3G - Knowledge on the Move

Posted by Peter Cochrane on January 5, 2008

FT, 5 Jan 2008

Technology advances aside there have been four major service impacting changes over the past 20 years that the IT industry really did not anticipate. First there was the move of customers into pole position; they now call the shots and dictate the pace and direction of markets. Second; the rise of mobility with fist, pocket and case size devices of unprecedented capability. Third; the www and a migration to the edge with creativity and services provided using the power of the PC on the periphery of networks and society. And fourthly, there has been the rise of people orientated interfaces, services, and social networking. Industry reacted badly to all of these, and in general, failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented.

One of the first and biggest victims was the music industry with the rise of MP3 and file sharing. Later it was telecoms turn with VOIP and the internet, and soon it will be the turn of the broadcasters and the impact of the 'YouTube' mode and user centric content. And who is in the middle of all this? The mobile operators and 3G networks! What an opportunity; with over 2/3 of the 3G spectrum capacity currently unused, handsets selling badly, but with a market that is ripe, customers that are ready, and technologies that can deliver contiguous services.

So, beyond the obvious of voice, text, email and browser based information access, what do the customers want?

At the top of the list are location based services, but not as envisaged by the 3G industry! It is no longer about; where am I, it is about; where are they? We all navigate using GPS, but what is more important is to know where everyone else, and every thing, is. The real demand is about logistics, efficiency, safe working and on time delivery. Employers and employees need to be aware of location. In the case of mobile health workers, repair crews, maintenance and lone workers, it is knowing that they are physically safe and effective. For the individual it is about being connected and not isolated. In the case of things and goods delivery, it is about the schedule, being Just In Time, having the ability to make contingency decisions ahead of some impending delay or failure.

Next are the opportunities afforded by is the inclusion of increasingly advanced cameras in 3G devices, with the ability to transmit fixed and moving digital images of good quality. These present incredible opportunities for all sectors. Healthcare and remote diagnosis, and of course, patient monitoring is not only obvious, it is also directly applicable to hi-tech plant and equipment monitoring and maintenance. The expert/designer and consultant in your pocket is now a reality. Site visits, location reports, damage, risk and insurance assessment, the list is endless and the advantages relatively untapped to date.

Adding GPS, a compass, and an accelerometer to the 3G device turns it into a pointer very similar to the Wii. It knows where it is, which way it is pointing, and when you flick it toward and object or building, it can, in principle, immediately feedback details. This makes the 3G device an 'air mouse' with a screen. Behind all of this of course has to be networked computing power, software and databases designed for the job. Interestingly, a lot of the raw material and dynamic updates are already available from the likes of Google Maps, Ordnance Survey, and Government Records. The application space for this includes surveying and construction, law enforcement and tourism, logistics and environmental monitoring, government, insurance, banking and the military. And of course, just like Wiki technology, every user can become a contributor by adding their material as they build up individual knowledge bases.

All of the above plays well to the tenets of web2.0 which assumes a world of mobility and sharing, a world where high-speed connectivity between all people and all things is a given. In that sense 3G has an opportunity to make a fundamental contribution, but it lacks the necessary bandwidth to be significant in the grand scheme of things. This is the transition point to 4G, WiFi and WiMax!

Billing technology is much underutilized across the mobile arena, but applying it to the electronic wallet problem presents new domestic and professional application sets. Being able to pay your parking fee, or a coffee, is only the start. It is possible to conduct on-line banking transactions with the side benefit of instant, on site, fund transfers and payments of all kinds. But, we can also use the same technology for secure access to vehicles, buildings and facilities as the addition of finger print readers, face and voice recognition, and other biometrics measures is relatively straightforward. So this could be goodbye to cash and card, plus security passes. But, there is then the possibility of using secure 3G technology to access any screen anywhere, or what I refer to as the Captain Kirk (ala Star Trek) Mode. The problem waiting to be solved is the availability, use and abuse, of the large screen public kiosk. Imagine being able to walk up to any screen, log on using a 3G mobile, and then navigate around the www using you phone as keyboard and mouse. It could be that simple.

So far so good, but what about the less obvious applications coming from stage left?

One class of application that will be of great benefit to industry and commerce will be realized by the addition of sensors to a 3G mobile package. These can include environmental and chemical units for the detection and monitoring of known substances, which when linked to GPS information can provide a number of services for numerous industries. But most interesting is the possibility of information gathering across regions and complete countries as we, the users, become mobile monitoring stations. Coupled with bar code and RFID readers makes this facility even more powerful in the manufacturing, farming, food and retail sectors for quality and stock control.

A further, and not so obvious step will most likely come from the games industry where the real and virtual worlds are now being overlapped to create augmented reality. With this technology a real world camera view is overlaid by computer generated outlines and images. This allows us to ask the question; what am I looking at, and what are these selected and specific features, and what will it look like when modified. This would be applicable and useful in healthcare, high tech systems, construction, real estate, insurance, automotive, transport and much more.

Most of the above is applicable to the mobile phone, but we shouldn't overlook the PDA, laptop and tablet which generally have the ability to use mixed modes with 3G for low speed and WiFi for high speed applications. Taking all of the above technologies and applications and augmenting them with more memory, greater processing power, and a bigger screen, not only enhances what we have outlined, it opens the door to a raft of even more advanced applications that can be realized in 3G, WiFi, and/or a hybrid mode using both at the same time. To cite just one key example; we are not only challenged by data gathering, and of course finding specific data, we have the problem of distilling and managing knowledge. So the assessment of data and knowledge, and the attendant decision making that follows present a major hurdle for all mobile workers and agile organizations. In this context business and situational analysis is coming of age and finding use in the fixed on-line world. Soon it will be possible to have that full facility on the move, but like everything else, it will be bandwidth hungry!