We have been thinking about the ways in which pupils and staff in our school will be connecting to the web in the months and years immediately ahead. Both campus-wide wireless provision and the expectation that hand-held devices will be common figure prominently in our planning. The huge success of hand-held devices, in particular mobile phones and their ever-evolving range of roles, may make the latter appear a no-brainer, but the laptop isn't dead yet. Time will come, though, when we take our hand-helds with us around the campus, perhaps docking them back in our studies and using there a standard keyboard/screen combo. (On the integration of WiFi into mobile phones, see, for example, this Time article.)
Some colleagues are concerned about increased distraction in classes when powerful mobile devices become ubiquitous. William Blaze has some interesting thoughts about this, including the idea that laptops are primarily a problem as they can create a physical shield between student and teacher/class.
… there are three main uses for the computer in a meeting or classroom, note taking, distraction and instant research. … Using the computer for distraction is the classic anti laptop in the room case, but I'm not sold. Sure their is a certain dynamic to IM that might pull people farther away from the topic at hand, but just how much does it differ from someone handwriting a love letter, doodling or reading all the small print on whatever they pulled from their briefcase? Any additional distraction the internet might bring is easily offset by what it can add to the conversation, no? I like laptops being in a classroom for about two reasons, google and wikipedia. Fast, cheap information. An in room error correction machine. When used correctly the internet can transform a room from a closed information space, into an open one.
There is no finer enthusiast for the mobile phone than Russell Beattie:
People constantly say, “I just want my mobile to make phone calls,” Right? Well the answer to this is … “Your phone is always with you, wouldn’t it be nice if helped do other things as well? Inform? Entertain? Assist you and remind you? You’re lugging the thing around 24/7 anyways, as long as it’s there it might as well be useful!” This is the thing, most people don’t realize mobile phones can do all that, and most U.S. developers just look at it as an anemic platform unworthy of their time, just like Janne said. But it’s not! It’s this great device sitting idle in the pockets of billions of people, all day every day, just waiting to be put to work! Let’s give it something to do! Now is the time! Russell Beattie
The mobile phone is a PLATFORM now. Get it? Long gone are the days when it was used for just making phone calls … Get used to the fact that mobile phones are now the most important piece of technology in the world. More important than your PC or your television or your iPod. Russell Beattie
Mobility is going to change life as we know it - in some places it has already shaped world events and changed history. The ubiquity of the technology is the key to all of this and the lowly mobile phone is the shape of the box in which all of this possibility is kept in. It’s not the computer or the laptop or the PDA, and it’s not WiFi or WiMax, it’s the modern mobile phone. That’s just the way it is … Russell Beattie
So what makes the mobile phone different from a laptop? Janne Jalkanen:
I was listening to the Supernova 2005 panel on mobility as a podcast, and got progressively angrier at the complete lack of vision from their part: everybody was treating mobile phones as just lighter versions of laptops. Then I also read Charlie's commentary on the same subject, and got rather ranty on another blog. Mobile phones are not just bad browsers on resource-constrained devices with crappy connectivity and non-free voice. This is something we Nokians keep iterating over and over. But as I uttered those words, enraged at nobody in particular, I realized that I lack the proper explanation on what really makes a phone different from a laptop with Skype. And if I can't figure it out, then maybe these people are right. Maybe mobile phones should just be treated like computers with tiny screens?
I have a few explanations, though not many: … mobile phones are mostly background devices, whereas a laptop has a tendency of consuming all your attention, becoming a foreground device. The usage patterns are fundamentally different: a mobile phone is always on, always connected, always with you. It's not a Big Brother, but more like a Little Brother, if you excuse the pun. Another difference I can think of is that a mobile phone is more of a physical object than a laptop is: The mobile phone gets decorated with covers and straps and things; the laptop stays the same …
I definitely see that a pocketable, networked, one-hand operated device is the core of the mobile lifestyle. A laptop can never be a true part of one’s mobile lifestyle. … the phone sits in the background, waiting until you need it. Then - a call comes in, an item comes into view that is great for a video or photo, a calendar reminder goes off - and you make the choice to bring it into the foreground. Successful mobile devices are ones that are background devices that don’t force themselves into the foreground. Background activities can be listening to music, waiting for appointment reminders, carrying snippets of actionable data (contact info, calendar, some notes, a to-do list), and waiting for a call or SMS. Things like video, chat, playing games, and browsing the Web are full-time foreground activities, and, while they can be done while away from the desk, aren’t really things I consider doable while walking or driving, or even for small snippets of time.
… to create an app that is truly geared for the mobile lifestyle, you need to take advantage of the background status of the mobile device and not bring it too far or often into the foreground.
Building "background-ness" into the hand-helds of the future can only add to their value in the classroom.
I took many things away from Marko Ahtisaari's posting about the shared mobile future. One tiny shard from there: the Finnish for mobile phone is 'kännykkä, meaning extension-of-the-hand'. To be this "natural", the phone has much development to undergo. Christian Lindholm has said:
The future of mobility is not a bandwith problem. We have a screen problem and that is terminal. The only way to get around it in small handhelds is to design content specifically optimised for small handsets.
Far too few of the big players are paying attention to mobility issues; Charlie Schick makes this point here. One problem, then, for schools, as mobile devices become ever more common, is that accessing web sites on them is as yet tedious, time-consuming and frequently deeply unrewarding (and expensive). (Mobile Design has some helpful suggestions about how to adapt your website for a mobile device, prefaced by this: 'Publishing a mobile version of your content is harder than it should be. One significant technical leap must be made in order to give users a seamless experience … device detection, the relatively simple concept of routing different devices to the most appropriate content for that device.')
As things are now, we need to be candid about how we use our hi-tech phones. As far as my experience goes, I'm in broad agreement with Jason Kottke. Thumbs-up to clock, voice and text messaging. Email: last year, I ran my email through a Sony-Ericsson P900, but it was all a bit less than a pleasure. This year, with a Nokia 6630, I haven't bothered, and, like Jason, find that it hasn't mattered. Accessing the web: my preferred device for this is my laptop, too. (If the camera on my phone were better, I'd use it more. I'm eyeing the N90 come Xmas — the turn-around point in my 12 month upgrade cycle).
'Next year there will be more than 2 billion mobile phone users in the world. … Mobile phones today have become ubiquitous, embedded into the fabric of everyday life. They have become a mobile essential. If someone owns a mobile phone today it is likely to be one of the three things that she always carries with her, the other two being keys and some form of payment.' — Marko Ahtisaari. And he goes on:
The mobile platform - because of its scale and its focus on the big human fundamental of social interaction - is a center of gravity for other familiar benefits and functionalities. Think of the clock. Imagine how many people wake up to a phone each morning, how many have stopped using a wristwatch. Or, to take a more recent example, the camera is now moving onto the mobile platform.
The future is definitely mobile. Schools must look to it and work out their strategies now. In fact, Marko's figures are already out of date, as Russell Beattie's post here makes clear ('Yep, we’ve hit the 2 Billion Mobile Phone mark ahead of schedule') — and see update below. Russell goes on, though, to say:
… the 2 billion number gets the headlines, but the real story to me is the penetration rates of faster networks and more powerful handsets. Over the next 18 months we’re going to see a dramatic increase in the number of advanced phones out there, which is really going to be exciting for those of us wanting to use these phones as a platform.
Update (22.9.2005). Important posting that went up yesterday on Communities Dominate Brands. Much made me sit up and take note. Key excerpts:
The research organisation Ovum and the GSM Association released the data on Sept 18, 2005, that worldwide there are now 2 billion mobile phone users. …
Putting the number in context. There are twice as many mobile phones, than there are internet users of any kind. There are three times as many mobile phones than there are personal computers. There are more mobile phones than credit cards, more mobile phones than automobiles, more mobile phones than TV sets, and more mobile phones than fixed/wireline phones. In fact a staggering 30% of the global population carries a mobile phone. Since Taiwan first did it in 2001, today over 30 countries have achieved over 100% cellphone penetration rates, and even laggard USA has gone past the 50% penetration rate. In the most advanced mobile markets such as Finland, Italy and Hong Kong the typical first-time cellphone customer is under the age of 10. It is the only digital gadget carried by every economically viable person on the planet. Younger people have stopped using wristwatches and rely only upon the mobile phone for time. It is the only universal device, and the device of the Century.
Every mobile phone user can be reached by SMS text messaging (ie more than twice the number of people that can be reached by e-mail). Each mobile phone can handle payments (if the mobile operator/carrier decides to enable that ability) … And almost every mobile phone user keeps the mobile phone literally within arm's reach 24/7. Yes, 60% of us actually take the mobile phone physically to bed with us, either to use the alarm feature or to hear incoming text messages.. If we lose our wallet we report it in 26 hours. If we lose our mobile phone we report it in 68 minutes. As to those who are new to these phenomena, no, we don't only use the phone outside. In fact 70% of all phone calls are placed indoors, and a whopping 60% of all data access by mobile phone is done indoors.
… the mobile phone is becoming the evolution target for much of the converging industries. 19% of all music revenues are generated by mobile phones. 14% of videogaming software revenues come from mobile phone games. More cameraphones are sold this year than all non-mobile phone digital cameras ever sold. … there is a big future in the convergence of TV and mobile. … In fact almost all community behaviour is migrating to mobile phones, from blogging (there are more mobile blog sites already than there are regular internet blogsites - but most of the moblog sites are in two languages I don't speak - Korean and Japanese) to videogaming to dating to chat to TV-interactivity such as voting for reality shows etc.