6.9 Mobile, the Emerging Frontier

My current mobile phone is called the “Nexus One,” and it’s way, way more than just a phone. It’s a mobile computing device, combining phone, camera, camcorder, GPS location, Web and multimedia services, and lots more.

It’s far from the only option out there, of course. Apple’s iPhone has been a huge hit, as has its iPad tablet computer, and other manufacturers offer highly capable “smart phones” as well. Mobile computing using these devices is a huge part of our future.

The explosion of highly sophisticated mobile devices is still in a relative infancy. Even at this early stage, however, the mobile revolution has changed pretty much everything we knew about our relationship to technology. The latest mobile devices have these characteristics:

  • They’re always connected (in theory, at any rate). You can communicate wherever you are, in a variety of ways, including via text, audio, photo, video and more.
  • They know where they are. Modern devices have built-in GPS, or global positioning, to within a few meters. Some also have compasses, so they know what direction their cameras are facing. If you’re like me, the single most valuable mobile application I use is Google Maps.
  • They are creating not just the data you designate, but a host of other information that (if you choose) is always attached to what you create. This means, for example, that if you take a picture and send it to, say, Flickr, the photo-sharing service automatically checks to see if there’s location information and, if so, puts the picture into a map.

Software developers are off to the races to come up with novel ways to use the capabilities of these devices. One of the most intriguing uses is what’s called “augmented reality,” in which you use the phone’s camera to look at your surroundings, and then have those surroundings annotated with whatever other people have posted online about the area—everything from the location (plus patron reviews) of the local steakhouse to the location of the nearest cardiologist, with turn-by-turn directions to both.

So far, smart phones have been most valuable as devices we use to get information. One of my favorite tests is to scan the bar code of an item in a store and then check, using the device’s various capabilities, where else it’s for sale in the neighborhood or online, and at what price.

You can easily imagine the journalism potential. For example, it would be easy to map graffiti (or potholes, or just about anything else) in your city, annotated with pictures. My students created a map and photo gallery of local art galleries during a Phoenix “First Friday Art Walk,” a monthly event when people from all over the metropolitan area converge on the downtown visual arts scene.

The latest and perhaps most intriguing use of the new mobile devices is combining location awareness with social networking. Not only have Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, MySpace and other social systems moved swiftly to these platforms, but a host of new services are emerging as well. Some, such as Foursquare and Gowalla, invite users to announce their locations and then see what’s happening in the neighborhood, and who else is there.

By the time this appears in print, of course, we’ll have heard about dozens or scores of new mobile devices and applications, each promising (and possibly delivering) more than what came before. We’ll keep an eye on them on the Mediactive website, in the context of media creation.

As with social networking on PCs, and with all of the content you create, there are privacy issues attached to mobility—some that are much more troubling than anything we’ve encountered in the past. I’ll discuss this more in Chapter 9.

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