Six Mobile Innovations That Will Change Your Life

8:22 PM Edited by Blony

. 1. Pay By Phone

The idea of using your phone to make payments has been around for several years but is finally gaining serious traction, starting in Japan where NTT DoCoMo, Japan's largest cellular carrier, launched its mobile wallet program in 2004. The number of handsets that support the company's new payment system has grown to nearly 12 million, according to Karen Lurker, communications manager in the U.S. for DoCoMo,

These phones--and those that are expected to be introduced soon in the U.S.--use a wireless technology called Near Field Communications (NFC). You wave the phone near a point-of-sale terminal that supports the technology, and it automatically pays for the item.

DoCoMo handles payment two ways, according to Lurker. The first is DoCoMo's Osaifu-Keitai service, which enables you download credits worth as much as 10,000 yen per month, or about $95, to your phone via the company's i-mode data service. When you wave the phone in front of the terminal, the amount of the purchase is deducted from the amount of credit carried on your phone. The amount you actually spend appears on your monthly cell phone bill.

With the second method, the phone works like a credit card, with your bill being sent to you separately by the credit-card company. Ultimately, you'll be able to download your spending information to software on your personal computer so you can monitor your expenses.

A major limiting factor: Merchants must buy new point-of-sale terminals. There are currently about 78,000 stores in Japan with terminals that support Osaifu-Keitai and about 25,000 that work with the credit-card-like service, though the numbers are expected to ramp-up, Lurker said.

NFC has had a few minor successes in the U.S. In particular, Exxon Mobil's Speedpass uses NFC technology--you wave a "key" in front of a sensor on a gas pump, and the transaction is automatically charged to the credit or debit card you designate.

2. Commanding Presence

If you use instant messaging, you already know about "presence technology"--the mechanism that tells you if somebody on your IM buddy list is online, offline, busy, or away from their desk. But soon, phones and other mobile devices will have supercharged presence capabilities that not only provide details about your availability but also help make you, and those you connect with, far more efficient and productive.

At a simple level, you will be able to program presence capabilities so that the phone rings when specific people call while others are automatically routed to voice mail. These presence "rules" will be tied to your location--pinpointed by GPS capabilities in your mobile device--and will change automatically as you arrive, leave, or are en route to specific locations.

Chris Isaac, a partner in the PricewaterhouseCoopers Advisory practice specializing in the wireless industry, is a believer. "The system will know, for example, if I'm traveling between my primary work location and a client," says Issac. "I will be able to set it so that if some people call at certain times, they'll go to voice e-mail, but if my wife calls, she'll get put through."

Microsoft, IBM and others have quietly been hopping on the presence bandwagon. For instance, Microsoft put presence capabilities in its Live Communications Server 2005 to assist with collaboration on documents. Early examples of mobile presence-based services use your cell phone to pinpoint your location and send you relevant traffic information while you drive. Google, for instance, is in beta testing with Google Mobile Maps, a system that provides real-time traffic information to your cell phone.

Tech gurus predict that this technology will make its presence felt in plenty of other applications. In the meantime, standards-setting bodies have been busy for the last several years developing common protocols for exchanging presence information. The completion of that process will greatly accelerate the development of applications that use presence technology.

3. Internet Everywhere And Embedded In Everything

Soon it won't be just desktop and laptop computers and mobile devices that will connect to the Internet. It also will be myriad other devices, ranging from video cameras to heating and cooling systems at home. And access will be available from virtually anywhere.

Ubiquitous connectivity is already becoming a reality. Cellular operators in medium-sized U.S. cities, for instance, are offering 3G data service, with typical speeds of about 500 Kbps. In addition to 3G, mobile broadband technologies such as mobile WiMAX will start being deployed widely in the next year. The presence and location capabilities described above can also be integrated into these newly connected devices.

For instance, say you are traveling and have an early flight. If that flight is delayed, the information could be sent directly to your Internet-enabled travel alarm clock, which could automatically reset itself so you can get a bit more shut-eye, says Issac of PricewaterhouseCoopers. "Plus, the system could notify your assistant of the delay so that when they get to the office they're aware of the changes," he added.

Embedding the Internet into everyday devices is not a new idea. Several years ago, appliance manufacturers were showing off Internet-connected refrigerators, microwave ovens and the like. At the time, they were touting applications such as the ability for the refrigerator to sense when, say, you are almost out of milk. It could then, in that early vision, automatically order more milk for home delivery.

Things have changed--and even more useful applications are being developed. "Using the current 3G network, there are [potential] opportunities to interact with appliances in the home," said NTT DoCoMo's Lurker. "You could switch your burglar alarm on or off or have an alert sent to your handset if the burglar alarm goes off."

A service called Roborior has already emerged in Japan. Here, a robot armed with wireless cameras enables users to monitor their home while they are away. If it senses a break-in, Roborior calls homeowners' cell phones to alert them.

In the future, Lurker said, systems are likely to emerge that can be set to automatically cool the house down (or warm it up, depending on the season) when you are a certain distance from home. Some vendors are starting to make home infrastructure applications available that work via text messaging. And at least one vendor offers control of ovens via cell phones, so that you can start the cooking process before you get home.

When these new applications will be widely available remains to be seen. But all the pieces are falling into place.

4. Ubiquitous Media

The most talked-about type of mobile media has been television, but there's doubt about how successful TV delivered to cell phones will be. So far, it hasn't been a huge success in Japan, where these types of trends often get an early foothold.

Doug Neal, a research fellow for global systems integration firm Computer Sciences Corporation's Leading Edge Forum Executive Programme, said the real story may well be making media transmissions a two-way street. That means you could, for instance, send live video-casts of your vacation to family and friends.

There is also an obvious business application for this sort of technology. "The use of two-way videophones will be important," says Neal. "If I'm doing business with you, I want to look you in the eye."

While ubiquitous mobile entertainment is readily available, cellular operators have to get more realistic about their media offerings, many of which are currently too expensive and too limited, says Scott Smith, an analyst with Social Technologies, a research and consulting firm in Washington, D.C.

"So far, downloading media [to mobile devices] costs a lot and isn't that great an experience," Smith said. "The operators are going to have to give up some control, open it up and charge less." Today, cellular carriers want to sell you media but don't want you downloading media from sources they don't control. But that will change, says Smith, when competitive technologies such as mobile WiMAX start becoming available.

5. Easier, Better Health Monitoring

Having your blood pressure checked takes just a minute or two. But if you are housebound, elderly or frail, getting to a place where your blood pressure can be taken, logged into your medical records and made part of a diagnosis is a bit trickier.

Enter wireless-network-enabled measuring and monitoring equipment. Instead of scheduling an appointment and finding transportation, patients can wear monitors that transmit their vital signs directly to their medical providers. That information can be automatically recorded and reviewed by medical personnel. When emergencies occur, doctors can be given accurate information while they are en route to the patient that will help them respond better.

Many of the pieces have been in place for a while. But the increasingly ubiquitous nature of the Internet is speeding development and adoption of "telemedicine" applications, such as remote monitoring of blood pressure, blood glucose and heart conditions.

This sort of wireless transmission of health data is not limited to sending information to doctors. Increasingly, it will also help regular citizens monitor their loved ones. "If you have a parent who needs attention but who lives somewhere else, you can know, 'Did Dad get up, has he taken his medication and, if he's sleeping, does he have a decent sleeping heart rate?'" says Smith. "There already are a couple of handsets that can deal with that type of information."

6. Do You Know Where Your Kids (And Trucks) Are?

Parents worry--that's a given. But special cell phones can help.

Last year, Japan's NTT DoCoMo released a cell phone for children that enables parents to track their whereabouts. "There are GPS capabilities built into the phone so the parent can find out at all times where the child is," says Lurker. "If the child feels they're in danger, they can hit a button and a very loud alert is sounded. And if somebody tries to take the battery out, an alarm goes out to the parent. This phone is extremely popular."

Another monitoring application--a high-tech breathalyzer--using cellular data was created for a trucking company in Japan. "The [driver] takes the test over a live video connection with their headquarters," explains Linker. "The video phone confirms the driver is the one doing the test, not somebody else."

Of course, monitoring people in real time raises some sticky issues. "The pushback comes when, say, you start watching where your spouse is or co-workers are," says Smith of Social Technologies. "Obviously, there are privacy issues."

Whatever the social implications, the ability to track the movements of others can save money and lower risks for enterprises. For instance, an insurance carrier in England called More Th>n (sic) has a low-cost policy called DriveTime for young drivers who promise not to drive between the high-risk hours of 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. The company installs a GPS in their cars, and charges a premium depending on how often they drive at night, thus reducing the number of accidents.