News and mobiles in the future

Predicting the future is fraught with danger – things never really work out they way you think they will.

The unintended consequences of technology are probably the one certainty in a world of rapid change.

So trying to predict where news will be five years from now and the part mobiles and mobility will play is a tall order.

John Naughton, writing in The Observer recently said: “The strange thing about living through a revolution is that it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.

“Only with the benefit of hindsight do we get a clear idea.

“But the clarity that hindsight bestows is misleading, because it understates how confusing things appear to people at the time.”

Naughton underlines his point by imagining a vox pop being conducted in the German city of Mainz in 1472 – 17 years after Gutenberg began printing bibles.

Passers-by are asked to indicate on a scale of one to five how likely it will be that Gutenberg’s invention will:

a) Undermine the authority of the Catholic church? (b) Power the Reformation? c) Enable the rise of modern science?

Given that the web has only been mainstream for 17 years and is powering profound change it may be fatuous to attempt to understand its long-term impact.

But we have to start somewhere. And there are clues to the near-term – with location-based services, augmented reality and real-time data – already emerging as powerful forces that will shape the way we live.

What we’ve seen so far represents only the first faltering steps. So don’t be too quick to dismiss the likes of Gowalla and Foursquare – even if checking-in to become the Mayor of Starbucks isn’t at the top of your to-do list.

(Incidentally, I’m the Mayor of HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which shows their location mapping is seriously inaccurate)

To understand where news on mobile is heading you have to understand the wider context that will see mobiles become the remote control for life.

Over at the University of Washington in Seattle, Babak Parviz is a real-world nanotechnology expert searching for more beneficial possibilities.

He’s trying to build contact lenses that would let diabetics monitor their blood sugar levels without needing to prick a finger.

Biomarkers found in live cells on the surface of the eye closely match levels in the bloodstream

In this case, Babak is working on adding a wireless data transmitter to the lens so blood sugar information can be relayed automatically to other devices.

We’re not quite at the stage where you can have head-up display in your glasses.

But you can have it in your car

And augmented reality, which was originally designed for fighter pilots, is  available on your mobile to do things like this:

Interest in Augmented Reality has been spurred by the latest generation of mobiles which have compasses built into them.

Combined with GPS which enables your location to be pinpointed, it means that data can be associated with a specific place and displayed on a mobile screen.

IBM is again making use of this technology at the All-England Club at Wimbledon.

With the mobile in camera mode, moving left or right reveals geo-located content on the screen.

They area also offering live video streams of some of the showcourt matches and “busy areas” like Henman Hill.

You can opt for real-time scores from the courts, get live updates on queue lengths as well as waiting times to get served at food and drink stands.

The app also includes 90 points of interest around the club including shop and ATM locations

Taking things a step further is a facial recognition prototype called Recognizr which displays social network information about other people.

You might want to use it to allow other people to see your business card details, or your Twitter stream, your Facebook wall, or your Linked In profile.

On the other hand you might not. It requires both parties to use the application in order to work – which diminishes its value – but also limits some of the more sinister possibilities.

Leading the pack in the area of AR is an Amsterdam-based company called Layar which has just marked its first anniversary.

This is not a flash-in-the-pan gimmicky start-up. It has deals in place to be pre-loaded onto 1 in 3 AR-capable smartphones worldwide.

It has published a thousand layers, has another 3,000 in testing and has 4,000 active developers

If you want an example of the kinds of thing being tried check out Spotcrime which shows crime incident data for the 300 largest cities in the US.

My team has also worked on an AR project – centred on Westminster – which attempted to identify suitable BBC content and to understand the challenges with geotagging material.

In other parts of the world the mobile wallet is emerging in many forms.

Near Field Communications technology is routinely used in Japan to pay for public transport journeys.

In Estonia it’s how you pay to park your car.

Last week Nokia announced that its newer smartphones would come with NFC chips as standard.

If you use an Oyster card you’re already familiar with the technology.  In which case, why carry an Oyster card at all? And why queue to pay?

Direct mobile billing is hugely popular in Asia where it’s used on e-commerce and online gambling sites to make payments.

A PIN number and a one-time password see the cost of the transaction charged to a user’s mobile account. Credit cards are not needed and most deals are done in  seconds.

Paypal, Amazon and Google have all implemented mobile payment options.

There’s even an accessory called Square through which you can swipe and verify credit card payments on the spot.  Your phone just became a point of sale.

Then there’s broadcast mobile.

Multi-channel mobile TV is part of everyday life in South Korea where Digital Multimedia Broadcasting was developed five years ago.

The terrestrial version is free and is included in most handsets.

Many other countries have started mobile TV services and trials but competing standards make it an alphabet soup of complexity which inhibits investment:


* DVB-H (Digital Video Broadcasting – Handheld) – Europe, Asia

* ATSC-M/H (ATSC Mobile/Handheld) – North America

* T-DMB (Terrestrial Digital Mulitmedia Broadcast) – South Korea

* 1seg (One Segment) – Mobile TV system on ISDB-T

* MediaFLO – launched in US, trialled in UK and Germany

* DMB-T/H – China and Hong Kong

* DAB-IP (Digital Audio Broadcast) – UK

* iMB (Integrated Mobile Broadcast, 3GPP MBMS)


* DVB-SH (Digital Video Broadcasting – Satellite for Handhelds)

* S-DMB (Satellite Digital Multimedia Broadcast) – South Korea

* CMMB (China Mobile Multimedia Broadcasting) – China

In the UK,  mobile operators O2, Orange and Vodafone have announced a planned joint trial of a mobile broadcast system which will run for three months starting in October in central London and Slough.

The aim is to assess how mobile broadcast services can be deployed using shared  infrastructure within a little used part of the 3G spectrum within licences they already hold.

And an emerging behaviour around TV viewing – use of mobile as a second screen to complement the experience – has started to attract much more interest.

An official Formula 1 mobile app lets you follow the position of the car on the track and get real-time data from the trackside, while watching the race on TV.

The BBC has for some time encouraged viewers of Question Time to contribute to the debate on Twitter while they watch.

So as TV becomes more social, as iPTV starts to gain traction and Google TV takes hold the opportunities to merge these worlds in new ways – whether by mobile, or laptop, or tablet – will become more sophisticated and more ingrained in viewing habits.

The point I’m trying to make with these examples is that the march of mobile will gradually take hold of our lives; not through a killer app, or one big thing, or a tipping point moment, but in the manner of the relentless creep of an incoming tide.

We may be on firm ground now but we risk being engulfed unless we start to change our thinking and move beyond the notion that it’s just a poor-man’s web viewer.

Mobiles are uniquely powerful. Especially for news. And sport. And weather.  We all have one. We carry them with us throughout our waking hours.  They can be constantly updated. They are personal. They know where they are. They have a unique ID.  They can used to consume content on the go. And increasingly they are being used to blog, to photograph and to film.

Bertrand Pecquerie, the director of the World Editor’s Forum, believes we are moving towards what he calls a virtual newsroom where the reporter’s phone is his office.

“It will no longer be necessary to assemble the content-generating reporters in a single location, i.e. those who produce the stories, the blog posts, the pictures and the videos.

“Mobile technologies will allow them to spend nearly 100% of their time in the field and to format and distribute content from their computer or mobile phone.

“Likewise, consulting with their section heads or taking part in the morning conference with their colleagues can be carried out virtually.”

How marvellous! What Bertrand doesn’t mention is the same technology that can be used to liberate reporters can also be used to electronically tag them.

Just as we geo-tag our sat-trucks, the location of our reporters will become discoverable in real-time. Newsdesk will know their whereabouts around the clock.

You can see how that might be very useful when co-ordinating people on the ground at big events, but it also has overtones of Big Brother – we’re watching you.

Some news organisations have already taken faltering steps into mobile journalism. Reuters linked up with Nokia a couple of years ago to kick-start their efforts.

At the Beeb, tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones and former tech editor Darren Waters experimented with what Rory called Wobblevision at the Mobile World Congress in 2008.

The video quality wasn’t all that and the audio capture was questionable too.

Things have come on a bit since then.

In May of this year VeriCorder released what it called the world’s first professional quality video editing app for the iPhone.

For individuals it costs costs $9.99 and requires an iPhone 3GS.

There’s also a more powerful program for broadcast networks, 1st Video Net, that’s fully integrated into newsroom systems like ENPS, AVID, and others.

VeriCorder founder Gary Symons was one of the first mobile journalists in Canada, working with CBC News.

Symons said there had been demand from journalists all over the world for a powerful but simple editor that allowed them to record, edit and send from anywhere, to anywhere.  His app set out to do that.

Earlier this year he engaged a group of student reporters from the University of Missouri to try out the kit during the Winter Olympics.

Equipped with VeriCorder software and hardware on the iPhone, they created and edited stories that were submitted wirelessly and played out on VeriCorder’s IPTV platform.

They also covered this year’s NAB Show in Las Vegas to record, edit and post video during the show for VeriCorder and the Daily Buzz.

As the technology finds its way into ever more hands it’s a given that a lot more content is going to be created.

YouTube currently gets 24 hours worth of material uploaded every 60 seconds and, just like panning for gold, it’s hard to find the good stuff in a mountain of low-grade material.

The folks at Google have been pondering that very problem.

How can they help people more easily find latest breaking news videos on their site?

And how might media organizations better leverage the content to expand the scope of their reporting and keep us all better informed?

To try to figure it out they’ve joined forces with journalism students from Berkeley to track news as it breaks on YouTube.

They are producing a feed called Citizentube with a focus on strong visuals, non-traditional sources and the very latest uploads.

Some of the pieces posted over the last few days include clips from oil-soaked beaches in Florida, severe flooding in southern China, policing behaviour at the G20 summit in Toronto and a Seattle cop punching a teenage girl while attempting to make an arrest.

As Kevin Marsh at the BBC College of Journalism pointed out there are many unanswered questions about the venture such as: Who uploaded this? What was the motive? What AREN’T we seeing? Is this what the uploader says it is … or what he/she would like it to be?

And that’s assuming we’re not watching a straightforward hoax.

Uploading is one thing, but sites like Qik and Kyte also allow live broadcasting to the net with links to personal blogs and social sites.

Jeff Jarvis, who teaches journalism at CUNY believes mobile changes the relationship between audiences and news gatherers.

“When it’s live, producers don’t have time to edit, package and vet and all the things that news organisations have always done. This news is direct, from witness to the world. This makes the transaction interactive.

“We can ask questions and share information and suggest they go shoot this instead of that. Life becomes a 24-hour news channel and we see news through the eyes of witnesses.”

Once again, there are many more questions than answers – not the least of which is how we will define what areas of life are public and which are private when everyone is a potential papparazzo.

And do we really want life as a 24-hour news channel?

Well, whether we do or we don’t, the change is inevitable – just like the incoming tide.

A sense of live-ness – of being on top of events – is vital to the reputation of any news organisation. Time is money, knowledge is power and information is at the core of decision-making.

We’re not all foreign exchange dealers gaining or losing millions on volatile currencies but the velocity of the information we need – and will come to expect to guide us through our lives – is only going to increase.

The mobile web has to be much more than an editorially-weighted list of stories. It needs to factor in and expose the chronology of news, to show flux and change from hour to hour and minute to minute.

Social networks like Facebook with its News Feed and Twitter with it’s What’s Happening? invitation have helped to reinforce this change in consumption habits.

Five years from now my mobile should be providing me with a personalised feed of the very latest topics and stories I’m interested in from sources that I trust.

I’m going to expect information to find me in a form that suits my device and to give me enough information to satisfy a quick fix or a deeper interest..

If I’m interested in the BP oil spill I don’t want to spend my time constantly revisiting the BBC site to see if anything new or significant has changed? I want the information to come to me.

I want push notifications of big developments, not a deluge of dumb search-engine scrapes that have turned up BP as a keyword.

And I might want to adjust the mix to see more, or less, material depending on my available time.

– or to include only certain media types

– or information from a specified location.

– or extending in a variable radius from me. I am, after all, the centre of my world.

The definition of news has to be elastic too, to extend into sport, and weather, and travel, and anything else I deem to be interesting to me as an individual.

That’s going to need sophisticated metadata, semantic intelligence and changes in work practices and workload for the journalists.

It’s also going to require new partnerships to fill the information gaps where we don’t have primary expertise and an end to information silos that hold back innovation.

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared that his was now a “mobile first” company.

He urged application developers inside and outside the firm to “work on mobile first,” ahead of desktop computers.

He argued that mobile web adoption was growing eight times faster annually than web adoption did 10 years ago for the desktop.

And he said there was a confluence of three factors – computing, connectivity and the cloud.

“The phone is no longer the phone, it’s your alter ego. It’s the extension of everything we are. It doesn’t think as well as we do, but it has a better memory.”

“Now is the time for us to get behind this. … We understand that the new rule is mobile first.”

Maybe the time isn’t right for the BBC to become mobile first but we do need to put in more effort and energy and move beyond thinking of it as a poor man’s web.

When it comes to the future there are three kinds of people:

–     those who let it happen

–   those who make it happen

–   and those who wonder what happened.

It’s best not to be in the first or the last category.



  1. This is a great article Paul. It puts into perspective the challenges in the market in terms of getting people to understand the power of their Mobile. Thanks for the VeriCorder mention too.


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