Watch Me Drive

There is an advertisement on TV at the moment for an Australian car insurance company that encourages drivers to download an app to their phone to find out who is “Australia’s Best Driver“.  Here’s the ad…

When you download and install the app it starts by asking you a few questions…  your name, gender, email address, home address, etc. Then it keeps track of your driving using GPS location, timestamps, speed tracking, etc for at least the next 300km. In fact, it even defaults to an autostart mode so that you don’t have to remember to turn it on. Every so often it will check in with you to make sure that you are in fact the driver of the trips it’s been tracking. Then it scores your driving style in an attempt to find out who is the best driver in Australia.

Think about it. As well as knowing exactly who you are, it knows how fast you’re driving, when you’re driving, where you’ve been, who was driving and how long for, and even what your phone was doing as you drove. And remember, it just starts tracking automatically every time you drive. Without you even needing to turn it on.

Over time, the data will show whether you speed or not, whether you drive long distances without taking a break, whether you accelerate and brake erratically, what times of day you drive, and of course whether you’re using your phone as you drive. This is not just Big Data.  This is highly personalised data about you as an individual.

But it’s just a game right? You’re encouraged to compete with your friends via social media, so that lots of people are playing the game with you, all submitting the intimate details of their driving history as well. Let’s see who’s the best driver. Plus you can earn badges. Yay! Badges! That’s what it’s about right?

I can’t believe anyone would voluntarily give all this data to an insurance company. I mean they say it’s to make you a safer driver. Yeah, sure, that’s totally the reason. Until you apply for insurance one day and you find they know a little bit more about your driving habits than you might’ve thought and your insurance premium reflects that knowledge. If you’re a good driver, maybe you’ll pay less for you insurance. And maybe you won’t. I know which one I’m betting on.

I like to think that I’m a pretty good driver, but even with the promise of a big cash prize, to voluntarily hand over that much personal driving history data to an insurance company seems absolutely crazy to me.

Thanks AAMI, but I’ll leave this little adventure to Neil, Gaz and Loretta Jones.

Featured CC BY-NC Image “The Sunset Storm, Brisbane Australia“, by Ben Ashmole on Flickr

Calling Home

I’ve been travelling a fair bit lately.  Although much of it has been within Australia, I’ve just spent the last few days in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, for the Sitech Champion Schools Conference, and I’m writing this from in the hotel foyer. New Zealand is starting to feel a bit like a second home lately… this is my fourth trip here in the past 12 months. Aussies and Kiwis have a friendly relationship. Aside from the obvious opportunity to take shots at each other over the cricket and the rugby, our two countries get along amicably well, and the trip across the Tasman is something that feels more like going interstate than international.  It’s easy to feel at home in NZ.

About 12 months ago I was here for last years Champion Schools Conference and some readers of this blog may remember that I came home to a $1000 phone bill for international roaming. That was a saga in itself, and much was said about it both here on the blog and on Twitter and Facebook.  While I should have known better, I was quite unprepared for such a minimal amount of data to be charged at such an exorbitant rate.  I was not a happy customer and I made sure my carrier knew about it.  As a result of that experience, and the subsequent whingefest I made of it, I learned two important lessons.  One, unless you’re prepared for huge roaming charges, do not allow your phone to roam when overseas. In the brouhaha that followed the bill I asked my carrier to completely disable international roaming for both data and voice, and insisted they unlock my phone so I could use an overseas SIM card when I was abroad. They complied and did both these things.  The second lesson was that if you make enough fuss about an outrageous bill you stand a much better chance of getting something done about it.  It took me numerous phone calls to customer service and plenty of persistence to get through to someone who could do something about it, but I eventually succeeded in getting the bill reduced to a reasonable amount.  Sometimes it pays to be the squeaky wheel, and to their credit, my carrier eventually just dropped the entire charge.

So, for the last few days, I’ve voluntarily chosen to cripple my iPhone by requesting my carrier not allow it to roam onto the New Zealand phone networks. The international roaming charges are hefty enough, and my need to make phone calls is not critical enough, that I figured I could live without telephony for a few days.  Besides, I figured that as long as I could get occasional access to wifi, that would be enough. Wifi would let me get to my email and other stuff, and I could make any phone calls using Skype or Fring, both of which work just fine on wifi.  Of course, I never anticipated that getting access to affordable, reliable wifi would be so ridiculously difficult in Lower Hutt, which is only 25 minutes outside Wellington, the capital of New Zealand.  The hotel advertised that it had wifi available, but despite paying for an NZ Telecom voucher it never seemed to work, and most times never even showed up in the list of available wifi access points. I went to Starbucks to pay for wifi there, but still had zero success in getting connected.  So for the past four days I’ve been mostly disconnected. There has been wifi at the conference of course, but I’ve usually been too busy to use it for my own personal needs.

But the real point of this blog post is to question why, in this day and age, is it so damn difficult to be connected while travelling.  Why is 3G connectivity so expensive once you roam away from your own country? To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it should be free, but I’d love to see a bit more interoperability between networks and a few more strategic partnerships formed between the carriers so that staying connected while travelling was a bit more affordable and not so difficult.

To access the mobile web in Australia I pay $20/month for my phone to have 1GB, or just over 1000MB, of mobile data. The cost of data when I’m in some countries is charged at over $20 per Megabyte!  So, the cost of accessing the mobile internet when I’m in overseas can be 1000 times what I pay in Australia. I have no problem with paying a reasonable premium to access data over another carrier’s network, but 1000 times more? That’s just gouging!  I’d be willing to be charged a little extra to use the local carriers network, but I refuse to get ripped off like that, hence I turned off the roaming completely.  Sure, it was inconvenient not having access to phone and data while I was in NZ, and there was more than a couple of time when I wished I could make a quick call, but the phone companies can go and get stuffed if they think I’m willing to play their overpriced game.

Why should the cost of accessing the web cost so much just because you’re in another place. I mean, sending an email doesn’t cost you more depending on where you send it.  Once the bits that contain the message content are “in the pipeline”, it costs no more to route them next door or around the world. They just become part of the flow of electrons that circle the globe. The notion that it should cost more to send them further is just a hangover from the old days of telephony, when phone companies charged “long distance” rates for calls that went a bit further. The reasoning that it costs more to push data further is completely flawed.  It makes no difference how far you push binary bits through a network, the cost of doing it doesn’t really increase.  You remember when you sent your first email? Remember how liberating it felt when you found out that you were sending a message to whole other country, and it wasn’t costing you any more than sending it to your own suburb?  How could they do that? How could they afford to transport messages clear across the other side of the world and charge no more? Easy. Bits are free.

That’s all well and good, but it doesn’t solve my problem.  What about Plan B… get the phone unlocked and simply insert a local SIM card to access data on the local country’s network. Getting the iPhone unlocked by my carrier was not too difficult – I just asked and insisted that they do it, and told them that I was unwilling to be charged their inflated data roaming prices. Surprisingly, they complied immediately, although they now tell me that to finalise the unlocking process does require a complete system restore of my iPhone, something which is quite unreasonable. I sync my iPhone with my home iMac and I travel with my MacBook Pro, so the computer I have when travelling is not the one that contains the sync data for my iPhone. Even it it were, the notion that I need to do a complete system restore (which would involve erasing and restoring all my phone data) is plain ridiculous. 

On top of all of that is the near-impossibility of buying a short-term phone plan that offers both voice and data on the guest country’s network at a reasonable proce.  You would think that the concept of someone wanting a temporary local SIM while travelling would be so obvious, but almost no phone companies actually offers something like that. Crazy! I can’t imagine why they are choosing to be missing out on so much potential revenue from travellers.

So I want to know why it it is so difficult for phone companies to provide what seems like an obvious need in this hyperconnected world of ours… the ability to remain connected -at a reasonable price – to our telephony and data while travelling. The web is built on global standards. Data is data. Most voice calls are carried on VOIP anyway.  The methods for connecting to a network node – any network node – is no different no matter where you are in the world. There has to be a better solution than the current overpriced, under-delivering method of roaming onto another network and being charged through the nose for it.

Come on phone companies! Get your act together!

Image: ‘We are spirits in the material world

iPhone – A Garden of Pure Ideology?

There are moments when I really like my iPhone, yet others that frustrate the heck out of me.  I finally got one a couple of months ago when my carrier, 3 Mobile, finally got the iPhone, long after nearly every other Australian mobile telco.  This surprised me, since 3 Mobile were the first carrier to bring 3G services to the Australian marketplace about 8 years ago, so I was expecting that when the iPhone 3G was released in Australia that 3 Mobile would be one of the first to carry it.  Not so.

Until the iPhone, I was a relatively happy user of a Nokia N95 8Gb. As phones go, the N95 was a pretty impressive piece of hardware… it did a lot of things well, including an excellent 5MP camera, decent voice recorder, VGA quality video, GPS and the ability to install a reasonably impressive number of third party apps – nothing like the thousands of apps in Apple’s AppStore – but it had quite a few that I found useful, including Gravity, and excellent Twitter client, and Geocache Navigator, an app for geocaching.  The turn by turn voice navigation of the Nokia Maps app was also very impressive, although relatively expensive to enable.  the downside was that although the N95 had an reasonable music player in it, it was a bit of a joke compared to  an iPod, and syncing with a music library of any sort was way harder than it should have been. This meant that, although I liked the phone quite a lot, it required me to still need to carry two devices – the N95 and an iPod Touch – most places I went. The other downside was the text input method – that silly little numeric keypad and predictive text thing was a pain to use and really marred the overall user experience of entering text on the phone.  On the whole though, the N95 was a decent phone with great functionality for most purposes.

It wasn’t until the recent release of the iPhone 3G S that 3 Mobile finally announced they would be carrying it, and with much fanfare they offered a bunch of special deals to existing customers, including the ability to move to an iPhone without any real penalty for early termination of my existing contract. After much mental “should I or shouldn’t I”, I decided to move “up” to an iPhone. Actually getting one from them was a whole other story, and was such a huge customer service debacle that it deserves it’s own story some other time.

So am I happy with it?  Well, sort of.  As I mentioned, there are things I really like about the iPhone, and others that make me a little frustrated and annoyed with it.

The positives are pretty obvious… it’s a beautifully designed piece of hardware, nice to hold, pretty to look at. The interface is intuitive, easy to use and once you get past its modal nature and the lack of real multitasking, it is extremely functional.  The extensibility through the apps store is, quite simply, amazing.  “There’s an App for that” may be an Apple advertising catchphrase, but there truly does seem to be an app for just about anything you can think of, and this ability to customise the phone into a true mobile computing device that runs pretty much any task, utility or game is really quite a defining moment in the history of computing devices.  To their credit, Apple has redefined an entire market with the iPhone, producing a device that was unlike anything before it and that most other manufacturers are now scrambling to keep up with.  There is no doubt that the iPhone will go down in history as a device that reshaped the entire mobile computing and communication platform.

The fact that the iPhone is basically all screen means that it can morph into almost any device a developer can think of. This is part of the iPhone’s genius. From a user perspective, the device is just as good at being a camera, as a GPS, as an iPod, as a notebook, as a you-name-it. The interface for any of these applications can be purpose built without being limited to a tiny screen, a hardware keyboard and the existing hardware buttons. Developers can build the ideal interface, the keyboard appears and disappears on demand, and a “new phone” is only a software update away. Pretty clever really.

So, with all of those positives, why does the iPhone frustrate me?  Well, perhaps it’s just a case of the way I like to use mobile devices, but I find the lack of Bluetooth support really annoying (and more importantly, it symbolises a much bigger problem with the whole iPhone ecosystem). With my N95, I would often send files back and forth between my phone and my computer using Bluetooth networking.  On the iPhone, I just can’t do that – Apple don’t allow it.  Because Bluetooth file transfer capability is such a standard function of every other mobile phone on the market, I never thought to check whether the iPhone could do this…  having to check whether a modern phone can do Bluetooth file transfers would seem to be like buying a car and needing to check whether it has a steering wheel – it’s just assumed that it does.  I never realised this was a missing function until, not long after I got the iPhone, my daughter wanted to send me a file from her phone so she initiated a transfer over Bluetooth, only to discover that I was unable to receive it.

Surely I was just missing something obvious? Every other mobile phone on the planet can do this, even very basic ones, but not the iPhone, supposedly one of the world’s most advanced phones ? More research online and chatting to the folk at several Apple Stores revealed that this was indeed a design “feature”.  Apple does not allow Bluetooth file transfer, with the commonly stated reason being that, in order for Apple to get the kinds of deals with music publishers it needs for the iTunes Store, the ability to share songs via Bluetooth had to be disabled.  Sorry Apple, but that’s nonsense.  If you need to protect purchased music from being shared illegally then surely some form of specific DRM could solve that? If you must, you could disable the ability to transfer only purchased songs over Bluetooth, but to just shut Bluetooth off completely?  Come on Apple! Are you serious?

And what about photos I take myself? Or sharing a contact from my address book? Or a calendar item? Why should I not be able to share these things back to my own computer, or even to another phone, if I wish to?  As it stands, I cannot get a photo from my iPhone to my MacBook without the need to use a transfer cable, as there is no direct way to get a photo to another phone via Bluetooth.  Yes, I know I could use email to send it, but that presumes that, a) I’m in a wifi zone, or, b) I have enough bandwidth on my mobile plan to allow it. Here in Australia, mobile plans for phones are relatively limited, so using your data to send large files via email is a nuisance, and the thought of transferring lots of files is just not practical this way.  Same deal for MMS or uploading it to MobileMe… it’s a slow, time and bandwidth consuming solution to a problem that is not a problem for every other phone on the market.  If I’m sitting next to someone on a bus and I want to share my contact details with them, there’s no easy simple way to do that without connecting to an external network of some kind.  That’s ridiculous.

The Bluetooth problem might seem to be relatively minor, and perhaps I just feel affected by it more because this was something I used to do a lot with previous phones.  It just feels like a really backward step to own a phone that prohibits something that was so useful and usable on my last few phones.  And I use the word “prohibits” very deliberately. Apple could allow Bluetooth on the iPhone… there are no real technical issues that prevent it.  The Bluetooth stack is there, and it works for other things, such as the handsfree speakerphone in my car.  No, the hardware is there, the functionality is there, but Apple have just decided to switch it off on purpose, and I’m starting to find the whole “it’s the Apple way, or no way” attitude gratingly arrogant.  I’m also seeing this attitude play out in the App Store’s rather opaque approval process, where apps are refused access to the store seemingly on Apple’s whims.

What all of this has really highlighted to me is just what a closed platform the iPhone is. As someone who believes in the basic principles of openness, it’s annoying to see the level of interference that Apple is exercising over what it decides should be allowed or not.  Yes, the iPhone is nicely designed, and yes it has tons of very cool apps, and yes it is light years ahead of the devices that came before it.  On balance, it’s still one of the best phones on the market and I still think that if I have to own just one device, the iPhone is currently the one to have.  I’ll tolerate the added inconveniences of the missing Bluetooth functions and the very average camera quality, because the iPhone’s many other advantages make up for it.

However, I’m really coming to think that in the long run openness will probably be the better strategy.  In hindsight, I’m wondering whether I should have hung onto the old Nokia N95 for another 12 months and then taken a good look at what the Android platform is offering by then.  Android is moving so fast at the moment, that many are predicting it to ultimately overshadow the iPhone’s dominance.  Certainly, in the history of the computer business, open platforms nearly always succeed over closed platforms, and you would think that Apple, moreso than any other company, understands that.

I’m really hoping that Apple use that massive advantage they have – the software extensibility of the iPhone platform to become whatever it needs to become – to bring back some openness.  The missing Bluetooth may just be one small thing, but I think it symbolises a much bigger thing – the willingness of Apple to play the role of Big Brother by telling us what we can and can’t do with our devices.  I’m very much feeling that Apple is dictating to me how I should be using my phone, not based on how I want to use it, but on how they think I should be using it.

The irony is that back in the pre-Macintosh days, in Apple’s now-famous “1984” advertisement, they portrayed computer users as a group of mindless, soul-less followers, marching lockstep and being dictated to by Big Brother.  Those early days of Apple were focused on building a computing experience that enabled people to break free of the imposed limitations of “closed-ness” and to work in ways that made personal sense.  Turning off basic phone features simply because Apple doesn’t think they are needed is just arrogant and insulting to the user.

Just be careful Apple.  Over the next few years, the competition in the Smartphone market is going to heat up and get a whole lot tougher.  Users will have many more choices than we currently do. The iPhone is a revolutionary device to be sure, but Android, Nokia and many others will match or better the features of the iPhone and users will want phones that work the way they want them to work, not just how you think they should work.  As you say in the video, “We shall prevail”.

Apples 1984 Commercial