New phone on the block

An Internet inventor, or perhaps dreamer, named Dave Hakkens has a pretty cool idea about how phones should work. According to Hakkens, phones should be created a la carte, with each component plugging into a master board. This would allow individual parts to be replaced as they wear out or need upgraded, without replacing the entire phone. It would also allow individual users to design their own components. His idea is called a Phoneblok.

Hakkens isn't an engineer, and doesn't pretend to be able to build such a phone. But he's gotten almost a million people to support his idea through the Thunderclap website, which lets people socially “back” projects they might buy. Then if the project gains a critical mass of interest, that evidence can be shown to funding companies as proof of concept to get things built. No money is involved with Thunderclap, so it requires less of an endorsement than Kickstarter, where backers have to pony up money. 

For feds, a Phoneblok would be a perfect BYOD phone. Those who needed a bigger screen or a faster processor could configure one exactly how they wanted.  And those who aren't allowed to have a camera in their workplaces could simply leave that block blank or fill it with something more useful, like a bigger hard drive or a more powerful speaker. 

Some have commented on Hakkens’ YouTube page that Phonebloks would be impossible to build, as components couldn't share a common interface due to wildly different power and data interfaces. And given current technology, that's probably true. But I think the point of the Thunderclap program is to show that this cool idea could be the next big thing.

For those who think that Phonebloks might be impossible, I submit the humble Raspberry Pi for consideration. This little $25 computer came from nowhere a few years ago, and now people are using it as the brain power for everything from electric cars to weather monitoring stations to filming wildlife with infrared cameras at night. My guess is that if given some type of platform to work with, the world would come up with lots of uses for a Phoneblok — and even individual components for it.

So what do you think? Could Phoneblok be the next big thing, or are they simply the unrequited longings of a technology dreamer?

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 22, 2013 at 12:40 PM0 comments


GIS collaboration software goes mobile

In many of the old war movies I watch, mission planners crowd around a sand table in a smoke-filled room to map out an operation. 

But it's not just the military that uses this collaborative strategy. Many government agencies that deal with emergencies and rapidly changing situations find that sand table collaboration leads to better, more informed decisions. 

A high-tech decedent of the sand table is a GIS information table, like the TouchTable that can display very detailed maps with vital information overlaid on top as needed. But it also required collaborators to be in the same room. When dealing with a situation like the Boston Marathon bombing, such a gathering might not be possible for some time after the event. And  real-time information from people in the field might not become part of the decision process until it's too late to make a difference.

For agencies that need the power of a TouchTable, but also the speed of real-time collaboration, the company is coming out with a product that runs on tablets, PC and mobile devices — and even changing the company name to reflect this new focus. It’s now called TouchShare.

The move to a mobile product specifically aimed at government agencies was an easy one to make, according to TouchShare officials. "Collaboration is one of the most important things you can do in an emergency," said Bob Pette, CEO of TouchShare. "Anytime you have multiple smart people working together, you will come up with a better decision than if one or two people were making those calls alone."

The new TouchShare software runs on PCs and Windows tablets right now, and it is being optimized for the iOS platform with a projected January release date. After that, Pette said, the platform will be rolled out to Android devices as well.

For the mobile interface, a few concessions had to be made because of the limitations of the hardware, but Pette doesn't think that many people will notice. The biggest one is that it’s a 2D interface on the mobile platform, whereas users who worked with a TouchTable could experience everything in 3D. The mobile interface is streamlined and made completely of JavaScript, with a few PHP calls.

The main program can be installed in the cloud, with seat licenses shared among users. The software currently runs as part of the Amazon Web Services but is in the process of getting certified to run within specific government cloud services. For agencies that really want to lock down their security, the software can be set to run on a standard server behind an agency firewall.

Once deployed, it will allow mobile users to not only collaborate with others as if they were standing around one of the big TouchTables but also to add information, photos, videos or personal assessments into the pool of data that the group is considering. Doing something on the tablet interface, such as circling an important landmark, is also instantly shared with the rest of the group.  

Mobile TouchShare costs $4,000 to install on a server or in the cloud, and that comes with 100 client licenses. Pette said he expects the iOS version will cost about the same amount, and it will also be offered as an additional fee to existing systems.

It offers an effective way for agencies ranging from military to emergency responders to collaborate about important events. Although I think something is lost with the removal of the actual sand, I suppose given the fact that most mobile electronics are made of silicone is sort of like carrying the sand along for the ride, just in a much more useful format.

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 10, 2013 at 10:51 AM0 comments

no phone

Do shutdown rules threaten your phone's data?

Some federal workers sent home because of the government shutdown have been told to turn off their government-issued Androids, BlackBerrys and iPhones. 

A presidential memorandum on implementing “orderly shutdown procedures” warns against furloughed employees doing work outside the office, including by using mobile devices or remote connections. The memo gives agencies some leeway, saying some could have employees turn in their agency-issued devices, but “others may determine that circumstances warrant a different approach.” Some agencies, such as the State Department have told furloughed employees to turn off their agency devices.

But Good Technology, which manages mobile device security for many federal agencies, warns that powering down devices could result in lost data. "People may not realize that, as part of their mobile device management plan, there are security practices that will wipe out a phone if it does not connect to its network for a certain amount of time," said Jeffrey Ait, Good Technology's public-sector director. "Normally after a reasonable amount of time, say after seven days, if a phone has not connected back with mom, we assume that it's been lost or stolen."

As a security precaution, phones managed by Good Technology, and many other mobile device management providers, can be set to wipe themselves if they are left powered off for days at a time. This is done to protect government data that might be sitting on the device in the event that it’s lost or stolen. But a shutdown scenario probably wasn’t considered.

The wipe command and timer is housed on the phone, but can be modified by administrators back at the office, assuming they are considered essential employees and can work to make the changes during the shutdown. However, a powered-down phone still won't get that update and would still wipe itself out after the connection time has expired.

"Most of the data that will be lost is probably just a copy of what is on the Exchange server, but not always," Ait said. "It's something that users may not have thought about, which could become a problem if the shutdown lasts for a while."

Ait said the easiest way to avoid getting a phone wiped out would simply be to turn it on from time to time during the shutdown so that it can connect back to the host network and do its check-in. Also, if administrators have suspended the check-in requirement or lengthened it, the phone would then be updated with the new profile. Whether this breaks the no-work rule is an open question, but it’s something that mobile users and their administrators probably need to consider.

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 02, 2013 at 2:13 PM1 comments