What do you want your phone to do?

What do you want your cellphone to be able to do?

Massachusetts Industry of Technology (MIT) Professor Hal Abelson put that question to about 20 computer-science students this semester when he gave them one assignment: design a software program for cellphones that use Google’s upcoming Android mobile operating system.

In the process, they revealed the power of an open system like Android to shake up the cellphone industry, where wireless companies are being pressurised to loosen the control they have maintained over what devices do. If the brainstorms of these MIT students are an indication, phones will soon challenge the internet as a source of innovation.

For these students at least, cellphones should be all about location, location, location. Most of the projects produced by the seven teams of students involved programs that let phones track people’s physical place — or that of their friends — to help them do things and meet up.

One project, named GeoLife, gives users a way to set to-do lists and get reminders on their phones. Walk by the market, and the device might buzz with a message that you’re supposed to pick up milk. Another effort, named Flare, is designed to help small businesses like pizza shops cheaply track their drivers.

Then there is Locale, which lets users configure their phones to adjust their settings automatically when the devices detect themselves in certain zones. So you might set your phone to go automatically into vibrate mode in the office and silent mode at the movie theatre, and ring everywhere else.

The class had about three months to build software for an Android phone. The idea had to have a solid business case, a probable way of making money.

Some of that required conjecture, because there are no Android phones yet. A group called the Open Handset Alliance, with more than 30 wireless companies, has committed to using Android, but phones aren’t expected to hit the market until the second half of the year. The students developed their work on a PC program that simulates a phone’s operation.

Even so, the possibilities of the new wireless age seemed clear to the class. For example, Clare Bayley, an MIT sophomore on the Locale team, said her group’s software eventually should adjust its operation based on factors beyond location. Perhaps calls from certain people in the contact list could go through in some locations, but not in others — or the phone could tweak its screen brightness depending on remaining battery life.

Such customisation would have seemed like a stretch until recently, when the idea began to take hold that cellphones should be as open to new programs as PCs are to websites.


In addition to Android — which is Google’s attempt to extend its online advertising dominance to a new venue — an industry group called the LiMo Foundation is backing open-source phones. Apple has taken steps to let third-party software developers create new applications for its iPhones.

“This class is a glimpse of the future, and what’s nice, the not-so-distant future,” Abelson said last Friday at a gathering where the students presented their final projects.

In the audience were some of the professional mentors the students had during the semester, including Rich Miner, who is overseeing Android for Google from an office across the street from MIT. Miner said afterward that the students’ work — which they are free to continue pursuing — was generally as good as anything other developers are trying.

In fact, the Locale group won $25 000 and advanced to the finals of a $10-million Android developers’ challenge Google is running.

The other student projects included Re:Public, a social-networking program that helps people make new friends in their area. Loco offers a way to find events around town and invite other people. Snap guides users to interesting places in their vicinity.

And there was KEI, pronounced “key”, because that’s what it is: software that enables a cellphone to unlock your car. It was the lone entrant not to tap the location craze.

But no matter: Abelson said they all would get an “A”. — Sapa-AP

On the net

Google’s Android development page

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertising

‘Tenderpreneurs’ block the delivery of protective equipment to schools

Protests by local suppliers have delayed PPE delivery, which according to the DBE, is one of the reasons the reopening of schools has been pushed back until June 8

‘Soon he’ll be seen as threatening, not cute’: What it’s...

There is no separating George Floyd’s killing from the struggles black people have faced ever since the first slave ships landed on these shores

How schools could work during Covid

Ahead of their opening, the basic education department has given schools three models to consider to ensure physical distancing
Advertising

Press Releases

Mining company uses rich seam of technology to gear up for Covid-19

Itec Direct technology provides instant temperature screening of staff returniing to the workplace with no human contact

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday