • Has transparent automatic recovery from point of failure following any network interruptions
  • Avoids interrupting other activities on the phone (eg taking more photos, making phone calls…)
  • Is more affordable than alternatives (eg photo upload via email is 33% more expensive)
  • Averages 20 photo/video uploads per month per user, resulting in increased network traffic

Tellingly, this ease-of-use is not possible on feature phones, where add-on software has to use Java APIs which inevitably expose less capability. The Symbian client offers a better user experience in the following respects:

  • One-click upload from the camera application
  • Full background upload without interrupting normal use of the phone

Continuing the theme of improving the smartphone photography experience, let me mention the new Image Conversion Library software plug-in for Symbian phones from Scalado AB in Sweden. This plug-in can increase the performance and speed of megapixel image handling up to five fold, while reducing RAM requirements up to 50 times. It’s a great demonstration of the power of an open operating system, which allows third parties to innovate on top of the original OS contents.

It’s not just the add-on applications that are steadily improving. The phones themselves are going from strength to strength. Several stunning new Symbian-powered smartphones were on display for the first time at the show. For example, the SGH-Z600 from Samsung caught a lot of attention, with its own innovative twists on the underlying S60 UI and application suite:

  • Animations that makes it look like the user interface is about to burst into fire
  • A stylish quill that appears to draw numbers onto the screen when the user types them
  • A golf game that (according to at least one person who played it) is possibly the best game available on any mobile phone

Taking a good look at this phone, it’s no surprise why Vodafone issued a press release during the show announcing a commitment to strengthen the role of S60 software within Vodafone’s device portfolio. Other S60 phones generating great interest at the show included the delightfully diverse family of forthcoming E-Series enterprise-targeted phones.

That reminds me of one final important change for the better I experienced this 3GSM. For the first time, I left my laptop behind in my hotel, every day of the show. In previous years, I have twice suffered broken laptop carrying case handles, while rushing between meetings at 3GSM. This year, I relied entirely on my Symbian smartphone to keep me up-to-date with breaking news stories and with my personal and corporate email. The liberation was wonderful. It’s another sign of incremental but significant improvements in the smartphone world.

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