/ 16 October 2008

1 001 uses for a cellphone

Own up, if — high up among your cellphone’s utilities — you treasure its status as a fashion accessory.

No embarrassment needed if you feel some pride about your phone. The makers know that and pander exactly to our sense of conceit. They know that a handset upgrade equates to the pun of being ”upwardly mobile”.

From the point of view of a network operator, and for those who sell ringtones, the main purpose of cellphones is not fashion, but to make money from you.

It might be that a commercial rationale also fits your main personal usage of your phone. But everyone will also be using the device for extensive interpersonal connections, using voice calls or SMSs to people who are near and dear.

Yet ever-increasing creative utilities are evolving for cellphones, and they foray far beyond functions such as fashion, finance and family.

Probably, you don’t use all the tech potential in your gadget right now. That alarm clock may be helpful on occasion, but keeping a planner and diary by means of a clunky keyboard and small screen is not rewarding.

However, that computer in your pocket is set to play a far greater role in social life. Some of this potential is already at play, and information about it was shared among 350 participants at a conference titled MobileActive08 in Johannesburg this week. The event was hosted by Sangonet, an NGO that provides internet services to civil society organisations, and there was a mind-boggling menu to choose from.

Among the uses for cellphones cited were the following:

  • Online social networking: Mymsta.mobi is a three-month-old South African website tailored specifically for cellphone access. It offers garish design, online chat and celeb gossip in order to attract youthful users.

    The loveLife NGO has developed the platform to inspire young people to ”make their move” and plan an Aids-free, empowered future. The organisers say there are 10 000 registered users so far, and about half that number regularly engage.

    Unlike the MXit service where it’s exclusively the users who set the agenda for chatting largely with their existing friends, the Mymsta site includes interventions by loveLife counsellors, and many of the users are lonely teenagers looking to make friends.

  • Al-Jazeera television correspondents are successfully using cellphones to capture video in places where reporters don’t have access to television cameras, or where it would be provocative to use such visible devices. The conference was shown highly graphic footage of the aftermath of a street bomb in Chad, taken on cellphone by an al-Jazeera cameraman. I reported on our Knight Foundation project with cellphone citizen journalists contributing to Grocott’s Mail newspaper in Grahamstown.

  • A service offered by Mobileresearcher.com converts a standard cellphone into a survey instrument. Already working with several universities and the Human Sciences Research Council, the company offers an application that allows you to design an easy-to-use questionnaire interface. Upload the results and you can aggregate the data into conventional database or spreadsheet files, ready for analysis.

Other uses for cellphones discussed at MobileActive08 included health advice, mobile banking and payments, and educational games.

Another example was a Zambian company that offers farmers SMSs about market prices, enabling them to calculate if it is worth trekking to town with their produce.

Swaziland has an NGO developing a cellphone support network for Aids orphans who head up households. Uganda has a free childline service sponsored by that country’s national telecoms company, which covers call costs even though most are made through cellphone networks operated by rival private companies.

About the only uses for phones that were not prominent at the conference were those that exploit the geo-spatial dimensions of the technology. That’s something the big operators are now exploring.

Vodacom, for instance, has launched Thegrid.co.za for social networking through cellphones. It differs from MXit as you can also track your friends’ whereabouts through on-screen maps, as well as leave blog-style ”blips” — messages or pictures — at venues of your choice.

The precursors to an explosion of even more uses are better phones and cheaper connections. Blaine Cook, one of the brains behind Twitter.com, predicted that cellphones capable of online access will be given away free within three years, with much cheaper and friendlier options replacing SMS.

But there are also key policy and regulatory issues that are imminent, according to Russell Southwood, founder of Balancingact-africa.com. Some cellphone companies are practising ”lock-in” where service providers (for example M-pesa in Kenya) have to restrict operations exclusively to a single network, and users sometimes have their data tied into a ”walled garden” mobile social network.

In addition to these constraints, said Southwood, once cellphones are all accessing the internet, governments will recognise them as media devices that could be used to challenge their information controls.

With so many uses for cellphones on the horizon, old-style telephony will become a mere feature in a multifunctional device with literally thousands of utilities.