Smartphones and spheres of influence

Tyler Bell on how smartphones expand our influence to people and places.

This is part of an ongoing series suggesting ways to spark mobile disruption. We’ll be featuring additional material in the weeks ahead.

Though the mobile space is rapidly expanding, some may argue that the space just isn’t disruptive enough. In the spirit of disruption, I’ve reached out to several people across the tech and publishing industries to answer one question:

If you were going to build an app that fully harnessed mobile’s capabilities, what would it do and how would it work?

I recently posed this question to Tyler Bell (@twbell), director of product at Factual. His answer follows.

Tyler Bell: I’m keenly interested in the idea of the phone as a universal telefactor-cum-sensor platform. To effect something you must know its status, so I would note that this would entail its being a universal monitor also. I’m not certain I could choose a single app to develop, but I would be most interested in accelerating the phone’s development in several ways:

  • As a universal interface — Moving us away from proprietary devices and a multiplicity of interfaces. I would first include obvious next-steps like house and car security and automation. Generally these devices will go hand-in-hand with monitoring tasks — energy consumption, charge levels, and security status are all base-level statuses that can be monitored and effected from a single device.
  • As a sensor suite — Phones now are packed with devices that can create data from the world around us. It gets most interesting when their use deviates from their original intention. For example, the camera has migrated from a novelty to become an input device, the microphone and accelerometer — my favorite sensor; everyone has one, surely — are used to determine proximity, and the Wi-Fi chip is used to aid in location determination. I’d like to see the phone continue on a similar trajectory, especially with regard to personal health monitoring.
  • As a swarm — Phones are still built around one-to-one thinking. Sensors and collective inputs are more valuable when part of a massive collective. I would expect that this hypothetical app would ensure that my phone worked together with millions of others, reporting data on civic infrastructure, the weather, traffic, and other aspects of our shared existence.
  • As an agent — The phone remains a synchronous device, though push-based mechanisms have begun to move us away from this as the norm. I would expect my preferred app to become more autonomous, “spinning up” agents to satisfy my requests and reporting back when complete.

Phones allow us to expand our influence to other things, people, and
places. Any app that facilitates and enriches such interaction can
only be a good thing.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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  • I love your use of the word “disruptive” when talking about mobile apps. “Disruptive” is a word that has been in my company’s mission statement since 2008. With experts predicting more people accessing the Internet via smartphone than desktop computer as soon as 2014, mobile apps are going to be just as disruptive as social media.

  • petrecon

    Did Karen really intend to be 4X”disruptive”? Can’t the gerbils filter out obvious stuttering when commenters receive no feed-back that their submittal has been sent?

  • Actually, I was posting from my phone. When I hit the submit button, my phone told me I had no data connection and to try again. Needless to say, my phone was lying. I sent a message to Jenn asking for her help deleting the extra comments. Kind of have to chuckle at the irony though. I merely meant to comment, not comment disruptively.

  • Jenn Webb

    Karen — duplicate (extra disruptive ;-) posts have been removed!

  • Thanks, Jenn! :D

  • I think there is huge potential for health monitoring with smartphones. We’re probably a good way yet from Smartphone MRI apps, but why not blood pressure/heart rate sensor? Temperature? some of those basics should not be too difficult and would hopefully lead to better preventative care.

  • Exactly Zylun; it’s difficult to improve something without knowing its status — we certainly require better personal health monitoring.

  • John B

    Hrmm… Interesting. Do you not think that something that ties into your car that’s already proving to be as vulnerable as your phone is a bad idea? Even ‘just’ monitoring can provide lots of additional information about you and your behaviors that may be unpleasantly abused.

    To be practically paranoid, let’s toss a couple out there:

    1) Is your car moving and your cel and car locations very close? You’re probably in your car.

    2) Is your car moving and you’re in a different location than it is? Either you lend your vehicle out to others (something your insurance company might find interesting, perhaps) or it’s in the garage (oo! ad opportunity!), among other options.

    3) Are you moving and your car isn’t? You’re being transported somewhere by other means. Another ad opportunity!

    These are three extremely trivial examples. There are more. If you add in any form of control based on a mobile (massively insecure) platform, more fool you.

    It’s bad enough replacing a credit card and sorting out your credit history. I do not look forward to watching my car lock up in the middle of the beltway or the like.