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Personal technology architecture

Ubiquity, Volume 2001 Issue December, December 1 - December 31, 2001 | BY Espen Andersen 

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Companies looking to use mobile technology to deliver new services must consider how the devices impact the personal architecture of the user.



Whenever I leave home, I have a little ritual where I check to see that I have all the little gadgets that I feel I must have, such as wallet, mobile phone, keys, watch, PDA and some form of content. Without these things, I feel almost incomplete -- and lacking one of them, such as my keys (even though my spouse is at home to open the door and I don't need the car) or mobile phone (even though I don't intend to call anyone) produces anxiety. I crave the functionality of these devices, and depend on the completeness of the services they offer.

The devices and their services are:

-- A wallet that holds purchasing power through cash or credit cards, general identification such as a driver's license, important information such as medical coverage, and special identification in the form of tickets or coupons.

-- A mobile telephone that enables me to communicate and to store telephone numbers and other contact information. -- A number of keys that give me access to useful things such as houses, offices and cars.

-- A watch that tells time (and also, for some people, signals status and personality).

-- A calendar and/or notebook and/or a PDA, which enables me to plan my time and record information.

-- Some form of content, such as a magazine, book, newspaper or papers from the office, for work or play (as one author put it, "better buy a newspaper so I have something to read in the elevator").

If I was an organization and not an individual, this collection would be called an architecture -- and it would have been the IT department's responsibility to ensure its timeliness, integrity, availability, completeness and low cost. Most large companies now have architecture specifications. Cost is one reason for this but in my view the most important driver is the simplicity of the same standard stuff for everyone. The cost of everyone having all the same stuff -- in terms of cheaper administration and much more usefulness for all, since you don't have to know what the others have -- far outstrips the extra cost of the number of fairly mundane users who are over-equipped.

Normally it isn't so hard to put together a technology architecture -- but changing it can be a problem. When you think in terms of a personal technical architecture, the problem becomes clear: Any intruder, i.e., new piece of technology, will have a problem breaking into a functioning architecture.

The technology that does manage to break in tends to achieve that task by replacing an existing technology first, then gradually adding functionality, then, maybe, replacing other pieces of the architecture. In other words, when it comes to success in this market, it matters less how powerful the technology is than how well it fits in.

Both the mobile phone and the PDA are intruders in the personal architecture. Each shows the advantage of fitting in -- and each has the possibility of increasing its functional scope from where it started. Nokia has become the leader in mobile phones, less because of its technology (Ericsson phones, for instance, tend to be more technologically sophisticated) than because of its rounded shape, nice colors and easy menu system. The Palm Pilot succeeded where other PDAs failed, not because it has larger processor speed or a better screen, but because it fits in a shirt pocket, had three to four weeks of battery time, and can do some very simple tasks, such as calendar and contact list, really well.

After they are established, the new technologies grow in functionality, either by doing new things or by taking over for other parts of the personal technology architecture. Mobile phones in Europe and Japan increasingly are used for payments, in the future possibly replacing credit and debit cards in the wallet. Fidelity, a US financial services institution, reportedly has more than 75,000 customers who buy stocks over their Blackberry or Palm PDAs. Many people now read newspaper headlines or magazine articles on their Palm Pilots, using services like AvantGo.

I have been told that a hotel in Chicago lets guests download electronic keys to their Palm Pilots and "beam" the keys to the room doors to gain access. In itself, this is not particularly useful -- using a $200 device to emulate a 25-cent plastic card. From an architectural viewpoint, however, it simplifies things for the user, since he or she is less likely to lose the Palm Pilot than the key, and will carry the Palm Pilot around anyway.

Over time, I think we will see three evolutions of the personal technology architecture: First, the mobile phone and the PDA will merge into one device, such as the Ericsson R380 or (less likely) the Nokia keyboard-based PDA/phone combinations. Second, this new device will take on the functions of the wallet and the key. Third, through innovations in input (handwriting recognition, voice recognition, predictive typing, alternative miniature keyboards) and display technology (flexible LCD screens that can be rolled up or small hyper-sharp color screens), the new device will begin to look less like computer/phone technology and more like a watch or other "natural" device. For instance, one of Ericsson's new prototypes, which includes a small camera and color screen to enable video-conferencing, looks like the pocket-watches of old that people used to carry around in specially built pockets in their waistcoats. It has a silver coating and an antenna shaped like an old-fashioned winding knob. Perhaps we will see a return of a the gentleman's waistcoat, with watch pocket and chain, holding not an old watch but a new mobile communications device.

Far to often you see that new technology is overdeveloped. There is too much functionality -- or the design tries to make everything bomb-proof and hyper-elegant, along dimensions the users don't really care about. The SET standard for Internet payments, Apple's Newton, innumerable Internet security schemes (particularly in Europe,) standalone videophones with proprietary compression schemes, and various forms of dedicated e-mail terminals are all examples of this disease. The crowning example is dedicated communications coats for teenagers, with a network connecting the mobile phone, PSA and other thingamajigs in the lining. Wonderful -- until you have to clean it or one of the devices breaks.

Companies looking to use mobile technology to deliver new services must consider how the devices and services impact the personal architecture of the user. Does your new functionality duplicate functions already there? Can you leverage functionality the user carries already? Are there incompatibilities between what you offer and what the user already carries (e.g., the user would need to do double data entry)? Can such inconveniences be eliminated through the personal-technology versions of message-based interfaces, middleware and data standards?

This is analogous to the world of building architecture, where the true measure of success, as advocated by Stewart Brand, Christopher Alexander and others, is how the building looks when it is done (or, in most cases, when it is drawn). Rather, success should be defined in terms of evolution over time. The next time you see a new device or a new mobile technology, ask yourself, are you looking at something that is new, useful and with prospects for extensions -- or are you beholding a full-fledged architectural monstrosity?

Espen Andersen (self@espen.com) is associate professor with the Department of Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management BI (www.bi.no), and a research affiliate and European research director with The Concours Group (www.concoursgroup.com), an international IT and management research and consulting organization. Based in Oslo, Norway, he has done research on topics such as mobile business, electronic commerce, knowledge management, digital business strategy and CIO-CEO interaction.

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