The Human Touch to Wireless Technology
By Heidi Kriz, Fri Oct 26 00:00:00 GMT 2001

A new approach to wireless that brings people back into the equation.

The advancement of technology has been little questioned throughout history. The assumption has mostly been that leaps of technology must equal progress and improvement.

And, for the most part, this has not been untrue. Improvements in technology have been primarily helpful, producing useful tools potentially used to increase quality of life.

So when the Internet and wireless came along, they were heralded as technologies that were here simply to make our lives easier - and most importantly - simpler. Communication would be eminently easier, and so would our jobs. Just think. Now we can work from home if we chose, or from some remote location.

For many, the fact that they, and others have so many ways to identify themselves for the purposes of personal communication, can actually make it harder for people to get through to them directly - and vice versa. And, more subtly, but perhaps more importantly, the element of human-ness in communication between people, gets squeezed out of the equation.

Well, a group of computer scientists at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, would change all that. Nestled in the heart of Silicon Valley, in a landscape that veritably bristles with PDA's, mobile phones and mobile Internet and computing devices, this collection of scientists, called the MosquitoNet Group, has come up with a new software system that addresses these issues.

It is called, aptly enough, the "Mobile People Architecture." And MosquitoNet is on the verge of launching the beta version of MPA - a system they say could revolutionize the way wireless networks and devices are used by people to communicate - and how these devices communicate with each other.

A new way of thinking

"Right now, people are slaves to their devices," says Stanford computer scientist T.J Giuli.

"What I really like about this new application that we've developed is that the system treats people as the endpoint of communication, instead of their devices. That's so much more humanizing," Giuli says.

Here's how it works: The main goal of MPA is to route communication to a mobile person, independent of his location, or the communication applications he is currently using.

This people-level routing uses an addressing scheme that uniquely identifies people. In the MPA system, these are called Personal Online ID's or POIDs.

So let's say Jack wants to contact Jill, to discuss the business meeting coming up that afternoon. It's urgent, and he doesn't have time to call and write around to all of her contact number and addresses. If the device Jack is using supports MPA, then it uses Jill's POID to direct communication to something called her "Personal Proxy."

The Personal Proxy is the innovative core element to MPA. It consists of three parts: the Tracking Agent, the Dispatcher and a set of Application Drivers.

The Tracking Agent keeps track of Jill while she moves from an application on one device to another application, potentially on another device. Say Jill switched her cell phone off, and is only accessing her email on her PDA for now. The Tracking Agent hands off this information to the Dispatcher.

The Dispatcher then processes any communication that shows up at the Personal Proxy. Based on Jill's preferences, which she can program into the system, the Dispatcher will direct the communication to the right application.

So when Jack calls Jill on her cellphone, frantic to discuss the agenda for the meeting the Application Driver of the MPA system would then convert his voice message into an email message with an embedded sound file, which is then passed on to Jill's PDA or laptop.

What's more is that the MPA system can be used to maintain absolute privacy - no one need ever know what Jill's location is at any given time. And she can set the preferences so that she receives only certain communiques and not others.

"You can think of the Personal Proxy as being a very, very good personal assistant," chuckles Giuli.

A colleague of Giuli's at Stanford agrees with Giuli, and points out another advantage to the MPA system.

"Up until now, it seemed like the sender of a communication would get to decide if he or she was going to initiate, or sometimes even intrude upon someone with communication," says computer science graduate student Sergio Marti.

"This new system represents a potentially profound shift in the way that mobile technology is cast either as a boon or a curse in our lives," says Marti.

And it's not just the creators of the MPA system that feel that way.

"With the proliferation of all these computing and mobile devices, the separation between worklife and personal life is becoming so vague," points out the Jill Chopyak, the executive director of the Loka Institute, a think tank in Massachusetts, US that examines the impact that technology has on society.

"Consequently, I think a system like MPA, that helps filter and re-route communications at the discretion of the end-user, could have very positive effects on quality of life," says Chopyak.

Salvation of the industry?

According to industry observers, such unified approaches within the wireless industry could be the make or break of the industry. That's because up until now, lack of standardization and interoperability barriers between networks and equipment have thwarted commercialization of these services.

"The industry, of course, recognizes this - there are many organizations working on similar systems," observes Sara Radicati, CEO of the Radicati Group Inc, in Palo Alto, California a wireless industry market research firm.

Even so, the Stanford team argues that its system has a greater level of personalization than its would-be competitors, and that users can control it better, because it exists on the periphery of the network.

According to Radicati, though, the industry-wide impact will hang not on specifics of such an application, but whether these applications promoters have a solid business model.

"All of this stuff is way too new to tell," says Radicati. "Once the developers finish working the bugs out of the application, they should get out of the way and hand it off and let the business people take over."

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.