Mobile's future is in links, ex-Nokia CTO says

Users would navigate their contacts and content related to them in a cloud-based "social graph" usable on any phone

The standard architecture that will realize the promise of mobile phones won't be hardware or software but a cloud-based platform that lets users navigate their contacts and content related to them, according to a former Nokia executive.

Because the people we know are at the center of most of what we do with mobile phones, the real operating system of phones should be built around those people, said Bob Iannucci, who stepped down as Nokia's CTO last month. He's now talking with venture capitalists and developers about building such a platform in an open way that transcends handset operating systems and carriers. Iannucci described his concept to scholars and industry professionals at the Stanford Computing Forum on Tuesday.

Iannucci envisions a web of names, pictures, video and information that would be linked like friends and related content in a social networking tool. As demonstrated at Stanford, this "social graph" was just a set of boxes linked by lines, which a user could navigate from one person or thing to another along logical connections. It would be a more natural way of organizing items than alphabetical lists of phone numbers and content, he said.

But the social graph wouldn't be an information base hosted by a specific carrier or a presentation method specific to one device OS. In Iannucci's vision, it would be data stored in a cloud and accessible on any device, over any carrier network.

This would help mobile communications finally become a mature technology like mainframes, minicomputers and PCs, said Iannucci, who once headed the Nokia Research Center and has led researchers at Compaq, IBM and other companies. It requires a standard platform that's widely understood, around which third-party vendors can develop software and services, he said.

The mobile industry is still in a phase much like the PC industry before the marriage of Windows and Intel processors, with a plethora of different platforms, Iannucci said. As a result, users struggle with phones in a way they don't with computers.

"It is still the case that no matter what device you give to someone who's never had a cell phone, it's easy for them to think about making calls and it's dramatically harder for them to use most of the other functionality in your device," Iannucci said. That includes the handsets made by his former employer, such as the Nokia N95 smartphone.

"They're amazing in terms of their abilities, but they're very hard to use," Iannucci said.

With this social graph, users could become familiar with it on one phone and then be able to find their way around their next phone no matter which hardware or software vendors designed it, he said. It would be possible to design a version for text-only phones, lacking the graphical representation but still logically organized the same way, he said.

Mobile technology has to move on to this next stage before more developers can be convinced to invest in it, according to Iannucci.

"There is no platform. Mobility is too complex, but the opportunity is horribly tantalizing," he said.

The social graph would be one way to rebuild mobile interfaces properly, Iannucci said. The most natural way to structure an interface is with a "noun-verb" syntax, where users go to a name or object and then carry out an action with it. That makes more sense to humans than the frequently used "verb-noun" structure, where users have to start an application and then find the person or object they want to act on with it, he said.

Two of the biggest challenges in making this standard platform a reality are how to make it work on devices that aren't always connected to a network and how to get it off the ground in a way that doesn't turn off the partners it needs.

Though the social graph would reside in a cloud, parts of it would have to be replicated onto devices, Iannucci said. In addition to keeping the interface available outside coverage areas, this would take advantage of less-expensive processing power available on the device. Making the problem harder is the fact that the interface would organize all kinds of rich content related to individuals, such as photos and videos, in addition to the individuals' profiles and contact information, he said.

Iannucci said this vision can't be entrusted to a standards body because they take too long to complete standards and would miss the window of opportunity. But it also can't be carried out unilaterally by one vendor that will be perceived as dominating it, so others won't join in. The key will be to rally several major companies around the technology, he said.

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