Thursday, May 28, 2009

U.S. Mobile Phone Use Still in the Stone Age

Connections highlights interesting and delightful folks I'm meeting along The Sage Age journey.

Amy Webb, principal for Webbmedia Group, was a recent guest on NPR’s “Talk of the World” radio show discussing the global use of mobile phones. Several of her comments alluded to the fact that many countries, including remote, or rural areas in Africa and Asia, are far more advanced in cellular phone usage than anywhere in North America. During the show, folks from all over the world called in to discuss how mobile devices were being used in their countries. These applications included banking and cashless transfers of all kinds, like paying for bus fare with the phone.

One of the features that really caught my attention was the use of the phone’s camera to read symbols and take an appropriate action. For instance, Japan has a standardized 2D bar code system that can be placed on practically anything, like a flyer, a sign, or even a billboard. These differ slightly from 1D barcodes, which are the type you see on most product labels. A 2D bar code is square and contains dots. It can hold substantially more information than a 1D barcode.

Once the phone’s camera captures a picture of the barcode, special application software processes it and delivers the appropriate information. It could bring up the company’s Web site or phone number. It could also produce a coupon or a ticket. Since all of the phones in Japan are equipped with GeoTracking, the 2D barcodes can even bring up a map and give you walking directions where you can find the product.

By contrast, cell phone users in the U.S. must contend with at least two proprietary systems that are emerging and competing with one another in an attempt to monetize the system. Instead of streamlining the process and becoming compatible with the other standardized codes already in use around the globe, the U.S. companies have elected to reinvent the wheel.

Among the other interesting points Ms. Webb made during the show, one was an example of how common the use of these symbols are in Europe. During the premier of the movie “28 Days”, flyers where posted all over town with only a 2D barcode and a nuclear hazard symbol. Folks who captured the barcode with their phone’s camera were immediately taken to the movie’s Web site where they could view the trailer and purchase mobile tickets. Webb made the point that no such marketing could be conducted in the U.S. because so many people would not recognize the symbols and may fear that they were linked to some sort of terrorist activity. Several months ago, I published an article titled Is Texting Really an Ancient Art? that delved into the cultural shift brought about by using cell phones as a primary means of communication. Almost every global caller on the NPR show mentioned the importance of SMS texting to their everyday lives.

There were several references during the program concerning the Stone Age use of cell phones in the U.S. compared to the rest of the world. The reasons for this hinged on both greed and fear. Other countries do not issue contracts with restrictive use clauses for phones. Wireless banking is not available for the fear of being hacked. GeoTracking is not being used for fear of Big Brother watching. This mindset about cell phone use is simply not prominent in other parts of the world.

You can hear the entire show from the NPR site. If you would like to have a brief introduction to the uses of 2D barcodes, has a short video.