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The Future is Ours

Here's your future. Everywhere you go, devices and services know who you are and act accordingly. When you walk into the kitchen, your refrigerator knows you. It pushes the things you like to the front of its shelves. When you get near your car, it unlocks and adjusts the seat, mirrors, and radio stations. When you rent a car, it does the same thing. Your world gently changes as you glide through it, assisted by services you're hardly aware of. All for your comfort and convenience.

Or not. Perhaps your future refrigerator won't open until you watch an ad. Your car won't start until it finishes whining about an oil change, and as you drive away your cell phone keeps ringing with messages about nearby coffee shops and store coupons.

Both futures may be available to you. What's your preference? And how much are you willing to pay for it? This article explores user settings, profile, account information, personal information, and account maintenance. These terms describe your personal preferences for how you want to view and interact with the Web sites and services available on the Internet. We're going to look at the importance of personal preferences for the coming revolution in wireless data or wireless Internet.

Fundamentally, preferences are filters for information. Preferences filter the information you view, as well as the information you provide. When you enter your name and password at a Web site - for example, "My Yahoo" - the information you see can be tailored and limited to you and you alone. Other preferences filter the number of stock listings or sports scores you will see, the weather for your area, and even the language that you see. Many Web sites ask for your country of origin and filter their content so you can view their site in your language of choice.

This sort of filtering by personal preferences is convenient on the desktop Web. For the wireless Web, however, preferences are vital to the user experience. The smaller form factor of cellular phones and PDAs demands less informationŠbut the right information. A user won't spend much time paging through the wrong information. And preferences themselves must be easy to find and change whenever you wish.

In both views of the future described above you were able to identify yourself in some way so the devices and services nearby could recognize you, find your preferences, and act accordingly. This sort of future could require a centralized place for preferences, such as a device to carry around that identifies you, or an Internet "hub" where contained. But monolithic solutions like these require many new devices and new standards, and the agreement of all Internet communities to centralize this information.

Or not. Perhaps there is an easier way that is more suited to the Internet. A standard for storing and exchanging preferences is certainly needed. Coupled with a peer-to-peer syncing system, a distributed interoperable system could be created. One that allows users to save and change all of their preferences, and one that all venders (who have permission) could sync up to. Not an easy task, but it could be implemented now, using existing networks, devices, and protocols, so that it can become more valuable as it grows. Preference filters are so important to the success of wireless access to the Internet that it must be done somehow. It must be done soon.

Any scenario of the future that includes pervasive computing assumes these preferences are in place. Services for travel, office, home, purchasing, and other transaction-based activities already collect preferences. Other services will require hardware changes that are starting to happen today, such as telematics for vehicles. Once cars are connected to the Internet and users can be easily identified, available services will go far beyond directions and unlocking your car remotely. When you rent a car it will be able to adjust the seats, suspension, and gear changes to your specifications. It will also adjust the preset radio stations to your preferences, adjust the car-equipped phone to your number and billing information, and adjust its mapping and directions to your itinerary. And this is all done automatically because the car knows who you are and can find your preferences.

But what about privacy? How much personal information is an individual willing to give up in order to enjoy these services? A new service under discussion right now incorporates many of the issues for preferences and privacy: the ability to pinpoint the location of a customer's cellular phone. Location information is mandated for 911 calls so that any phone used to call emergency numbers can be located automatically.

But merchants and agencies are eager to send messages to these phones, ads that are based on the exact location of the cell phone. And they are raising the most sensitive privacy concerns.

M-commerce application providers, wireless carriers, and government regulators are now trying to address the privacy issues concerning the commercial use of ALI (automatic location identification) data. The Federal Trade Commission began holding discussions in December and on the agenda is a session on location-based services and privacy. M-commerce vendors themselves acknowledge that the privacy infringement could stymie their fledgling industry.

Imagine the handiness of using your Internet phone to find the nearest Starbucks. If the service automatically knew where you were located, this would be even more convenient.

One imagined m-commerce service would be to send you a message with a money-saving coupon every time you're near a Starbucks. If the service knew the location of your phone, and the location of the Starbucks stores, this would be technically feasible. But imagine the horror of receiving a call on your cell phone every time you're close to a Starbucks, especially if you're in your car! Beep! Another Starbucks close by!

The Wireless Advertising Association (WAA) has defined three important terms in this area:

  • Confirmed opt-in: A process of verifying a subscriber's permission to ensure that wireless push advertising isn't accidentally or maliciously sent to the subscriber's wireless mobile device.
  • Personally identifiable information (PII): Data that can be used to identify or contact a person uniquely and reliably, including but not limited to name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address.
  • Wireless push advertising and/or content: Any content sent by or on behalf of advertisers and marketers to a wireless mobile device at a time other than when the subscriber requests it. This includes audio, short message service (SMS) messages, e-mail, multimedia messaging, cell broadcast, picture messages, surveys, or any other pushed advertising or content.
Without a workable system for confirmed opt-in, wireless marketing simply won't happen. In fact, without confirmed opt-in the grand vision for the wireless Internet won't happen, because in order to be successful vendors need the user's personally identifiable information, and that information will depend on a system for users to easily opt in and opt out of programs or services.

CTIA (Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association) recently combined with the Wireless Advertising Association. Together they proposed a set of privacy and spam guidelines before the FTC late last year. In the proposal are guidelines for protecting wireless consumers. This plan is similar to parts of the draft legislation for Congress, still under discussion, proposed for the Internet industry.

CTIA's proposal requires wireless location providers to tell every customer about the collection and use of ALI data. Those customers should then be offered a way into - and out of - the use of their ALI data.

CTIA also proposed strong security requirements for the entire m-commerce industry, including a standard way for vendors to communicate with consumers on privacy.

Wireless carriers also want to tread lightly into the commercial use of location-based services. They're examining these services, but are struggling with what consumer acceptance will be. For this reason analysts (like Jupiter Communications) predict slow growth for ALI-related applications, and say that applications requiring user input of address information will remain dominant for the next year.

Useful location-based services are being offered now on the wireless Internet. As the issues with ALI are resolved, these services will become more prevalent and easier to use. Progress will be made through organizations like CTIA that are working to highlight the issues with preferences, suggest guidelines, and manage the iterative process that will make them acceptable to users and the vendors who want to provide services to them.

This is how preferences will become more important in all areas, from location information and billing to other personal information such as wallet, address book, and calendar. Easy methods must be found so that wireless users can tailor (read filter) their content to see only the sports teams, weather, traffic conditions, and so on relevant to the information. That way you'll shape your own content and your own future.

About Ron Dennis
Ron Dennis, Wi-Fi editor of Wireless Business & Technology, is a technology pioneer and a Palm fanatic. He's now reporting for WBT from the islands of Hawaii. He cofounded Livemind, Inc., led the third-party developers group at AOL, and created AOL's Web Hosting Service and Software Greenhouse. He has also guided several Internet startups.

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