Glimpsing into a mobile future

Few companies innovate with the intensity and frequency of those working in mobile, and today’s present is a future that only a handful of people would have predicted just a few short years ago. While most of us happily soak up rampant innovation as mere consumers, a handful of people in the hallowed corridors of mobile R&D labs are already working on the next big thing – the phones we’ll be carrying around in our back pockets in 2012 and beyond.

Very occasionally we get a glimpse of this future. A couple of years or so ago, Nokia went public with their “morph concept” phone – an idea which seems so crazy and off-the-wall it might actually be possible. Who knows, maybe it’s being field tested right now, although we wouldn’t know it. A morphing phone could disguise itself as anything from a watch to a handbag, making spotting one incredibly difficult.

As Alan Kay once famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. While a handful of people do precisely that, the rest of us are left to speculate. Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we’ll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both. Maybe it was a children’s focus group that came up with Nokia’s morphing phone idea. Regardless, I’d go with the kids’ instinct over an adult’s any day.

Technology doesn’t evolve in a vacuum, of course, and it’s only when it finds its way into the hands of people that it really gets interesting. In order to understand what users need and want from their next mobile device, we need to get in the field and ask, as some mobile manufacturers do. Anthropology, with its human-centered approach to research, has become quite a trendy discipline in the mobile world, particularly when it’s done in exotic emerging markets.

The irony of this approach is that, perhaps for the first time, the needs of the consumer in the developing world are beginning to drive innovation and thinking at home. With concerns about global warming, energy dependence and the environment rising up the political agenda, mobile manufacturers find themselves tackling the very same problems as they design for the developing world. These markets by their very nature demand greener, recyclable, longer-lasting, energy-efficient mobile phones. Today technology transfer works both ways, and it’s increasingly heading in our direction.

The future isn’t all about hardware, of course. Some of the most exciting innovations we’ve seen in recent years have come from mobile services. Innovation for many is centered more around what you can do with a mobile device, rather than what you can make out of one. Financial services, for example, promise to “bank the unbanked” and provide unprecedented access for some of the poorest members of society in many developing countries. Mobile banking in places like the U.K. and U.S. lags some way behind.

My belief is that many future mobile innovations will be borne out of the realities of the developing world. In my “developed” world, where friends leave household appliances on standby for weeks on end, energy efficient mobile devices are seen as something of a luxury. For a mobile phone owner in, say, Uganda – with little access to mains electricity – it’s more of a necessity.

I also believe – along with many others – that as devices get smarter, faster and more powerful, the challenges of power consumption will continue to consume large chunks of R&D effort. A recent announcement from the Chinese Academy of Sciences of a highly-efficient solar cell that can effectively be embedded in plastic could give us a glimpse of a future where the entire housing of mobile phones become one large solar panel, along with our clothes. Advances in harnessing kinetic energy could also give us self-charging mobiles, akin to our already-present self-winding watches. Perhaps the challenges of keeping mobile devices powered up will lead to a convergence where a number of charging technologies are present in a single device.

Looking even further ahead, mobile devices may also be chargeable wirelessly over distance. Perhaps by a method of charging via the same wireless networks that carry our mobile signal. I’d hate to think about the health implications of this, or how inefficient these charging networks might be, but it’s not out-of-the-question that this becomes reality. Again, this technology would most likely emerge from developing countries, where vast numbers of potential customers are excluded from phone ownership because they lack of access to power to charge them. Whether this wireless charging future happens before the converged renewable option discussed remains to be seen.

Winding the clock back to my childhood, and returning to the original question of what the future might look like, a young Ken Banks might draw a picture of a single device that seamlessly docks, morphs or switches between fixed desktop and portable wireless device.

Despite the march of the integrated mobile device, we’re still some way off making them as easy and convenient to use as our old friend the computer. The fact that I choose to write this on my laptop is a case in point. Once I leave my laptop at home – assuming I own one – and start writing regularly on my phone, maybe I’ll finally know that my future has arrived.

FrontlineSMS at The Feast ’09

I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between an ICT4D ‘problem’ and the problem solver, the greater the chance of failure. The difficulty here is that quite often the problem and the resources available to fix it are in different places, and available to the wrong people.

While ‘we’ – those who rarely fully understand the problem – have easier access to the technology and funding, those who do more fully understand it don’t. This is why the current proliferation of local innovation and IT-focused business hubs across Africa is so exciting and has so much potential.

More via this short edited five minute talk I gave last year at The Feast in New York. Further in-depth thoughts on who might be best placed to run ICT4D and mobile-for-development (m4d) projects, check out this recent blog post, “Dissecting “m4d”: Back to basics“.

Ideas vs. execution: A personal history

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea” –
Hindu Siddharta, Founder of Buddhism (563-483 B.C)

Like most people I’ve never been short of ideas. Short of good ones, perhaps, but never plain old ideas. As we all know, though, ideas alone are never enough. It’s also about execution, taking ideas and putting them into action. Like the majority of people, the majority of mine have remained just that – ideas – and sifting through some old note pads recently brought home how many I’d had over the past few years and done nothing with.

On the plus side it turns out many of my ideas weren’t mine alone, and most have since become reality for other people, i.e. those who did take that extra step and put them into action. This post is largely testament to what I didn’t do, and what others did.

Idea #1: Incubation Centre
Date: March 2008
Status: Not executed

There always seemed to be some new Centre or other going up during my two years at Stanford, and I wondered how great it would be to have one dedicated to appropriate technologies, and I briefly blogged about it in March 2008. Of course, Stanford wouldn’t have been the best place for this given the cost, so the idea slowly evolved from my crude mock-up (above) to something a little more eco-friendly based in rural Cambridgeshire. I’d still love to pursue this idea, but given the growing number of innovation hubs appearing around the world, maybe the chance has gone.

Idea #2: Mobile Sensing
Date: June 2005
Status: Not executed

On 8th June 2005, the idea for a Mobile Environmental Monitoring Device was born. MEMD would:

“… gather environmental information as people move through their landscapes. Indicators such as temperature, air quality, CO2 levels and air pressure would be recorded along with a fix on each location. For the first time individuals will be able to monitor their own exposure to local, relevant environmental hazards”

Manufacturers such as Nokia began pushing their own concepts a couple of years later, and today mobile sensing with mobile devices is nothing new. I originally blogged about MEMD – another idea whose time has passed – in more detail here.

Idea #3: SMS Competition
Date: September 2007
Status: Executed

This is one idea which was executed, in September 2007 to be precise. Its purpose was to encourage NGOs to think about how they might apply text messaging to their social change work, and the prize for coming up with something innovative was a laptop, phones, modems and cash – everything they’d need to put their idea into practice, in fact. We have been planning to run an adapted version again, but with so many mobile and ICT4D competitions around these days, we’re hesitant. NGOs have more important work to do than spend all their time trying to win things. More on nGOmobile here.

Idea #4: Mobile Payments
Date: September 2003
Status: Not executed

On 1st September, 2003 – during a field trip to South Africa and Mozambique – I put together a diagram showing how someone might pay for a newspaper using their mobile phone. Mobile payments are nothing new today, but back then very little was happening. If I’d ever wanted to be rich, this might have been the idea I should have stuck with, not that I’d ever have been able to make it happen. Further details on a blog post here.

Idea #5: Messaging Hub
: October 2005
: Executed

FrontlineSMS is one thing I did develop and stick with, although it was touch and go on more than one occasion. A seed of an idea during a series of trips to Kruger National Park in 2003/2004, FrontlineSMS became the first text messaging hub aimed at grassroots non-profits when it was released in October 2005. For the full story, check out this article – “And Then Came The Nigerian Elections” – from the Spring/Fall 2007 edition of the Stanford Journal of African Studies [PDF].

So, what lessons could I draw from what’s happened with my ‘Top Five Ideas’? Well, FrontlineSMS has been a fascinating journey, and sticking with that has clearly been the right thing to do. If I’d have tried to see out all of my ideas then I may well have let it slip, and ended up doing a lot of things fairly well rather than one thing very well. As my near-eight years in mobile have taught me – over and above anything else – focus is key. Swami Vivekananda, an Indian spiritual leader, sums this up better than I ever could. Take note:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced”.