Wireless networks, apps gaining ground in unlikely places

EmTech@MIT panel describes ways mobile apps

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Mobile and wireless applications are already profoundly affecting underdeveloped areas of the world, experts on a "Future of Mobile" panel said at the EmTech@MIT 2010 conference here Wednesday.

In countries such as Haiti, the Boston-based non-profit group Partners in Health is now using cell phones and wireless networks to notify residents when their medications are available at a nearby clinic, said panelist Emily Green, CEO of Yankee Group.

"Once we have [wireless] connectivity in places like Haiti, people are connectable...giving them continuity in health," Green said at the event on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus. The residents of some countries don't even have an address, so a cell phone can specifically find a person to impart vital medical care information.

"It's life-changing...," Green said.

Mobile researchers are finding other ways to bolster health by connecting a range of devices to the Internet via wireless networks. For example, a medication bottle from Vitality in Boston can be wirelessly connected so that a doctor can see when a patient has opened and closed the bottle -- indicating the medicine has been taken.

Mobile apps and wireless networks can also help the local economy, In another example, Green pointed out that entrepreneurs and wireless companies can now hire the poor to perform large numbers of data entry tasks, spreading the work among workers who each own a cell phone. "These are the most thrilling apps I've seen," she said.

Cell phones are also gaining value in many countries as mobile wallets for people who have never before had access to a physical bank, said Vanu Bose, CEO of Banu, a maker of wireless infrastructure systems for some emerging markets. "The best mobile banking system in the world is now in Kenya," Bose said.

Panel members predicted that mobile devices will gradually replace cash and credit cards. Green noted that mobile payments via personal cell phones and Near Field Communications and other networks are already widely used in South Korea today.

Not only does a cell phone serve some people as a wallet, it can be an identification card for those who have never had a driver's license or I.D. card, Bose added. "Mobile becomes your identity...," he said. "That application is taking off."

Given the gorwing number of applications for mobile devices emerging in the world, one skeptical audience member asked the panel why anybody would want a clothes dryer or another household appliance connected to the Internet, as has been widely envisioned by technologists.

"Well, the value is to lower your [energy] bill, and if that proves out, that's the case right there," answered panelist Matt Grob, senior vice president of research and development for Qualcomm.

Another panelist, Alice White, a vice president of Bell Labs, part of Alcatel Lucent, said her company is involved in many areas of research in wireless and mobile components that can be used for exciting new applications.

But White also acknowledged that not all emerging technologies are good. She pointed to text messaging as one example, noting that her teenage children don't have unlimited texting plans for their cell phones -- even though many teens routinely send 50 to 100 texts a day.

"They are better scholars, speakers, writers and readers because they don't text," she said. "The question for us is what is the right technology."

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