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The new digital companion that appeals to both our noblest and basest instincts.

IT IS a strange revolution which results in the proletariat gaining a personal valet but such a transformation is taking place with the latest evolution of the smartphone.

Once, it was only the splendidly wealthy who could depend on the services of a Jeeves who would ensure no social appointment was missed and that a crucial fact was never forgotten.

But the new generation of smartphones push digital technology into a higher stratosphere of cleverness.

Apple's description of its Siri voice-command service reads as if it belongs in the pages of a science-fiction paperback: "From the details in your contacts, it knows your friends, family, boss, and co-workers. So you can tell Siri things like 'Text Ryan I'm on my way', or 'Remind me to make a dentist appointment when I get to work', or 'Call a taxi' and it knows exactly what you mean and what to do."

Misbehaving celebrities have thrown phones at underlings but today the phone is the personal assistant. We may think that we don't have any use for this technology, but 15 years ago, how many of us would have believed we'd send text messages until our thumbs ached? In the second quarter of this year, a quarter of the 428.7 million phones sold were "smartphones" - these do more than make calls.

Bill Gates changed the world with the vision of a personal computer on every desktop but we are moving towards a reality in which there is a supercomputer in every pocket.

In the 1980s, Gates' goal sounded audacious but not revolutionary. Swapping a typewriter for an electronic keyboard and a screen did not appear like a change in the workplace which would radically alter the fundamental nature of how we live and work - but that was before the computers were plugged into the internet.

Whatever predictions futurologists make about the social implications of a citizenry in which everyone carries a phone equipped with some form of Artificial Intelligence, we can be sure that the predictions are not bold enough.

Software developers are scrambling to keep up with the possibilities of the hardware. Applications will be developed which will appeal to both our noblest and our basest instincts.

The metamorphosis of a phone into a digital companion could help people regulate medical conditions, fight depression, remember to take pills at the right time and do exercises. It could also assist farmers in developing countries match weather conditions with the most effective agricultural practices and make it easier for them to reach a new galaxy of commercial opportunities.

However, the flip-side of the coin is as dark as its counterpart is bright. Democracy activists may have used mobile technology to organise protests and record human rights abuses but dictators will be just as quick to exploit technology that reveals the location of the user and his or her network of associates. Similarly, pornographers, virus-writers and voyeurs will pursue nefarious possibilities.

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook were tremendous assets for the protesters in this year's Arab Spring, but the advent of "happy slapping" - camera-videoed bullying - in the playground means many young people will be less than thrilled to be around for the birth of the digital age.

But few of us would want to crank the revolution into reverse gear.

Chris Price, a professor in computer science at Aberystwyth, is excited by the commercial potential to develop software for smartphones.

Prof Price, who more than a decade and a half ago wrote the heating system program for a local Methodist church, this year helped host a major gathering at the university of experts hoping to create the next wave of smartphone applications.

He has already developed a popular Welsh language tool and he does not fear that the boom in social networking stops today's students from socialising with one another.

Noting that many seem to spend much of their time communicating with people they will see later that day, he said: "It seems to enhance that bonding experience rather than detract from that."

Smartphones are appearing in hallowed institutions. On Monday of this week the Speaker of the House of Commons announced that MPs can use handheld devices in the chamber so long as they do not "impair decorum" or lug a laptop onto the green benches.

If you want to see which way the tide of history is flowing, take a look at the flood of money which has hit the "app" market. In 2009, sales of applications for Apple phones hit $709m; last year it rose to $1,782m.

Just as people don't expect to use just the software that comes bundled with their desktop PC when they buy it, so increasing numbers of us want to download programs onto our phones.

These include games - the popularity of Angry Birds (which involves catapulting feathered creatures at evil pigs) is a phenomenon worthy of several PhD dissertations. Tunein Radio is deservedly hugely popular.

It gives you instant access to thousands of world radio stations.

And there are plenty of apps which actually save time and limit frustration. Poynt shows what movies, restaurants and businesses are near to where you are standing.

Likewise, the delight of many a parent at being able to shoot home movies daily and share these instantly with doting grandparents is not to be sniffed at, especially in an age when so many families are spread across continents.

However, no matter how eye-catching an app is today, we are still in the earliest moment of the bigger change that is taking place in our society.

Increasingly, we expect to be able to communicate with one another at all times.

Novelists daydreamed about telepathy but phone-buddies can find out where their friends are by tapping a screen and have multiple ways of communicating with them.

The smartphone brings together forms of technology that we might never have bought separately - and would almost certainly not carry at the same time.

PDAs - personal digital assistants - were popular among businessmen as an alternative to a pocket diary but never excited the wider population.

Yet increasing numbers of us are now making use of the calendar features on our phones and "syncing" these with ones on other devices.

Tiny cameras have been around for years, but only a minuscule proportion of the population would actually pack one in a pocket when going to the shops.

However - as many a snapped celebrity has discovered - the cameraphone has transformed great swathes of the population into aspiring photojournalists.

Only the most tech-happy explorers might have purchased a handheld GPS system - but this is now a standard feature of the modern phone.

Increasingly, computers are making use of "cloud technology" - essentially a giant hard disk at remote locations.

Our messages, music, memos and other data are stored there, meaning we can access these "on the go" and are no longer tethered to a home or office computer.

When we use such technology we put our faith in the efficiency and goodwill of a corporation which runs a giant network somewhere.

We also hope that the system will not come crashing to a halt, as the Blackberry network did for millions of uses this month.

When a service we have come to depend upon vanishes and we cannot get an immediate explanation why, we come to understand the downside of living in a society where almost-essential services are provided by high-walled corporations.

One of the challenges for today's politicians is to ensure that multinationals that provide services that are no longer considered luxuries are regulated, accountable and transparent.

But just as great is the responsibility to ensure that the opportunities created by smartphones are not limited to a privileged few.

This year's communications market report by Ofcom found only 29% of people in Wales own a smartphone, compared with 31% in England.

Of these, 47% were aged 16-34 and 42% were from ABC1 social groups.

It is not just a challenge of income but also geography - 18% of the population live in areas where there is no 3G access.

In the past, Wales' tourism champions have, perhaps heroically, tried to turn this into an advantage.

A 2004 poster by the now-scrapped Wales Tourist Board featured a view of Snowdonia with the headline: "Area of outstandingly bad mobile reception".

But being out of the range of 3G internet telephony is now frustrating to a tourist in search of a restaurant review or a train timetable and will leave a local entrepreneur at a chronic disadvantage.

Living trapped in a not-spot is no longer quaint and is about as attractive a tourism asset as an invitation to spend a weekend in a shed without plumbing.

If Wales is serious about wanting to develop a knowledge economy which can compete with the broadband speed-racers of India, China and South Korea we need world-beating infrastructure.

It will be a travesty if Wales is known as a country that has been left off the hook.

THE ANDROID FAN a Media attention has been fixed on the success of the iPhone but millions of phones run Google's Android operating system.

In the second quarter of this year 43.4% of smartphones sold ran Android, while only 18.2% used Apple's system. it It Chris Hancock, who studied mobile communications and internet technologies at Swansea University, is a fan of Apple's less glamorous rival.

He said: "When I was in my third year of university I decided I wanted a -smartphone, mainly because I wanted to tweet, check Facebook, get my e-mails and whatever else us students can do to waste time. I chose [Android over Apple] because it's less restrictive in so many ways. I felt with [Apple] it's Apple's way or no way at all.

"For example, placing music on my phone. I have a a personal hatred against iTunes.

"I can't stand it. All that syncing and placing your music on iTunes, it's a nightmare.

"With Android, I can plug it in and drag and drop my music to my phone storage or Micro SD card or I can download it from various sites straight to the phone. It gives you a choice."

He added: "Android has amazing integration with all the social networks and services I use. I use Facebook, Twitter, Google+ as well as messaging services such as Ping, Whatsapp Messenger and MSN in the form of eBuddy.

"I also have three e-mails - a Gmail, Hotmail and a business e-mail.

"I love to make my phone my own. That's the great thing about Android - I could look at 10 other HTC Desire HDs and just from turning it on and looking at a few home screens I could tell it was my phone."

who THE EARLY ADOPTER Documentary-maker and well-known Welsh political commentator Gareth Hughes has had an iPhone for close to four years and has posted 2,130 messages on Twitter.

He feeling can think He has no interest in Facebook but was quick to spot the potential to use his phone to break stories.

He A key delight is that it allows him to have rapid feedback from his audience, think who can send him instant messages of support or criticism.

He said: "It gives us that feeling again that people can get back to us which I think is very healthy."

However, he has reservations about the popularity of social networking among Welsh politicos.

He said: "It's also done something to politics which I think is unhealthy because there is an assumption that when you read things on Twitter and Facebook that's the prevailing view.

"What people tend to forget is there are large numbers of people out there, especially in the poorer communities, that never go near these things.

"There is a danger that [people] who find it difficult to get their voices heard will find it even more difficult in the future."

THE SCEPTIC Gerald Taylor, a lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, owns an ageing Blackberry but has not been caught up in the wave of excitement that surrounded smartphones.

He said: "It's not one of the top-range Blackberrys. It does have internet access but I never use it to be honest."

The politics expert did join the hype-ablaze messaging service Twitter but says he has never sent a message more frequently than once every six months.

He said: "For me, tweets are blogs for people who don't have enough to say."

And, in contrast with many millions of consumers, his affection for Apple faded when the late Steve Jobs returned to the company and it brought out a string of eye-catching products including the iPod.

He said: "I'm not prepared to pay the price for something that looks distinctive as opposed to doing the job for me."

While fellow academics are excited by online possibilities, he misses human interaction.

He said: "Even over the phone you hear a person's voice and get a sense of their intonation and character. I think we're living in a society that risks a level of depersonalisation if we're not careful."

Particularly, he is concerned that drives to get unemployed people to access services online could result in a feeling of even greater alienation.


In the second quarter of this year, a quarter of the 428.7 million phones sold were "smartphones" - the kind that can run your life for you like a personal Jeeves
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Oct 19, 2011
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