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December 23 , 2005 | Part Two: The Telephone and its Disconnects

Before we can begin any discussion of a “repair” of the telephone (in truth, it is not the telephone that needs repair, but rather that we, who design them, must repair our thinking), it is necessary to prick consciousness with a few probes, interventions in the form of three questions, which will help to illuminate the enormous weight of subconscious and unrecognized prejudices which accompany the modern mobile telephone. These questions outline the telephone’s “disconnects,” where logic and reason fail, and prejudice, embodied, is revealed.

 Question One: Why does a mobile telephone have a keypad?

 Automatic dialing technology is about eighty years old [23]; before that, calls were switched by an operator at a switchboard, who physically connected trunk lines to make the circuit. Mechanical automation obsolesced the operator, and the rapid advance of computerized switching systems in the 1960s gave birth to DTMF “touch tone” dialing.[24] It is this “touch tone” keypad which we have come to consider as the “natural” interface to the telephone, even though it is not quite as old as this author. In the years before the microprocessor revolution, when AT&T stamped out hundreds of millions of absolutely identical, identically dumb, touch-tone telephone handsets, users had to peck the number into the keyboard every single time they placed a call.

 How often do you hand tap a number into your mobile phone? I’ve been doing some informal polling, and the answer seems to be, “About once a week.” Although we might be using our mobile phone tens of hours a week, we only tap a number into it once a week. If that’s the case, why is half the interface of the mobile telephone composed of a keypad?

 We all know what the keypad is used for, tens of times a day: SMS. Text messaging is the killer app for the mobile telephone, and the keypad is the interface to that service. Yet text messaging via keypad is so slow, so fraught, even with predictive text, that it’s amazing we bother to do it at all. It’s a clear indication that the need to send text messages outweighs our frustrations with the text message interface. Nevertheless, that resentment persists, and grows with every text message sent. It’s part of the reason why THE NEW INVENTORS audience gave up that groan.

 Why do we use the keypad for SMS? Because that’s the interface we’ve got. And why is that the interface we’ve got? Because this is a telephone, and the one, absolutely uniform feature of the telephone interface is the dialing keypad. People need to dial numbers. But no one actually does dial numbers anymore. They’re all in our address books. We don’t even remember numbers anymore. I can remember my mobile and my office and my voice mail numbers. Everything else is managed by my mobile phone – which is as it should be. As we transition to a VOIP world, the concept of the phone number will be entirely meaningless, replaced by a SIP URL. At that point, we’ll never type numbers into our telephones.

 The interface to text messaging, the keypad, shapes all communication through the device. Consider these contrasting examples: A few weeks ago I learned how to compose text messages on my Macintosh, shipping them over to my phone for delivery. It was immediately liberating; I had the full benefit of punctuation and a dictionary larger than the predictive text library. As an immigrant to the world of text messaging, I found relief. On the other hand, the younger generation has gone in the opposite direction, adapting their communication forms to the interface, creating a rich linguistic pidgin, which reads like shorthand.

 The information pressure behind text messaging has been so intense that we have seen the emergence of new SMS-based languages[25]. This pressure is pushing the mobile telephone through a series of mutations; some look like the Blackberry, which features a full, if miniature QWERTY keyboard. Others favor other interface modalities, such as speech recognition. The keypad itself is a vestigial organ. It will wither away then disappear entirely, resurrected as a ghost, in a virtualized, on-screen interface, for those rare occasions when we type a number into the telephone.

 Question Two: To how many networks is the mobile telephone connected?

 The telephone is essentially a network terminal; it provides services to the user by making, managing, and destroying connections to the network. In Australia, we readily acknowledge that our mobile telephones sit on two networks: GSM, which handles lightly-digitized analog traffic[26]; and GPRS (Global Packet Radio Service), which is a packet-switched data-only network with full TCP/IP capabilities[27]. As third-generation “3G” cellular networks become pervasive, the analog-only network is being dropped in favor of a all-digital, high-speed, packet-switched, TCP/IP network connection. These are the networks we connect to with our mobile telephones. But these are not all.

 The average model mobile telephone for sale today – anything that sells for more than AUD $100 – actually presents at least four network interfaces. In addition to the standard GSM/GPRS network interfaces, the mobile telephone is also equipped with an IrDA (Infrared Data Association) network interface. The IrDA interface is a very short range, line-of-sight, point-to-point networking protocol, which generally fades away after about 50cm of distance. Historically, IrDA has been used to allow devices to share small chunks of data, such as address cards, URLs, and the like. It features a relatively slow transmission speed – reaching an upper limit of 57Kbps – and hence is not suitable for large file transfers. While IrDA is an inexpensive interface to implement in a small-profile device such as a mobile telephone, its shortcomings have kept it from widespread use.

 The fourth network interface, and by far the most interesting one, is Bluetooth. Bluetooth is a low-power wireless networking technology which provides a sphere of coverage of about 10 meters in radius around the Bluetooth device. Bluetooth has been around since the late 1990s, launched with great fanfare, followed immediately by a very public failure as many Bluetooth devices proved to be incompatible. The market took care of these problems quickly, and with the introduction of version 1.1 of Bluetooth in early 2001, the market for Bluetooth devices began to take off. Nearly all mobile phones which cost more than $AUD 100 have Bluetooth network interfaces, and, at present, five million Bluetooth are manufactured each week[28]. This includes mobile phones, laptops, PDAs, wireless headsets, etc.

 At present Bluetooth isn’t used for very much; it has become a more-reliable replacement for IrDA, because it does not rely on line of sight, but rather, physical proximity, something that’s much easier to manage. Bluetooth is used to keep devices synchronized, or as a file transfer protocol – a way to get photographs off the phone, and appointments onto it. Yet Bluetooth is capable of far more than this. Its link layer (layer 3), L2CAP, is capable of managing “piconets” of eight devices – one master and seven slaves. These piconets can overlap in physical and logical space, so the same device can be a slave in one piconet and master of another. This means that when Bluetooth devices are brought together, they can easily form a complex network topology. Furthermore, this network topology need not be entirely local, with all traffic restricted to the piconet; any Bluetooth device could act as a gateway, routing traffic directed through it to the Internet, or to other piconets, as required.

 We haven’t seen anything like this show up on our mobile telephones. Although these devices have the advantage of some very sophisticated networking technology, we’re simply using Bluetooth to push discrete blocks of data around. We are not treating these Bluetooth devices as nodes within a packet-switched network. Why? Because we have not recognized the power of this highly versatile network interface. We see the mobile telephone purely as a terminal on the GSM/GPRS networks, when it is actually a terminal on at least four different networks. As mobile telephones acquire 802.11 “WiFi” capabilities – they already are, to satisfy the demands of VOIP users – these handheld network terminals will present five network interfaces. Yet we continue to act as though these other interfaces simply do not exist.

 Question Three: What is the mobile telephone doing?

 The modern mobile telephone – such as my SonyEricsson K750i – is an impressively powerful device. It has a gigabyte of non-volatile memory, a fairly large RAM scratchpad for program execution, an operating system (Symbian OS), a Java Virtual Machine (J2ME), and a host of custom ICs dedicated to digitizing audio signals, converting digitized signals to audio, managing the UHF connection to the cellular network, driving the Bluetooth radio, and so forth. The K750i also has firmware which performs the vector mathematics needed in three-dimensional transformation matrices, so that I can play any number of 3D games.

 Why would we play games on our mobile telephones? By this we don’t mean to question the validity of mobile entertainment, be it music or video or games of strategy and skill. This is a big industry, earning billions of dollars a year as people find new ways to use their mobile phones to fill the otherwise empty moments in their lives. We are not questioning the human desire to be entertained every single moment of the day (although perhaps we should)[29], but rather, we are asking if this is an appropriate use of the mobile telephone. The mobile telephone, like our desktop and laptop computers, suffers from consistent underutilization; we rarely keep it busy. Even when we are engaged in voice communication, newer mobile telephones use only a small portion of their capabilities in call management. The mobile telephone represents a tremendous computational resource which is almost entirely unutilized. Hence, the phone is free for games and other entertainments.

 Why is the mobile telephone so underutilized? Once again, we see the vestigial behavior of analog fixed-line telephony. Fixed-line telephones did nothing until the network sent a call to the handset, or until the user picked up the handset to make a call. The duty cycle for the fixed-line telephone was entirely driven by users, as the only actors within the network. This basic assumption drives the design of mobile telephones: the devices are essentially passive, waiting to be activated by the network or the user. But why should this be? There’s no essential purpose served by such passivity – far from it. But the mobile telephone has been cursed by its ancestry, and this curse has kept it from reaching its full potential. This is the most important thing we must unlearn, if we are to repair the telephone.The mobile telephone is only a passive device because we have designed it so.

 We believe it a necessary precondition for telephone repair that we treat the mobile telephone as an entirely active device, a network terminal which has been designed from its outset to facilitate management of and communication with the social network of its owner-user. The mobile telephone is already the de facto device for digital social network management; voice calls and text messaging are arguably the most significant components of the electronic communication within our social networks. The ephemeral nature of synchronous voice communication and asynchronous text messages means that these informational transactions are not captured by existing digital social networks, which, in turn, means that we unconsciously underestimate their importance, because they are not counted (except on our monthly bills), and are not tracked, except within the mobile handset. If we transform the mobile telephone into an active device, and design it to be conscious of the electronic communication which takes place through it and around it, we have a device which can gather a wealth of data – a “data shadow” – from which we can build emergent models of a dynamic digital social network. The mobile telephone is the only device which is well-suited to the task of feeding our ever-hungry digital social networks; it is the only device capable of recording our lives as they are lived. The mobile telephone should be fully realized as an active device which takes note of our digital social interactions, using this information to assist us in improving the quality of these interactions.

 This is the core design principle that we recommend be put into practice; without this step forward, nothing else is possible, and the mobile telephone will remain an overpowered, underutilized twin of its mechanical-analog ancestors. Because of the growing importance of ad-hoc digital social networks, there is a growing pressure to consistently improve and reinforce the connections within our social networks. Should we succeed in transforming the mobile telephone into the instrumentality of our social networks, that transformation will release this pressure, driving the mobile telephone forward into a fantastic array of mutations and forms. It will be a Cambrian Explosion of communication, brought into being we connect our need to our capability.

 The impact of such a transformation would be immediate and profound. When users stop fighting the interface, and find, instead, that the interface enables social network management, these users will enter into a new ontological accommodation with the device. It will, in short order, become entirely indispensable. It will not be thought of as a device for voice communication, or even as a terminal for text messaging; it will be the portal into the user’s social network: the physical, proximal and ubiquitous connection into the sphere of human connection. There is precedent for such a rapid transformation: in twenty-four months the web browser grew from its origins as a hacker curiosity to become the indispensable information age tool.

 Our analysis of the requirements for this transformation of mobile telephony from passive to active modes indicates that the technological infrastructure for such a revolution is already in place; this is a revolution in software, not hardware; a revolution in usability, not deployment. The handsets and networks are fully ubiquitous. We need only learn how to design software to fit the needs of the network’s users. To do that, we must experiment, play, and listen to the users.


23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automatic_telephone_exchange
24. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touch_tone
25. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 22, January 2002, p. 481
26. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GSM
27. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPRS
28. http://www.bluetooth.com/news/releases.asp?A=2&PID=1521&ARC=1
29. Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, New York, 1986, p. 43

Continue to Part Three >>

Mark Pesce is the co-creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) - the first 3D interface to the internet - and the founder of the Interactive Media Program at USC's School of Cinema-Television. In 2000, Ballantine Books published Pesce's The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming our Imagination, which explored the world of interactivity through a detailed examination of the Furby, LEGO’s Mindstorms and the Playstation 2. In late 2003, Pesce was invited to the Australian Film Television and Radio School, with a mandate to redesign the curriculum to incorporate the new opportunities offered by interactive media.

Read Mark's blog: hyperpeople.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.

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