by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XXXI

This Week's Clue: The Cell Phone Interface

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This Week's Clue: The Cell Phone Interface
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Oram's Razor
What Is Journalism
Fear, Loathing, And The Computer Press
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of August 2, 2004

We talked last week about the need for a voice interface as part of a wireless network platform.

But as cell phones become part of the mainstream, starting next year, they have an even more basic problem.

Each manufacturer has a completely different set of interfaces.

Nokia thinks that security means keeping your teenager from calling your mistress. Sony Ericsson doesn't enable secure Internet services by default. Motorola has a proprietary Navigation Wheel for handling commands, while Nokia relies on four arrow buttons.

All this is fine when you're talking about what are essentially voice services. But PCs and PDAs are generally accepted because, on the whole, we know how to use them.

We understand the mouse-and-keyboard. The Q key is usually in the upper-left corner. When reduced to a tiny screen, the differences between the Palm and a Windows PDA become more akin to those between a Windows and Macintosh PC. If you can drive one you can learn to drive the other pretty quickly.

This is not true with cell phones.

The Open Mobile Terminal Platform Group (OMTP) is supposed to be dealing with the interface problems mentioned in our previous post.

But take a look at their site. This is a group of operators, cellular network operators, who are begging phone makers to get together and, so far, not being heard.

Handset makers must figure -- why worry? Sales are strong, overall, and the interface can be a major selling point.

Nokia, for instance, has fallen from favor because they were late with a "flip phone." I wondered over that for months. I finally learned, from experience that the exposed keyboard forced it to define "security" as securing the keyboard, rather than securing data or the owner's rights. The flip design also protects the screen, which becomes vital as you cameras become key components. (The flip also protects camera owners from charges of spying -- if you don't see it open it's not a problem.)

It is time for operators to put their feet down, not individually but together. What I am calling for, then, is an Interface Summit, sponsored by the OMTP, aimed at trying to standardize...something. Functions, key commands, keyboards, something.

Right now, if you hand a Sony user a Nokia phone they will be lost once they get past the basics of making a call. This shouldn't be.

If we are to get cellular networks into the computing mainstream, this time next year, without making a move toward standardizing interfaces, then these networks will never get the growth they need to justify the expense, or we'll find ourselves buying new stuff, from new manufacturers, which do have something like a "standard" interface.

Beyond the problem with the interface we have a problem with the operating systems.

I wrote extensively early this year about the difference between "consumer electronics operating systems" like VXWorks from Wind River, and "computer operating systems," like Windows, Palm and Linux. At that time I was arguing that wireless networks, and the gateways that create them, needed a robust, scalable operating system to make the network a new platform.

In the case of phones, a robust and scalable operating system can do more. It defines an operating environment based on 20 years' experience.

This can make a real difference in a user's experience.

A few months ago I had to have some tree work done on my lot, and called Treeman , a local arborist. He came holding a small notebook, which I found contained a Handspring Treo, along with a pad of paper. The Treo was his phone as well as his computer, he explained, and the paper let him communicate with customers or his workers. At the end of each day Bluetooth could synchronize the Treo with his PC.

There's a market for this new interface, and that market is going to grow. It must grow if cell phones are to become mainstream computing devices. And device makers need to pay attention. It's not enough to offer cool features, like cameras, if you're going to have proprietary operating environments built on weak and unstable operating systems.

There's a real opportunity here. I wonder who will seize it?


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News

Oram's Razor

Andy Oram delivered a fine historical overview of the universal service debate at O'Reilly recently, and I decided to respond.

The analysis was missing one key ingredient, I wrote, Moore's Law.

Moore's Law applies to fiber, and it applies to data radios as well. Their capabilities grow faster-and-faster, faster-and-faster. It's the impact of Moore's Law on both these areas that have blown away the financial assumptions of the telcos, and the assumptions built into the universal service debate.

No one, not a private company, not a municipality, not the federal government, can justify building telecom capacity today on the basis of a 30-year note. Not when that capacity is going to be worthless, in real terms, just three years from now.

To my surprise and delight Oram was gracious in responding to what some might have called criticism. "As I understand it, you're saying 'Why invest a huge amount in some copper/fiber combo when we might get something 10 times faster in a few years?'" he wrote. "That's a legitimate argument, but it's the same choice people have to make yearly when they buy a new computer."

The key words there, of course, are yearly and computer. You don't get a 30-year note to buy a computer. You buy it for cash, and you may (if you care to) write it off over three years.

What does this mean for telecommunications investment?

Well, if you've got a service area of even a few hundred homes, you can write off a Wi-LAN 802.16 scheme from the nearest fiber in 3 years, and the customers can each write-off the 802.11 access to that system as well.

So that works with Moore's Law.

You can probably write off the electronics needed to upgrade the capacity of a fiber over three years, if you're increasing your backhaul capacity by 1,000x or more, as you might well be.

So you can buy that.

But laying new cable? Digging ditches or stringing wires?


Now, what does this imply for universal service and public policy? It implies small grants, delivered from general revenues, rather than a big slush fund, deilvered from some tax on telecom users. It implies favoritism toward small community groups and entrepreneurial efforts, and toward those who are competing with larger carriers. And if you can't do that, then first do no harm.

I see no such proposal coming from the left or the right. And in the absence of such a proposal, then let 'em beat one another up, and pass nothing.

Economics, and Moore's Law, favors those small entrepreneurs, and those short-range investments. So doing nothing favors the small over the large. Doing something small expands the advantage, on behalf of what technology and economics dictate.

Doing something big, regardless of its ideological sponsor, is the only hope now for the big boys. And I say what I've said all along.

The Bells must die.


What Is Journalism

Medill graduates (like me) are, I admit, a bit snobbish. We look down on lesser journalism schools, and consider the one at the University of Missouri to be among them.

So when Tom McPhail of Missouri called bloggers "pretend journalists" who should not be given press credentials because they're not objective I had to laugh. There is no such thing as "objective." I was taught at Medill that professional journalists strive to be "fair," which is something different. It means we understand our own prejudices and lean against them, as do our editors. The hope is things will balance out.

So-called journalists, such as those McPhail claims to train, have completely failed the online challenge. This is not just true for dailies, but for "alternative weeklies" as well.

Most papers still only update their Web sites once per day, despite the fact they are steadily losing readers and advertisers to online rivals. (They make the losses worse by then putting registration requirements on the sites.) Classifieds, car ads, real estate ads - all their ad niches are slipping away. And department stores themselves, who have mainly stayed loyal, are being killed-off by WalMart. Over at Google News The New York Times is being aced-out by right-wing hacks like Newsmax .

Some daily journalists have begun to wonder whether there's some magic that committed bloggers have and, frankly, I know what it is.

The owners of American journalism have simply let their own political ambitions, and financial greed, distract them from their real jobs. The job of the journalism business is not to serve the advertisers, and it's not to act as a Soviet, telling people what to think .

It's to serve the readers. Chinese journalists, to whom liberty is given only through an eye-dropper, understand this. If journalism is defined only by the paycheck, and that paycheck chains you to failure and ignorance, then the place for a real journalist lies in unemployment. And any professor who claims otherwise is an idiot.

Fear, Loathing, And The Computer Press

Want to know why people don't trust journalism?

Let's go to a headline in the Washington Post "Advertiser Charged in Massive Database Theft."

It's followed by this lede. "Federal authorities yesterday charged an online advertiser in Florida with tapping into the computer system of a large database marketer in Arkansas and stealing "vast amounts of personal information" about Americans in what they described as one of the largest network intrusions in recent memory."

Wrong! What we have is a spammer, people! (If you want to be real, real careful, write alleged spammer.) I spent five seconds Googling the name of this "company," Snipermail, at Google Groups. Take a look for yourself. Or just check the name on the indictment against the anti-spam newsgroup,

If anyone should be afraid of writing that last it's me. The Post has lawyers who are supposed to defend a reporter when they write something that is correct, but that the subject in the story doesn't like. Hey, I saw All the President's Men.

I am certain Scott Levine hates being called a spammer. (ZDNet called him a Bulk Emailer in their headline.) I am certain that, before Levine found himself facing criminal charges, he could have called the Post and threatened holy heck if they called him a spammer. (I assume he has bigger problems at the moment.) But the evidence is there, it's easy to get, it took me 10 seconds, the charge of libel for calling him a spammer is easily defensible, and I guarantee you it took Robert O'Harrow Jr. no more than 10 seconds to learn the same thing.

But O'Harrow couldn't write it. His editors were afraid, and no doubt the lawyers were too. As a result the news was slanted, the issue was muddied, and (most important) the legitimate marketing industry was tainted, especially the online advertising market.

Now I first singled out the Post for criticism on my blog but in fact the problem is more general. Look at how USA Today handled the second-day story that six of Levine's Snipermail employees have reached deals with the government, in exchange for their testimony. We still don't have the magic words -- spammer Levine -- anywhere.

Instead, take a look at how Englishman Nick Farrell of the Inquirer , who deals with much stiffer libel laws than the U.S. by the way, handled the same story.

"Cops have Snipermail man in sights," is his headline. "Big Hack Spammer Charged."

And the lede is even more explicit. "THE OWNER of a spam email company has been charged with the largest data theft 'in history'."

Farrell also picks up on the fact this guy was not some "master hacker," which you might think when reading the U.S. coverage. "Levine's hack was not that difficult, all he did was 'misuse a legitimate password and user name' while working for a company who did business for Acxiom. He then flogged it to other spammers."

Good on you, Nick. Good on the Inquirer.

Any more question about whether and why the UK dominates English-language journalism, while Americans have become lame, lazy and worthless?

I rest my case.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in are Russian and British cops who smashed a conspiracy to hack online gambling sites , although I suspect the hard part has just begun, turning the technicians arrested against their bosses.

Clueless was coverage of Microsoft's big cash giveaway . What it means is Redmond is out of ideas.


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