Breaking Out of Default Thinking
By Howard Rheingold, Thu Jul 29 18:45:00 GMT 2004

Successful mobile applications build on the core functionality of mobile phones, not try to emulate desktop PCs, designer Scott Jenson contends.


After hearing and reading Scott Jenson's rants on "default thinking" in the design of mobile services, I asked him what he's seen that breaks out of backward-looking design thinking. He replied:

"Another strong and under-appreciated aspect of mobile phone use is the personalization people do to their phones. This is usually in the form of snap on covers, ring-tones or wallpaper. However, in Japan it goes even farther to the 'tassels' that get added, even hand painting of the covers. This is clearly a deep social need being reflected in what is, at one level, just a piece of geeky technology. People have often called this process 'turning a phone into jewelry,' but it is missing the point. People are turning their phones into a stand-in for themselves. Some provocative ideas come from examining this need and 'Web-izing' it, expanding it into cyberspace.

"The idea I'm working on right now is what I call 'PictureFrame,' where everyone would have a personal 'picture' that represents them, much like snap on covers and ringtones do today. However, this would be more like a very personal Web site. It is a visual projection of my personality. The key difference is that this visual projection would be visible to all phone users. Instead of just 'calling' me, you could 'look at my picture' before calling. While there is tremendous social value in doing this only for style and image projection, it would clearly get old fairly quickly. It could be enhanced two ways. The most obvious is that people could change it frequently but that is only a path of diminishing returns.

"Picking a visual style is the broad stroke that sets the stage. 'Real functionality' can be layered on top to add infinite variety and finish. For example, overlaid on top of my cool montage of jazz musicians would be my 'away message', my call state, or even my battery level. If we crack the permissions problem properly and you are in my inner circle, you could even see my location (an intentionally vague location (soho district) might even have more value as it gives enough information without invading my privacy).

"In this way, your Picture becomes a proxy for you, a primitive gatekeeper giving potential callers more info than they had before. Instead of just blasting a phone call to you no matter where you are, I can 'peek in' to see you and find out you are busy and want only SMS right now. Or quite the opposite, you're bored and want calls now!

"This is really nothing more than the presence feature of IM. However, by looking at through a phone-based ethnography, we end up inverting it. It becomes much more than just IM: it is a gateway to a new way of interacting socially on phones.. This must be done through simple Web standards so the picture could be much like a Web page: presentation and functionality together. This would allow it to grow and morph as services become more sophisticated over time. This can't be owned or controlled, it has to be as simple as HTML, the functionality needs to be self-describing so the radical fringe can try also sorts of cool experiments.

"The reason I call it PictureFrame and not just Picture is that there is a Frame component as well. I won't go into detail now, but roughly it is the way a phone handles a collection of pictures. This is the Yang to the pictures' Yin. By making the Frame completely proprietary and specific to each handset you give the handset manufacturers something to compete over. There are a zillion cool things you could do with Frames (when looking at your picture, I can see the last 3 calls we made, the last 3 messages we sent and (boring business use) any upcoming meetings we have scheduled) Frames could even be a source of my "Tap" concept.

"The key point about Frames is that it 'gives in' to the marketing reality of differentiation. I've learned in working through so many meetings with handset makers and service providers that they have a strong need for control. The problem is that all mobile services have been monolithic, so the control is over the entire product. By leaving the Picture free and completely open, you unlock the kind of innovation that created the web. The Frame is the pressure release value that still allows competition to the handset makers.

"For this to really take off, it has to be P2P so the servers can't 'own' anything. There are some deep network issues that if not done well could bring this idea to its knees. Even with 3G speeds, we can't be wasteful with bandwidth. This would have to be technically very clever to pull off.

"I want the mobile market to open up and hundreds of concepts to be tried out. I hope that 3G combined with programmable phones will allow P2P concepts to be tested. The challenge to the industry is to get off its fat ass and start to experiment more: Fail fast, learn fast.

"I focused on PictureFrame because it is a P2P app that shares the ultimate content -- information about me and my friends. Admittedly, it is very simple information, but it's a well-grounded set of information that has strong social value. I keep coming back to P2P communication concepts as that is the core function of a mobile phone. I want to extend what phones are good at, not try to take away from what desktops are good at.