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Are Smart Phones Generative?

- February 10, 2009 - 2 Comments

College Humor: Cell Phone ReunionUnder the dramatic headline The battle for the smart-phone’s soul, the Economist describes the “fierce battle” between mobile operating systems, with new software removing “the main impediment to the take-off of the mobile internet.” The Apple iPhone and Google Android are described as the disruptive outsiders, opening up new opportunities in software, services and content.But a somewhat darker view emerges in The End of the Generative Internet, by Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard Law School. By “generative” he means technologies like the PC and the Internet, which can be reprogrammed and repurposed by anyone, without central control. Much exciting creativity and value has flowed from this enviroment, but so have viruses and spam. To avoid such negatives, the Apple iPhone has a much more controlled environment: “Apple can change its mind at any time about a particular piece of software’s inclusion in its store. And even software already obtained from the iPhone App Store can be recalled-that’s just a subset of Apple’s ability to remotely reprogram any aspect of the phone at any time.”Such controls allow Apple to protect users from faulty or malicious software. But they also can be used to ensure that the iPhone ecosystem develops only in directions Apple views as beneficial. In some ways, that means the “walled garden” has just shifted from the service provider to Apple. An interesting example of how “open” means different things to different players.Still, experimentation continues and the flow of creativity won’t be staunched entirely. For example, Duke professor Romit Roy Choudhury is experimenting with new ways to use mobile devices. For instance, with “note floating,” combining micro-blogging and GPS maps, a user can leave virtual messages floating in a particular place. “Good food but slow service” in front of a restaurant, “Sorry I missed you” at a customer’s office, “Tag you’re it” in a game. Or with “information querying,” users in a particular area might accept queries from others interested in immediate on-the-ground observations, like a real-time Wikipedia or Yelp.Dr. Choudhury’s work on sensing the environment to pinpoint location is particularly fascinating. Using GPS alone, it might be difficult to determine your exact location. But phones have other sensors built in, like microphones, cameras, and accelerometers. Are you in the library or on the sidewalk outside? Just by listening, you would know. Likewise, by combining inputs, this systems can tell whether you’re in a coffee shop or on the sidewalk outside.Open or closed, generative or barren, what if your smart phone develops an attitude? In this video, the other mobile phones grow a trifle weary of the insufferable iPhone.

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  1. The latest issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine reviews Jonathan Zittrain's new book, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.It also describes other ways scientists are using cellphones as sensors:

  2. Hey it would be cool to see the reunion with iPhone, G phone and the new Dell Smartphone. Probably more ego than any of us can stand. Seriously, I think the competition in this space will keep the apps on these smart devices fairly generative. Apple had the benefit (and in some cases, the curse) of being first to market. However, as other large vendors follow, I would expect this market to very open.