June 10, 2002

Building content for mobile devices

Klitus I am bored. What plaything can you offer me today. (Ming in Adventures of Flash Gordon)

Quite a few institutions are running projects where students are using PDA in some way or the other. Sometimes people tell me that it is not very practical to use PDA in education. I do agree. they are probably not very practical at the moment. They are expensive and there are issues with battery life, screen size and memory etc.

Let us look at this piece of consumer electronics that has become near-ubiquitous — The mobile phone. The mobile phones are in a transitory stage at the moment. The features of a PDA and mobile phones are being merged into a single device. Currently, we have dozen or so mobile phone manufacturers that made their own phones. Mobile phones need an operating system just like a computer. These manufacturers have their own operating systems. As phones grow more feature-rich, the operating system will also become more complex. There are figures that predict that by 2006 more people will be going online with their mobile phones compared to desktops. Microsoft, the de facto supplier of desktop operating system, realised this and created a mobile division. These guys are working to create an operating system for mobile phones. They call it the Smartphone”. I saw some of the early Smartphone models at a trade show and they were pretty impressive. Just like their desktop operating system, Microsoft wants hardware people to build phones and then licence its Smartphone.

This move by Microsoft scared some people. You can easily guess who…Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson etc. The boom in the late 90s made Nokia one of the most successful companies. These mobile phone manufacturers were not going to let Microsoft steal their thunder. They met and formed a new company- Symbian. Symbian is creating a rival operating system and hopes to licence it to manufacturers.

A considerable cost of today’s mobile phone is because of the software that goes into it. With the licensing scheme that Microsoft and Symbian propose, the cost will go down. These phones will encompass today’s PDA and they will have a decent colour screen, wireless connectivity and the ability to play multimedia. They will be able to recognize handwriting and possibly do voice recognition too. People will be using these devices for voice calls, messaging and entertainment. They will also be able to download applications and media files to their phones.

I have been very interested in the penetration of mobile phones in the student community. Asia has one of the highest mobile phone usage rate. We can be fairly optimistic and predict that by 2005 a student will carry a smart phone like this. We probably wont have any choice as most of the phones (even entry level) would have these features.

One could port an e-learning courseware onto a device like this or we can think of more interesting applications. A mobile quiz or a reference tool (that can be called up and executed when required) would be ideal on a device like this. These devices would have Bluetooth (a wireless technology that lets the user create a short range network with other devices) . We could build software that works over Bluetooth and facilitates exchange of information. The teacher can launch an application on her bluetooth enabled laptop and instantly we can have student participation — instant surveys and pop quiz.

So why are we working with PDA now, why don’t we wait for these gadgets?

Answer to this question is content”. We want to be ready with software. And not only software, we want to be ready with answers on how content can be developed for these devices. There are some indications that tools like Macromedia Flash and Mobile Java would play a leading role in development. Another important area is usability. It would take several development cycles and user trials before we can confidently say that we have figured out the best way to design user friendly applications. The current generation of PDAs offer a decent platform for us to test these issues. Some of these devices support Flash. This gives us a chance to design interactive and media rich applications.

Do I think these mobile devices are really necessary(for students)?

No, you do not necessarily need these. Let me just talk a bit from my personal experience. The best thing like about my PDA is that I can download ebooks and read them on the way to work. When I am traveling, I can write my rants. One interesting thing I have observed in groups having PDA is what I call a Beam Culture”. People find interesting stuff or an interesting event on their calendar and they beam it to each other. There was this one occasion when I was planning a trip to Korea. I got my friend Soo to narrate some basic Korean phrases. I recorded them on my iPaq and I had an instant phrase book. The kids these days are very smart. They will figure out a dozen other uses we can’ t even envision now. Sooner or later they will be having these smart phones on them. Are we going to be ready with stuff for them to play with?

This year we launched a pilot project where few of our students were asked to volunteer for our PDA trial. All these students had taken up the Horticulture Module at the Centre for Life Sciences and Chemical Technology. These students spend a lot of time outside school identifying local plants. We built a mobile reference tool containing images and details of these plants. The students use this tool in their field trip. We also built a visual quiz that helps them revise the topic.

As a part of the PDA trial program the students are loaned a Toshiba Pocket PC. We built a visual database of common plants found in the region. There is also a Flash based quiz. The students are encouraged to download content from the Net and use the IR to exchange data. We are interested in how well they get used to the PDA.

The reference pages are useful in the field where they have to identify the plant species.

One of our focus area has been content creation for mobile devices. Macromedia Flash players is now available for the Pocket PC platform. There is also a version for a Nokia (Symbian) device. As Palm moves towards more powerful hardware, Flash content on Palm looks more realistic.

Since the launch of the beta Flash player last year, I have included a session Flash for Mobile Devices” in my Interactive Multimedia course. These sessions gives us an opportunity to share our development experience. Very often the students come up with interesting application ideas.

Presented on this page are some of the Flash Content and Project Ideas that we are working with.

This hangman game was the first experiment with Flash 5 player. The keywords and clues can be changed by changing a text file.

This is beta version of a language tool I am bulding with my friend Jacky. This tool helps you learn Chinese characters.


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