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Free info for London visitors

Shape of things to come

By Andrew Orlowski, 30 Sep 2004

Analysis A DTI-funded project might save visitors to London a few bob - if they can get their hands on the right kind of phone.

The project won a DTI R&D grant and is about eight months into it trial; but it is interesting for what it could become, as much as for what it has already achieved.

To get hold of the eight information services on offer - including route planning, pubs, clubs, accommodation and entertainment - you need a GPRS-capable phone that can run Java MIDP applets. A Java client that caches queries means you can compose your questions offline. Despite a few rough edges in the user interface, we found that the service worked very well - with the route planner the most useful. And you can't complain about the price. The company operating the service, which includes former Psion veteran Alan Ferdman, isn't allowed to charge the end user. To sign up, go here, or text 2GO to 88600.

But is interesting because really, it's a pluggable framework for mobile content. (The company behind it, Iwann2, sources the content from a third party). It isn't difficult to imagine it becoming the framework, although this would necessitate Iwann2 becoming as much an integrator as it is a service provider.

Help the New Aged

Although network operators are much less confident about mobile data than they like to admit in public, there's still a yawning gulf between the information mobile services deliver now, and what they could.

Most of the information we find useful is generated by the local and social institutions we already know, and are already part of. Questions like "What's the kid's soccer schedule?", and "Is Thursday street cleaning day on Geary?" are never going to be provided by commercial data services.

Ah, you're thinking - aren't the Californian techno-utopians, with their blogs and wikis - providing such a framework? The answer shows up the big difference in approach from Asian and European technologists, and Californians.

From a distance, it looks like both parties are trying to crack the same problem, but being Californian techno-utopians, wiki-fiddlers start with several huge liabilities. Socially, they're more inspired by junk science than by providing your Mum with a useful service. There's a very New Age religious desire to see stuff spontaneously "emerge" from these tools, rather than tap the good quality, reliable data we already have. This not only frustrates users, but it frustrates the most useful "information professionals" we have: our librarians.

Technically, these projects are completely web-centric, as many of those involved are web designers, 1990s throwbacks hoping to recreate the dotcom boom again. You can bet that a successful framework for mobile phones will not require 500MB of MySQL and Perl libraries at the client end.

So the most useful thing the Wikipedia project could do is not write another adoring 20,000 word article on our good friend Joi Ito (the spiritual leader), or "memes", but nail down a simple lightweight framework that librarians, schools, churches and small businesses could use as an annotation and broadcast channel. (There has been talk on the Wikipedia mailing lists of WAP access, but that's more about propagating the New Age encyclopedia's content, rather than a framework). The most useful thing we could do for Wikipedians is try and integrate them back into the community, but that's beyond the scope of this article. In Asian and Europe, the idea of creating technology that isn't socially useful is an anathema. In California, it's a feature, notabug!

Because so much of the socially useful information isn't commercial, it's a given that it will be "user generated". Of course it won't emerge spontaneously, but it could be provided by conscientious citizens like librarians, teachers and church wardens if the process is made easy enough.

At least the techno-utopians are thinking big, and without grand dreams, we achieve nothing. But we suspect it will be a company like Iwann2, or the librarians themselves, who makes those dreams a reality for the rest of us. ®

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