Tag Archives: mobile

Handsfree is the next challenge for mobile

A huge part of the mobile experience is still extremely subpar. No one has created a seamless handsfree experience. I briefly blogged about this 2.5 years ago, and I still feel like there is tons of room for improvement. I don’t blame the headset companies, as my Plantronics (and for many others Jawbone) headset works great… as a headset for phone calls. But using it is not easy. Voice dialing (calling a contact using voice recognition) is a very basic start. The iPhone has Voice Control, which is little more than voice dialing plus basic iPod controls. Android has the best solution right now, Voice Actions, which seems very promising. Yet it doesn’t work consistently with a bluetooth headset, and the commands themselves are too robotic for most users. There are also some solid apps in the space. Nuance’s Dragon voice to text is great. Siri (which Apple purchased 1.5 years ago) has a good amount of NLP (also uses Nuance) and allows for a variety of different commands. Vlingo, Google, and countless others have apps too. But it isn’t effective unless it’s integrated at the OS level and works with handsfree devices.

The obvious use case (especially in CA and other states where there are specific laws) is controlling the phone while driving. Some cars have tried solving this, but none (that I’ve tried) have done it well. But handsfree use cases can be more common- anywhere from multitasking to video chat would be improved by some sort of integrated headset. Wired headsets are obviously not easy to use (I feel like I’m always untangling mine). And wired headsets only work on a single device- bluetooth would allow for switching between iPhone/iPad/etc. where appropriate. Apple previously tried making a bluetooth headset (see here) but apparently gave up, I’m guessing due to technical limitations and lack of polish. The bluetooth spec has improved significantly, allowing for better quality and lower power consumption. A typical headset now can go days/weeks before a charge with decent use. My ultimate wish is that the headset would be able to charge directly from the phone via a mini charging connection or induction-based charger.

But the software integration is the most important – the headset and phone need to understand a variety of commands and output results using display and more importantly voice. Something like “look up directions to Mitchell’s Ice Cream” should return a map and read out the list of turns.  “Schedule phone call with Mom for tomorrow at 3 pm” should read back, create a calendar item, and send an invite. The harder but equally important one command is “reserve a table for tomorrow at 7 pm at Aziza for 4 people,” which should use the OpenTable app, and read back available reservation openings and confirm. And the software should somehow know how to differentiate and use the appropriate device, whether an iPhone on the road, or the Apple TV at home.

My prediction (dream?) is this will be solved in the next major iOS (5.x) release, and that Apple will release a headset at the same time.

Cell Phone Contract Termination

I don’t like cell phone contracts.  But maybe I should.  I recently bought a Blackberry Bold on AT&T and signed a two year contract.  Turns out that AT&T’s 3G network (as most AT&T subscribers can tell you) is beyond atrocious.  I should have returned the phone within 30 days, but I didn’t.  Now I’m in a quandary with no recourse, or so I thought.

The early termination fees (ETF) are there to inhibit switching, and they work well.  However, the contracts can actually work in your favor.  Most phones are subsidized around $100-$200 if you sign the contract.  Check out the below table, and you’ll find that over time, the ETFs become lower than the subsidized amount – i.e. it behooves you to buy a phone on contract as long as you don’t cancel within a couple months (depending on the carrier).   There are caveats (activation fees are meant to even it out, though these are sometimes negotiable), but at least we have the flexibility.

Ultimately, I still believe that cell phone service would be vastly improved if 1) we got rid of contracts altogether and 2) they shared a similar technology platform.  The carrier technology would then be a commodity (much to their chagrin) and service + cost would win customers (instead of devices, which is where the iPhone has done an extreme disservice to service quality-conscious customers,  as we have shown our buying choice can be based entirely on phones).

Problem is CDMA and GSM are both prevalent, however the evolution to LTE will help even the field (whenever that happens).  Contracts create (illusory or not) a feeling of stickiness.  If a carrier truly felt that they were good enough, they would allow customers to change whenever without ETFs.   Thing is, if contracts were eliminated, phones would be more expensive (though one could argue the market would be more efficient since platform barriers would be eliminated).  However, monthly plans would decrease, assuming that carriers currently make up subsidies over the life of the contract.  It’s an interesting conundrum.

Anyways, since I’m very seriously considering changing networks, I decided to look up all the return policies and ETFs, as I feel this is extremely relevant to what network I do end up on next.

Return Policy

Early Termination Fee (ETF)

AT&T

30 day

$175 minus $5 for each month on contract

Verizon

30 day

$175 minus $5 for each month on contract

T Mobile

14 day *

180 days + remaining on contract: $200 **
91-180 days remaining: $100
31-91 days remaining: $50
Less than 31 days: Lesser of monthly or $50

Sprint

30 day

$200 minus $10 each month beginning month 5 ***

* Another page on their website says 20 days. Phones activated in CA have 30 days.

** Only for contracts on or after June 28, 2008. No idea what is before that date.

*** Only for contracts after Nov 2, 2008. All contracts signed before subject to full amount.

Voice-enabled Mobile Apps – Use your phone safely while driving

I use my phone a lot.  I’ve had a smartphone since the Palm Treo 600, and have grown more and more dependent on my mobile device since then.  I use it for phone calls, texting, google maps, reading news/rss feeds, MLB gameday audio, yelp restaurant reviews, and much more.  As the devices became more powerful, I found myself using it more and more often – even while driving.  Instead of looking up the location of a restaurant ahead of time, I’d just wait until I was closeby, and out comes the blackberry.  Instead of calling folks and telling them that I was running late, I’d text them.  Most of the time, I’d think nothing of it.  But then the LA-train texting accident happened (among other texting-related accidents), and I realized exactly how dangerous it was.  

Yet, even then, it still proved very difficult for me to stop the occasional driving text or lookup.  However, California recently passed a measure that makes it illegal to text while driving (a very, very smart law).  Enter voice-enabled mobile apps.  I’ve downloaded Vlingo, Tellme, Yahoo oneSearch, and Google Mobile, all of which are voice-enabled.  Google’s voice recognition only works for Google search queries, so it’s not very useful.  Tellme (recently bought by Microsoft) is solid for map lookups.  If you’re on the go, instead of typing “Pauline’s Pizza, SF”, you can say it, and it will display the results (which still requires a dangerous glance away from the road) and allow you to easily map it.  Tellme also allows for voice-prompted calls.  

Vlingo, however, is the best offering.  Their voice recognition, while still needing improvement, is impressive (Indian names do not work super well, I’m tempted to give all my friends very common English names in my phone book.  Or maybe I cannot pronounce Indian names correctly).  The program allows you to call friends, SMS text (accurately), google search, launch applications, and more.  It’s great – I can text and drive legally!   It would be useful if it would allow searches within Google Maps (my favorite GPS app), but I’m sure that will come soon enough.  Vlingo’s technology also powers Yahoo’s oneSearch application, which only allows for lookups – i.e. it’s quite useless (it should at least work with Yahoo Maps).

All the apps could use work in playing back audio results.  Vlingo will replay SMS texts before it sends them out (thus avoiding awkward misses in the voice transcribing), but it needs to support playback of queries and location searches to avoid dangerous glances away from the road.

Vlingo has been around for awhile, but they recently upgraded and it’s voice-recognition is now much more usable compared to the rest.  Yes, it costs $17 (they have a limited free version) – but that’s nothing compared to the enhanced safety (I rarely need to look at my phone now, it’s all voice-recognition).  All the other apps are free, so I highly recommend trying/using at least one of these if you own a car- you never know when you’ll need it.   Or you could just avoid using your phone altogether while driving.