The assumption of connectivity


Christmas in rural, Eastern Scotland was relatively uninterrupted by mobile communication thanks to the near-total lack of reception at my parents house. Perhaps today’s “one-horse town” should be called a “one-bar town”? This was not a major issue until I wanted to check some information that I had previously received in a festive Facebook message. Unfortunately the app does not seem to cache messages, even if they have been viewed recently. On another occasion I wanted to use the mapping app to navigate my way to the start of a brisk, wintery walk. Despite having previously viewed the area on the maps app when the phone had wifi connectivity, I was greeted with my exact GPS location on an empty grey grid.

I am sure many of you have had similar experiences in far less rural settings and perhaps more urgent circumstances. The mobile phone is a tool that allows us to take control of situations where we would otherwise have limited control (smartphones in particular). The downside of this is that we have become reliant on the device to the extent where we are often helpless without it. Who memorises phone numbers nowadays? Who carries a map anymore? As the Cloud looms ever-closer, demands on bandwidth increase and operators squeeze more bits into the airwaves, who is addressing the other end of the spectrum: how to improve the experience for users with very limited connectivity?

In my opinion, optimising mobile data performance for low-reception (and thus low-bandwidth) users would also create a more seamless experience for regular and high bandwidth users and possibly even decrease the load on the networks. There are three areas that I feel can have an impact and that I would like to learn more about:

  • Cache: what should be stored device-side to smooth the user experience? Can the phone intelligently predict the information that will be most relevant in the near future?
  • Compression: what level of compression will users accept in exchange for a faster response? RIM seem to be the kings of compression, what can we learn from their approach?
  • Data prioritisation: how do devices prioritise bandwidth usage between different apps? I don’t want my phone downloading 8 emails when I’m frantically trying to find the nearest Burger King!

This is where you come in! I would love to hear your opinions on these issues. Which devices/apps already do this well? What other factors can help improve the experience for low-reception users? Get in touch through the comments below, by email or by twitter.

I was recently told a story about school kids near Perth who could only send text messages if they threw their phones into the air immediately after pressing “send”. Surely there is a way to help these “one-bars” enjoy a better user experience!


2 Comments

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  1. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    As highlighted in MEX Pathway #1, data usage is growing faster than operators can (or will) support with their current network investment plans. The result is pressure on data capacity and a difficult dilemna:

    As an operator, do you:

    a) accept lower margins by maintaining operational expenditure levels on things like subsidies, content and marketing, while at the same time increasing capital expenditure to add the required network capacity?

    b) try to maintain/grow margins by cutting operational expenditure and increasing capital expenditure?

    c) refuse to increase capital expenditure and try to manage data usage to maintain quality of service on the network?

    Tough decisions ahead for carriers and more need than ever for developers and designers to make the UX of their services as network efficient as possible…

    To further reinforce this, news broke this week that T-Mobile UK is reducing data allowances for its customers to 500 Mb per month:

    http://moconews.net/article/419-leave-video-at-home-t-mobile-uk-slashes-data-cap-for-fair-usage-to-500m/

    While in the US, we can expect to see increasing competition between the 4 major carriers as they encourage users to choose between their different data plan strategies: unlimited, capped and bundled or unbundled tethering.

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