DEMOmobile: Wireless Gets (Almost) Useful
By Mike Masnick, Tue Sep 14 00:15:00 GMT 2004

If there was one lesson to take from DEMOmobile 2004, it's that there are plenty of companies working to make wireless much more useful -- if only they could get around the gatekeepers and out-dated thinking.

On the final panel discussion near the end of DEMOmobile 2004, I said that it looked like the wireless industry would succeed in spite of itself. There are simply too many companies, coming up with too many innovative -- and truly useful -- solutions for the usual mistakes to drag them all down.

While many of the devices, applications and services launched this year at the DEMOmobile conference were impressive, a few stood out for their potential to make wireless technologies live up to their potential. The problem, though, is that too many of these technologies are completely reliant on others to adopt their technologies as part of a larger solution.

Perhaps the technology that generated the most talk for its potential was a "motion control solution" named IRIS from a new company (spun off from MyOrigo) called F-Origin. The IRIS system uses motion sensors within a phone or other mobile device with a small screen to let the user easily and intuitively scroll around the page. Think of it as turning the small screen on a mobile device into a magnifying glass for any application you would normally see on a full computer screen. As you tilt the phone, the page scrolls by. If you turn the phone to orient it sideways, the entire screen can flip to match your orientation as well. The screen can also be used to easily zoom in and out of the application as well, so that it can match the right size for what's needed right then. With a few simple motion detectors, and a very intuitive interface, suddenly any application designed mainly for a desktop computer is perfectly usable on the small screen of a mobile phone.

Also on the hardware side, Synaptics, makers of most of the world's laptop touchpads, has come out with "MobileTouch," to move that same technology to the mobile phone world. While Synaptics showed off a few different prototypes that would simply move a basic touchpad to a mobile phone, or copy the Apple iPod's touchpad scrollwheel concept, perhaps the most intriguing is the ability to make the touchpad part of the keypad. The problem with a regular touchpad, of course, is that it takes up a lot of space on hardware that doesn't have very much free space. However, by turning the keypad itself into a touchpad (basically putting the touch sensors beneath the keys), suddenly a touch pad can be added without using any more real estate on the face of the handset.

Of course, with both of these innovations, they won't be available until handset makers agree to add them to new models -- and while device makers are coming out with new designs all the time, major changes in the interface are often seen as a big risk that isn't undertaken lightly.

On the application side, both Digimarc and Mobot offered up similar visions of ways to make cameraphones more useful by snapping photos and using intelligence to match the photo to some kind of marketing component. Mobot is the company behind the Jane Magazine camera phone ad program, which encourages users to snap photos of advertisements in the magazine in exchange for prizes. In a world where too much of the focus on cameraphones is on the negative, and too much of the focus on mobile advertising is on pushing intrusive ads to users, this realization that advertising that engages the user by having them perform the initial action is a huge step forward. However, old mindsets die hard, and it's likely that many marketers will continue to focus on more annoying and intrusive advertising practices before they realize that's only a good way to upset users.

Many of the other devices and applications all looked useful, but were simply limited by the walled gardens the mobile world has set up. The Internet succeeded because it was open and encouraged everyone to take part, build their own applications and there were no walled gardens to keep people out. The gatekeepers didn't control the technology and force people to only use it in a certain way, but too many of the products launched this year either take on the walled garden mentality or are completely reliant on companies that consider themselves gatekeepers already. Others require a change in mindset. Both Orative (better management of voice mail through presence info) and Vazu (making it easy to move contacts and text to your mobile phone) had software that looked quite useful -- but required people to change the way went about some regular actions. People can be quite slow to change, and both of these smaller companies may not last long enough to make it through that change.

While it's great to see new devices, applications and services that really focus on breaking down the limitations of mobile devices while making them much easier to use and much more useful overall, the walled garden mentality combined with the difficult in changing how people behave are still large hurdles for almost every individual product launched at the show. The most likely result, unfortunately for many of the companies presenting, is that many of these innovative technologies will show up in different forms a few years from now from other companies. Being first to market with an innovative product isn't always the most likely path to success.