Smartphones rise from gadget to tool of necessity

| Sunday, Feb. 28, 2010

Until he could organize it on his smartphone, a calendar to keep track of his schedule never worked for Nels Beckman.

The Bloomfield resident would set a time and date to get a haircut or arrange to meet someone he bumped into on the street, but later forget because he didn't have a calendar with him to mark the event immediately.

"Now, I use a calendar all the time because it's in my smartphone," said Beckman, 27, a software engineering doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University. "It's always with me. I use it for everything."

As smartphones -- cell phones that connect to the Internet and download software applications or "apps" -- become more sophisticated and continue to evolve, they are changing the way Americans live and work.

People have access to information -- and each other -- wherever they are, as long as they can find an Internet connection.

" 'Profound' is the word to describe all this," said Alexandros Labrinidis, a University of Pittsburgh computer science professor. "Essentially, you have a small computer with you at all times."

Beckman uses his Blackberry to synchronize flight itineraries with his existing calendar, building a schedule he can use.

Patty Swisher's iPhone enables the Castle Shannon resident, 42, to read work e-mails while she rides the T to work Downtown, so she's always prepared for what awaits her when she arrives.

Anna Lee-Fields' Sony Ericsson smartphone allows the Shadyside resident, 36, to snap photos of her cats, Calvin and CC, and upload them to her Flickr account for friends to see.

"We've only scratched the surface," said Labrinidis, who bought a printed $14 travel guide for Washington, D.C., a couple months ago and never opened it. Instead, he used his iPhone to get all the information he needed.

In the near future, people will be using smartphones regularly to do things like check traffic conditions in real time or determine which hospital is closest with the shortest wait time for a particular medical condition, Labrinidis said.

Labrinidis, co-director of the Pitt's Advanced Data Management Technologies Laboratory, said the integration of smartphones into everyday life could surpass that of the cell phone -- "the fastest infusion of technology in society since the beginning of time," he said.

"Cell phones went from zero in the global population in 1982 to 3.3 billion in 2008, serving about half the world's population," he said. "Not even the polio vaccine was distributed that fast."

Wireless networks that provide Internet connections for smartphones are going to become faster, too, said Larry Evans, vice president and general manager of AT&T Corp.'s operations in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

"That speed will change the way everybody works," said Evans, who is based in Allison Park. "These next few years are going to be interesting. They're going to be fun."

People are drawn to smartphones because of their applications, said Dave Decker, 31, an Oakmont resident and Web developer at Carnegie Mellon University.

There are 100,000 iPhone apps in Apple Inc.'s online App Store, most of which are free or cost only a few dollars. Other hardware and software manufacturers are working to catch-up for smartphones such as Motorola's Droid, Palm Inc.'s Pre and Pre Plus smartphones.

"Apps are what make a smartphone a smartphone," said Decker, an iPhone user. "You can customize your phone. Now I can go and download whatever I want. And if I don't like the apps that exist, I can write my own program, if I have the ability."

Apps that Decker uses regularly include foursquare, an app that lets users provide their locations to friends and recommend cool places such as restaurants to check out. Another is Shazam, which identifies the name of a song and artist a user is listening to when they let their iPhone record a snippet and search the Shazam company's database for the information.

Software engineers at Google's Pittsburgh office, on CMU's campus, were key developers of Google's Sky Map app, which will display on the Droid's screen the star or constellation in the nighttime sky when a user points their smartphone at it. It uses global positioning system technology in the smartphone.

Smartphones' mobility and capacity for intensive-data computing have opened up new opportunities for entrepreneurs.

A South Side company, Rhiza Labs Inc., makes software that allows users to share data such as maps and graphs over the Web more easily, said CEO Josh Knauer.

Rhiza's business model initially didn't include a smartphone component, but the company's business has mushroomed since adding smartphone data collection capability, Knauer said.

"As smartphone technology improves, we can develop better data collection apps for them and radically expand the number of customers we can reach," said Knauer, who uses an iPhone.

That's happening for YinzCam Inc., a Squirrel Hill company run and founded by Priya Narasimhan, a CMU electrical and computer engineering professor.

Narasimhan uses the increasing speed and power of smartphones' Internet and video abilities to make sports events more fun for fans at sporting events.

YinzCam and the Pittsburgh Penguins introduced technology last season that allows fans at Mellon Arena who have a smartphone to view the game, replays and access real-time game statistics.

"It gives the nosebleed fan a front-row view," Narasimhan said. "It allows fans to customize the way they the watch game and maximize the value of their ticket. You couldn't do that before with phones that didn't have Internet and video capabilities."

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Show commenting policy