Figure. These pictures represent some of Nokia’s visions for future applications and services: electronic newspapers, video postcard, video conference, mobile Internet access, and PDA functionalities.
Barely two generations have passed since people regarded the telephone as a miraculous if not very trustworthy device that could conquer physical distance. The further my grandfather was from the person at the other end of the line, the more he would raise his voiceas though sheer loudness would help the signal snake around mountains, leap highways and forge rivers. I could picture him chasing his words with a stick and driving them over every obstacle, in order to deliver them whole and hale at their destination. By some mysterious magic, the telephone joined one voice with another. Information consisted of language, intonation, silences and crackling noises. Long-distance information meant you had to shout.
Walking along a city street today, you can hear my old grandpa hollering on every corner. In trains, men in suits loudly consult with corporate headquarters or make up with slighted girlfriends. The tiniest delay announced in the airport departure lounge elicits a deafening chorus of a hundred cellphones explaining the situation to a hundred homes. A raised voice no longer indicates a distrust of technology. It’s just a way of being heard above the background roar of traffic, the rumble of a railway car or a cacophony of last calls. Now it’s not the technology that lets you downit’s the rest of the world trying to prevent you from enjoying its blessings to the fullest.
At the head offices of Nokia, just outside Helsinki, unreliable communication is unheard of. Nokia’s people talk business with anyone, anywhere, and at any timewirelessly, of course. The gleaming high-tech shell of the Finnish telephony giant expresses its healthy position in a multibillion-dollar market. Finland, unlike most of its European neighbors, never had a national telecoms monopoly. Nokia had to survive from the start in a home market beset by fierce competition. Liberalization of the world market simply meant an expansion of their working territorynot the culture shock that awaited many of their foreign competitors.
The next step in mobile telephony will be even more radical, if Seppo Kari, Nokia’s senior manager of wireless imaging, has anything to do with it. It’s not yet the end of the line for traditional speech-only telephony, but the future of mobile communications definitely lies in a mix of images, written text, and sound. There will be a convergence of digital cameras, mobile phones and personal computers. Combining images and sound will soon become normal. As Kari puts it, "Personal mobile communication is expanding from ears to eyes."
"Virtually 100 percent of Finnish young people aged 14 to 21 have mobile phones, often used for short text messages"
The latest enabling technologies make it possible to transmit wireless data in ever larger volumes. New emerging data services will offer transmission rates of 67 Kb per second in the near future in mobile networks. A major bottleneck in transmitting large data filessuch as those still needed for high-resolution imageswill be resolved in two years with the launch of third generation radio telephony in Japan. Shortly, the European market will also be ready for handsets able to send and receive at least low-resolution images.
"Nokia," Kari explains, "presently concentrates on developing enabling technologies of this kind, the technical building blocks for cellular networks and high-speed data services. We think the real challenge, though, will be in the use of wireless imaging, and in applications that are much closer to the end user. We have a very strong belief in the benefits of image communication for the end-user, and a lot of our research is targeted to this area."
Kari does not have to go far from home to prove the desirability of this kind of technology. Social pressure to have constant mobile accessibility has grown explosively. Perhaps it’s the impersonality of our daily surroundings that explains why people in conference centers, trains, hotels, schools, cars and offices all feel a need to be in continual contact with their loved ones. Virtually 100 percent of Finnish young people aged 14 to 21 have mobile phones. What’s more, research shows that half of their use is for SMS calls, short messages of up to 160 characters that can be typed on the keypad. They use them for dating, birthday greetings, swapping jokes, gossiping and even sending useful information. The average Finnish teenager swaps about a hundred SMS messages monthly and the volume is growing.
"Conversations" of this kind will expand enormously when image communication is added, particularly for informal communication between family members. "So far," says Seppo Kari, "wireless imaging applications have mainly been conceived with professional users in mindwork-related stuff. Real estate agents and press photographers are typical examples. It’s ideal too for an insurance assessor at the scene of a car accidenthe records the damage on digital photo or video and immediately phones the pictures through to the head office. They can then ask him to check certain details or gather more information while he’s still at the scene.
"But we can think of several other ways of using image telephony, ways that have nothing to do with work. They relate primarily to the sharing of experiences, for instance keeping contact with your family and friends at home while you’re vacationing, or sending an instant snapshot of baby’s birthday party to a far-off relative. Actually we want to offer three important benefits to the end user: sharing, mainly with members of the family; having fun, probably mainly with friends and family; and utility, primarily in the professional world."
Nokia was the first company to offer the market a mobile device capable of wireless imaging, the famous Nokia 9110 Communicator. They also launched a standard mobile phone with a small LCD screen and five pre-programmed images that users can send with text to other users who have the same model (3210). That’s pretty basic functionality, Kari admits, but it does point the way to future developments. It gives an idea of how simple and user-friendly image transmission could be.
"Gradually more and more images will become available through telecom operators, just as you can already buy various ringing tones from the service provider. It’s amazing what you can do with a small display and low-resolution images. Even though it’s still quite a complicated business sending photos using a digital camera and a mobile phone, it’s a form of picture messaging that I already find quite useful. Soon it will be a simple matter to transmit images and recorded sound from one telephone to another. Instant delivery. What is more, the messages will be disposablethere’s no reason to keep all of them. Pictures, voices, text messages and videoonce you’ve seen them, you can throw them away in the same way as most multimedia messages."
Kari not only sees a progressive change in attitude toward the images with which we communicate, but notes a shift in our communicative behavior that is particularly evident among youngsters. "It’s easier to explain and sell our ideas to generations who have been brought up with computers. They have an immediate understanding of potential use," Kari says. Besides being addicted to instant consumption, the youngsters of today are aware of growing up in a "delete culture." "In fact, it’s exactly the way I use my digital camera. I’m a lousy photographer, so I keep on snapping shot after shot and discarding them until I get a picture that is worth keeping. By contrast, I only have a few photos from my childhood. Good or bad, you look after things like that because they’re all you have. But nowadays the quantity of images is so limitless that there’s hardly any point in keeping photos. The significance of photography has changed philosophically and psychologically. The value of a photo resides in its consumption, in the speed with which you can make it available to others. And it’s our job to develop the means to satisfy that need."
Figure. These pictures represent some of
Nokia’s visions for future applications and services: electronic
newspapers, video postcard, video conference, mobile Internet
access, and PDA functionalities.
©1999 ACM 1072-5220/99/1100 $5.00
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