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Always On : The Culture of Connectivity

Back in the days when the world was new to WAP, we all had simple phones with which we could connect to web sites and download Java games. Some of the more savvy ones would go to MSN every now and then to check email or install Java applications such as Talkonaut that would allow users simultaneously to sign into the MSN, Yahoo and Google chat networks. That was all there was to mobile internet usage. We’ve significantly evolved ever since. Now you have high-end phones with full internet capability. Carriers have introduced GPRS services where you can have a complete browsing experience through mobile browsers such as Opera Mini. This has made the mobile phone the new face of the internet.

With your mobile, you can now always stay connected to the vast stream of information that is constantly flowing across the world wide web. Mobile devices are no longer used only to call people, but are an interface that lets you connect better with all your social groups. You can send pictures to friends as you click them, find out where they are through services such as Google Latitude, post location-specific tagged content and engage in loads of other activities.

The first wave of the “always on” mentality was propelled by Google and Wikipedia. As any information-hungry user would tell you, the thirst for that prickly bit of information which is nagging your brain cannot be put aside until you have a PC. It has to be fulfilled then and there. So, people started using their mobile phones to access Google in an effort to look for everything from varieties of coffee to phone numbers of businesses and services such as cinema halls.

India has approximately 350 million mobile phone subscribers. Of these, about 100 million handsets are data compatible. However, actual data users are still only about 10 per cent of that number. Although internet usage via mobiles has proliferated substantially since the days of WAP, it’s still doubtful whether many would take to it willingly. Primarily, the reason is cost, since mobile browsing is expensive. The basic GPRS service that most carriers provide is really useless since it only allows access to WAP sites. The advanced GPRS service, for which plans start at Rs. 199, lets you access sites on the world wide web as you would on a desktop browser. Subscribing to advanced GPRS lets your installed applications use packet data. However, lower plans have a data limit. For example, the Rs. 199 plan from one operator has no free transfers clubbed and data is charged at 5 paisa per 10 kb. Another plan for Rs. 499 allows up to 1 GB of free data transfer. Thereafter, every 10 kb is charged at 5 paisa, which works out to about Rs. 5 per Mb. If your data usage is high, only an unlimited plan would make life comfortable for you. Some carriers provide a corporate plan where you get unlimited usage for approximately Rs. 299. If you manage to get your phone under such a scheme then you’re set. High-end users will frequently exceed around 1.5 GB of data usage from their phones; so if you’re such a user, it’s best to look for an unlimited data usage plan. Actually, always look for a genuinely unlimited plan.

Earlier mobile internet enthusiasts would download widgets or applications for accessing specific services online. So you would have an application for Gmail, one for Yahoo, Wikipedia, and so on. The trouble with going this way was that you constantly needed to switch between applications to use the services. We now have browsers (both native as well as third party) that give you a full internet experience, and so people are moving away from using widgets and dedicated apps to using browsers just like from their PCs. Most people prefer a third party browser such as Opera Mini or SkyFire. These display almost all web pages exactly as they would be rendered on a desktop PC only scaled down for a smaller screen. Another similar browser is TeaShark. Its interface is a little jumpy, but many people like it.

There is also the newly released Bolt browser from Bitstream, which is still in beta, but promises a great browsing experience. Checking for movie listings is much simpler over the internet using a mobile device than going through the IVR menu of cinema halls. The IVR is painfully slow and often you don’t even reach the listing you want. Besides, who wants to bear call charges to listen to a monotonous voice for 15 minutes? Through the web, it’s much simpler. You can go to the web site for each of the cinema hall chains such as Adlabs, PVR or Big Cinema and get listings consolidated into one place. Alternatively, you can even install an application on your phone called b-mobile, from m.bookmyshow.com. This application allows you to select your movie, date, time, quantity of tickets, etc. and even make payments.

Social Connect

When it comes to connecting to chat and social networks, there is an undisputed leader in this space — an application called Fring. It lets you interact with friends on all your favorite chat and social networks such as Skype, MSN Messenger, Google Talk, ICQ, SIP, Twitter, Yahoo and AIM. Using Twitter through this application is also catching on pretty fast. Through Fring you can even listen to music with your Last.fm friends, check out the latest scene on Facebook, and receive Gmail. Through VOIP, which some carriers support, you can even make calls to people. The lag or delays faced are perfectly acceptable, ranging from half a second to a few seconds. So if your friend is logged into MSN, you can talk to him or her through Fring. This way you can even save on airtime costs. Java users can download minifring which is a lite version for J2ME users (m.fring.com). This version does not support VOIP.

Blog connect

Mobile blogging is also catching on with many users today. If you’re a regular blogger and want your Wordpress web site to look compatible with a mobile phone browser, you can download a plugin for it. As for blogging from your mobile phone to Wordpress, there have been Symbian apps for a long time. Wordmobi, a Wordpress app for your Symbian S60 device is a good option and so is Scribe; both need Python installed. Blogger, too, has recently joined the bandwagon by enabling a much simpler way to blog from your mobile device. In your blogger dashboard, you will notice two new icons for setting up this service. Click on the envelop icon to set up a custom email address that will automatically be converted to blog posts. This address is something like usename.uniquetext@blogger.com. Any email you send to this address from your mobile will instantaneously be posted on your blog. The subject line becomes the post heading, or teaser, and the body text follows. You can even post via MMS. For this, you will need to send a verification code as an MMS to go@blogger.com. There is still no word of a Symbian or Java app for blogger. Sony Ericsson has a native app for blogger, while for iPhone users there is a $3 app called BlogPress that helps you post to various blogging services such as WordPress, TypePad, LiveJournal and of course Blogger. Speaking of blogging, users have taken to uploading photos from their cell phones directly; a variant of image blogging.

The text boxes on Facebook are a problem, but there’s always a work around such as installing a dedicated Facebook app from Mobile Facebook. Mobile internet enthusiasts will also go to random web sites such as icanhascheezburger.com, failblog.org or the Photoshop Disaster blog, and basically find various means to stay entertained. This includes getting on to Youtube.com and streaming videos. YouTube video is best viewed if you are stationary because switching between transmission towers reduces the effective transmission speeds. But YouTube has recently implemented a Flash-based interface for mobile phones, by which you can pause your video so that it buffers and you get to watch it uninterrupted. Earlier, when steaming with Real Player, the videos would frequently stop. YouTube is very popular with the always on crowd because every now and then when you’re with friends, and there is some interesting clip that you want to show, it makes for good conversation starter.

Another advantage of Advanced GPRS is that you can connect your laptop to the phone and use the phone as a modem. This way you can use the phone’s internet via your laptop even for playing online games. For games such as Red Alert 3 you can join the game lobby and have an online match anytime. Some of the carriers indeed provide connections that are fast enough for online games. Of course in every city you’ll have dead spots where you get little or no GPRS connectivity.

Give me more

Many people buy phones with large storage capacity in the hope of carrying along all of their music; but let’s face it, there will always something that you’ll find left behind and miss. Perhaps you just got your hands on that latest album and forgot to transfer it to your phone or maybe it’s that classic you removed from your flash card to make way for that new single, but are now craving for. Is there a way to have your entire music collection follow you around? With phones enabled with internet connectivity it’s easily possible. Mihir Pathare, a self-confessed information junkie and always on addict uses something known as Winamp Remote to stream his music to his phone remotely. “I’ve set up my own web server at home, since my PC is always switched on and online. So what Winamp Remote does is it takes my entire media library and streams it to me”, he says. Once the user logs into Winamp Remote it will broadcast the song to the users’ phone at the maximum bitrate the connection supports at that point of time. So if you’re in a Wi-Fi hot spot with a compatible phone, your music will stream at 128 kbps or even 320 kbps, while if you are connected via the GPRS packet service, you can set the bit rate limit at say 60 kbps depending on the strength and bandwidth of the connection. While travelling, when your connection changes cell sites frequently it is recommended to keep the bit rate low such that there’s the least chance of interruption. 40 kbps is the least bitrate that you can set. Another alternative is to listen to internet radio. On Nokia N-series phones, for example, internet radio comes inbuilt. There are also Java and Symbian applications such as VRadio which has 200daily stations from around the world. Virgin radio (now called Absolute Radio) is also an excellent option. For gamers, there is always N-Gage gaming or the option of downloading Java games from the thousands of web sites available. iPhone users have their own set of games that can be downloaded. Check out our Fast Track on Mobile Apps bundled with this issue for more.

Hosting a server at home has other advantages as well. Using your cell phone, you can log into the web interface for UTorrent and start a download; by the time you reach home, you have data ready for your consumption. This server can also serve up files from your hard drive, so in effect, you’re carrying your entire hard drive wherever you go. Once you have the file with you on the phone’s memory, you are free to do whatever you want with it. Check out the Do This box for more info.

For viewing office documents, there are many free apps that you can download for Symbian. Many of these come pre-installed for S60 and Windows Mobile. As for editing office documents there is Open Office for Sony Ericsson Symbian UIQ. For viewing PDFs, there is Adobe Reader that is bundled with most Nokia N-series phones. Foxit Reader is supported on Symbian UIQ again and available free on Windows Mobile.

Geographical connect

GPS is also getting increasingly popular in India. The geographic location service offered by GPS and A-GPS providers are so sophisticated that if you if you have a compatible phone, it even shows which side of the road you are on, besides giving you turn by turn directions for most points of interest (POI) such as restaurants, ATMs, malls and various other businesses. Most N-series Nokia phones come with a built-in GPS unit and mapping software, but the mapping software expires after a certain trial period. Even after it expires, the maps are available but turn-by-turn directions support switches off. If you have a Windows Mobile phone which doesn’t have in-built GPS, you can get a unit separately that will pair with the phone via Bluetooth. Then all you need is to find a solution for mapping software.

In the case of Nokia phones, you need to purchase mapping support from Nokia after the trial version expires. But there are other applications and providers in the market with both paid and free solutions. A trial software for Symbian is available from SatGuide that works on most N- and E-series Nokia phones. The trial version with limited usage comes with maps and POIs for 26 cities. A full version can be purchased for Rs. 2,000 (one time), it offers more detail and maps of over 200 cities across India. Another alternative is to use Google Maps. Download the Google Maps application from m.google.com/maps and you will get driving and transit directions, which are not very good, but acceptable. The application is built for almost all mobile OS platforms. The application will also give you access to phone numbers and addresses for local businesses. Google Maps triangulates your location based on your nearest cell site signal or even via GPS if your phone has it. Users say it’s faster than using pure GPS.

So there you have it. A multitude of ways to connect, share and do more with your phone. So go ahead, join the culture of connectivity and remain always on!