The word according to Howard

One of my favourite writers on technology and society in Howard Rheingold, who has written a great piece in The Feature about why mobile services fail. Nice to see that Howard agrees with much I have to say on the subject 🙂

Designer Scott Jenson says mobile services like WAP and MMS were set up to fail because designers looked backwards at past successes instead of forward to new, untried ways to use mobile media.

Jenson, who, among other things, led the design team for Symbian’s Quartz user interface (now known as UIQ) and worked on the Apple Newton, likens the situation to the birth of motion pictures. The first moviemakers nailed cameras to stages. Cinema didn’t blossom until D.W. Griffith used close-ups and sophisticated editing to invent the language of film. Jenson thinks the same kind of thinking has prevented WAP and MMS from replicating the accidental success of texting.

“The original use of movies to capture stage plays wasn’t wrong; it just wasn’t ultimately all that exciting,” Jenson wrote in his brilliant rant on “Default Thinking.” “Something much more interesting happened as the use of the technology matured. Most likely the same will happen with photos and phones. Something far more interesting will most likely come. We should be getting used to this pattern and anticipate it.”

WAP and MMS failed to meet expectations because services were designed by what Jenson calls “default thinking,” a clich»d and unquestioned mindset that combines “a weak collection of axioms of design, broad market visions, or rules of execution that aren’t clearly articulated. This collection exists in the background, much like the assumption that gravity exists.”

Jenson goes on to suggest 4 potential “killer apps” in mobile services:

Jenson has a hunch that gift-giving rituals could drive future uses of MMS. “It is possible to create quite a complex MMS, one that includes not only a picture but sound and text as well. This has clear value as a gift. There could be a small study in the gift giving groups to see how they would respond to photos as gifts÷” Then he suggests a simple service that wouldn’t require any change in existing SMS and mobile handsets — enabling users to safely store messages they treat as gifts with symbolic value, a behavior uncovered by studies of adolescent use of SMS.

This gut feel is amply borne out by the fascinating research of Professor Richard Harper whose paper “The Gift of the Gab” is worth getting hold of if you can. He focused on text messaging and uncovered loads of evidence that gifting was an important ritual in youth SMS’ing:

We have attempted to illustrate this fact by focusing on the obligations associated with giftgiving.

We have demonstrated that under certain conditions and in specific contexts, mobile phones can be used in gift-giving rituals, taking on particular meanings in young peopleÌs daily lives. These situated and embodied understandings become intertwined with the technological constraints and possibilities of the phones and, in turn, influence further uses and understandings.

The text message, for example, provides the basic ingredients for a gift. As we have seen, between peers and in the right context it may be offered as a symbolic gesture of friendship and allegiance.

Furthermore, he found evidence that the value of such gifts increased, the more that the recipient could see that the sender had invested in the composition.

Cognima as we reported earlier in the week can also play a huge part in this area.

The product Jenson calls “Tap” would require custom software on the handset to send and receive SMS messages that convey only the time and the identity of the sender. “Although no text is sent, the message isn’t really empty of content as it has a sender and an arrival time, both of which can have meaning depending on social context. This text-free message can be thought of as the social equivalent of a tap on the shoulder” that could convey different messages, depending on context. “For a family in a theme park tapping could mean it is time for lunch. It could also mean a lover is thinking of their partner during the day.”

Hmm. Not so sure about this one. Why not include a quick text element or have a template to say “Love you, Hunky Buttocks” or whatever.

Another product would involve even more extensive software on the handset, using the simple procedure of sending SMS but substituting a brief recorded message for hand-entered text, which can be a barrier for those with less dextrous thumbs: “VoiceSMS would be sent with just 2 actions, one to start recording, and another to select a recipient, mimicking the design syntax of most SMS clients today.”

We’ve already seen this sort of thing with Push2Talk. Logically, I agree that voice messages should be big. But they’re never really taken off yet, apart from specialist uses in the US.

And going back to the gifting argument, a voice message is never going to achieve the same kudos as an SMS, as the sender hasn’t “invested” as much in its creation.

Good stuff though.

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