1% Makes or Breaks Usability – Especially in Mobile!

Logicam
A recent personal experience is yet another proof of how even small features can make or break usability in any product, no matter how good it is. I am away from home quite often so mobile technologies, the Internet and VoIP help me a lot to stay in touch. Since Skype has started to offer video telephony, things have improved even more. However, there was a catch.

We’ve had web cams for quite a while now but we didn’t use them a lot as my better half always felt uncomfortable with that "eye" (lens) staring at her even when not used. So the web cam was always unplugged and stowed away, usually not used again for a long time as it is just too much effort to position the camera and plug it in again before a call. Now Logitech has found a solution to the problem. One of their latest web cam models, the QuickCam Fusion features a lid that can be opened and closed to reveal or hide the lens. A small feature, but it makes Skype’s video service finally usable for us! No more camera positioning and plugging. After the call, the lid is closed and the "eye" is no longer staring at you! Strangely enough, Logitech doesn’t even mention this feature in their production description. Are they aware what they have done?

Now let’s take the lesson into the mobile domain: One of the small things that break the mobile Internet experience for most people is the fact that they have no idea how much it will cost them if they open their mobile phone’s web browser to go to the operator’s portal. Not a single person I asked who’s not regularly using the mobile web could answer this question. It’s unlikely this can be solved anytime soon, no matter how much mobile operators spend on advertising.

A different solution has to be found and actually, it is quite simple: How about having a button on the phone that automatically starts the web browser and directs the user to a pre-programmed page on the operator’s portal? Agreed, this already exists. However, most people hate this button because they feel it’s dangerous as they have no idea how much a press of that button will cost them. This is similar to the fear of the "eye" staring at you. So the only way to take that fear away is to make a subset of the portal free of charge. Sure, operators want to make money but to enter the shop (the portal) must be free and people must be made aware that entering the portal is free.

P.S.: Dear operators, once you do this, do this right! That means: Make the button free of charge for roamers as well!

Mobile Network VoIP capacity

One of my favorite topics is cellular network capacity. I posted an example a while back on the 1 kb/s 3G surfer. At the time I excluded VoIP as part of my application mix as it increases network traffic quite a bit. Today I found some interesting material which sheds some light on this part of the story:

Wireless Networks have a particular problem with Voice over IP. While traditional circuit switched traffic was optimized on all layers of the protocol stack to be transferred as efficiently over the air interface as possible, achieving the same effect for Voice over IP is very difficult due to the decoupling of the different network layers on the IP protocol stack. Thus, a VoIP call today consumes at least four times as much bandwidth on the air interface than a circuit switched voice call. In other words, if everybody started to use VoIP over wireless today, network capacity for voice calls would shrink to only a quarter of what it is today.

Now Ericsson has released an interesting slidepack on the topic which targets the non geek investment community but which nevertheless contains some interesting numbers on wireless network enhancements and optimization for VoIP in the future: As described above, Ericsson’s slide pack shows on page three that  UMTS networks today could only provide 20% of the voice capacity with VoIP compared to standard voice calls. So that’s close to my number above. With HSPA (I think they  refer to HSDPA + HSUPA) capacity increases to 70% if IP robust header compression (ROHC) is used. They then go on to claim that with efficient signaling (whatever that is…) and improved scheduler (what improvements?) and optional GRAKE2 (again what is that?) VoIP capacity can be pushed to 140% of today’s standard voice capacity. Finally the next evolution of UMTS called LTE (Long Term Evolution) targets 200% of current voice traffic for VoIP in the same bandwidth.

Not sure what the improvements are they are talking about as they don’t give any further explanations but it seems we are getting somewhere in due time. VoIP VoIP Hurray!

2006 – Year of the Quitter at MoJo

Debi a.k.a. Mobile Jones has discovered that a lot of people seem to quit one thing or the other this year. She wanted to join the pack and has quit smoking. Good idea 🙂 In a recent podcast recording she asked me what I would quit this year (has it become kind of an obsession with her)? Well, I might just quit blog reading…………… on the PC. My blog reader program (Resconews) on the mobile phone is almost good enough to let me do all my blog reading while on the go. Not much is missing in the software. So what will you quit this year?

Quicktime Pro converts video to .3gp format

Mp4_1
Sometimes I download video podcasts I would like to watch and which would also be suitable for watching while on the go on my Nokia N70 mobile. The built in Realplayer, however, does not recognize a lot of different video formats so most of the time, attempts to play such video podcasts on the mobile phone are not very successful. Now I’ve discovered that Apple’s Quicktime player in it’s pro version is able to export video format into the .3gp format which is used by most mobile phones. I gave it a try with a 20 minutes news show which I downloaded as MPEG-4. Reformating to .3gp format took about 3 minutes and the 20MB input file produced a 13MB output file. To my very positive surprise the phone’s built in Realplayer instantly recognized the file and played the 20 minutes video file flawlessly.

Some Thoughts on Mobile GeoTagging

Geoloc
Experimenting with my newly acquired Bluetooth GPS receiver, Python and S60 phone to come up with a tracking and network measurement software, some further thoughts have sprung up about what could be done with the location data. Once the GPS device is embedded in the phone it’s easy to store the exact location as part of the ‘exif’ data of pictures taken with the built in camera. It’s already got a name: GeoTagging.  Here are some ideas what I would like to do with it:

Automatically geotag my pictures I upload to Flickr from the mobile phone via Shozu: Flickr could then be enhanced to detect the geo location in the picture and offer a link directly below a picture to a mapping site such as Google Maps / Google Earth or the Yahoo equivalent. The user clicks on the link and a map of the location where the picture was taken pops up. The photo site could also go through its database to see if other users have taken pictures in the surroundings and show provide a link on the map to those pictures.

Enrich my private picture archive with location information: How about adding some geo functionality in Nokia’s Lifeblog!? The software could detect the geoinformation in a picture and open up my locally installed Google Earth and show me the location. Beyond that the user could create ‘location sets’ of let’s say all pictures taken during a vacation or a trip. Lifeblog could then open Google Earth to show which route I was taken and provide a link back to my pictures at every location a picture was taken.

Enhanced eMail program that detects geotags in pictures: Let’s say I want to show a friend where I am. So I take a picture which has an embedded geotag and use my mobile phone’s eMail client to send the picture. When he receives the picture the eMail program or external picture viewer should detect the geotag and again offer me a link to either my locally installed mapping software (e.g. Google Earth) or a web link to an online service to see where the picture was taken.

The beauty of these solutions is the ease of use for both creator and consumer of the picture. No user interaction is required to geotag the picture as the phone automatically puts the GPS coordinates into the picture. Once programs and websites support geotags there’s also no complicated user interaction required to use the information. Just click on a link or a button and ‘voila’, a map pops up to bring you closer to the image.

So Yahoo, Flicker, Shozu, Nokia and all others, it’s time for some products 🙂

A True World Band GSM and UMTS Data Card

Sierra
In an ideal world, the same radio frequencies would be used for wireless systems worldwide and a device bought on one continent would just work as well on another. Unfortunately, this is not quite the reality.

Countries in Europe, Asia and Africa use the 900 and 1800 MHz band for GSM while UMTS uses the 2100 MHz band. Consequently phones sold in these regions usually support these frequencies. Most phones also support GSM on 1900 MHz which is used in North America but lack the ability for GSM 850 and UMTS 1900 MHz which are also essential for this part of the world. So people visiting North America are always handicapped as in-house and rural coverage is sometimes a problem due to the missing 850 MHz band. UMTS does not work at all…

For people living in North America the situation is vice versa when they travel. Their phones support the 850 MHz band for GSM and the 1900 MHz for GSM and UMTS. These phones usually also support the 1800 MHz band which is one of the frequencies used for GSM in the rest of the world. However 900 MHz GSM and 2100 MHz UMTS is missing…

But hope is on the horizon. Sierra Wireless will launch a Quad Band GSM – Dual Band UMTS data card soon which will support GSM/GPRS/EDGE 850,900,1800 and 1900 as well as UMTS in both the 2100 MHz and 1900 MHz bands. Thus, such worries will be a thing of the past. Let’s hope the technology ends up in mobile phones soon. Nokia for example should have a great interest in this if they want to improve their position in the North America market. Even one of their latest flagship mobile, the N80 does not support both UMTS bands. There’s one for the world market with 2100 MHz UMTS support and another verison with 1900 MHz support for North America. Time to change this!

The question remains why mobile phone manufacturers are so reluctant to produce ‘world band’ phones!? Is the extra hardware cost so much higher than the overhead of producing  and maintaining different hardware and software versions?

A side note: The story is about to be continued. UMTS for the 900 MHz and is already specified and it seems only a matter of time before some countries will start using it. Also, I wonder when UMTS will make it’s appearance in the 850 MHz band.

S60, Python, a GPS receiver, and Google Earth

Googlemaps
Now that most work for the book is done, I have some time to experiment. I recently started to take a closer look at Python for the S60 mobile phone OS and what you can do with it. As I am pretty much into wireless networks, I wanted to have an application that tracks the network coverage where I go for later analysis. I am also quite interested in location based services and a firm believer that these services will only really take off once the GPS receiver is built into the phone. Combining these two interests with a little bit of programming and a recently bought Nokia LD-3W Bluetooth GPS receiver resulted in the following little quality time project:

The Python script I am currently working on queries the GPS receiver, measures the network signal quality and outputs the information in Google Earth format for visualization on the PC. The script is not quite finished yet but the  basic functionality of logging location and signal quality and visualize the data in Google Earth already works. The picture on the left (click to enlarge) shows a result of a 20 minutes test drive. While the line is green, network reception is good. Blue indicates average and red symbolizes a weak signal. Should you be one of the five people on this planet who does similar things and are interested in the source, let me know.

Mobile Monday Paris May 2006 – Pictures and Thoughts

Momoparis
Another Mobile Monday Paris took place last night at the Zen Factory in Paris close to the Place de la République. Again a fabulous event, lots of good discussions with people coming to the event and very interesting presentations. For pictures of the event, see my Flickr picture set of the evening.

First speaker of the evening was Stephane Delbecque of Yahoo France presenting Yahoo’s Connected Life vision. Focus of the presentation was Yahoo’s partnering with the Fifa to bring the football world championship to mobile phones all around the world.

Next, Didier Lesteven of Medialive presented their product which protects digital content on the way from the content provider to the consumer. This is done by their product by stripping out 1% of a media flow which is then protected and sent to the consumer in a secure way.

Afterward Philippe Coup-Jambet of Mobitype gave an overview of their moblogging platform that lets you create your own blog from your mobile phone and also acts as a mobile RSS aggregator. The product is currently in a first trial phase with the public launch expected this summer. The service will be free and is funded by ads which are put into the generated pages. I specifically liked the options of having the top 24h hour posts in one menu as that is missing in my current mobile RSS software.

Presentation number four was by Vincent Berge of the PACA Mobile Center, a new parisian institution in Marseilles that offers a platform for Java developers to test their products on a multitude of different phones.

And finally, Catherine Ramus made sure the evening was not only about technology in itself but also about combining technology with art and her presentation was about how to use 2D bar codes in a museum to get video stream art right on your mobile phone.

Great presentations, thanks very much to the presenters, I really enjoyed the evening! The presentations might end up on the official Mobile Monday France website in a couple of days and you can check them out here.