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Your life in a pocket

Last month, a smartphone linked to a constellation of satellites in Earth orbit smoothly guided a visitor to a wedding venue in New Delhi, outsmarting a veteran taxi driver struggling to find the place with the help of passers-by.

Handheld electronic gadgets, whether smartphones or tablets, are changing the way people live and work and, industry analysts say, the trend increased substantially during 2013 as more and more people turned these pocket devices into constant companions.

They may also be subtly influencing human behaviour and society as everything digital — from computers to the Internet to social media — goes mobile. The handheld device today has everything: a telephone, a camera, an instant message exchange system, a music box, a direction-finder, a weather alert system, even a TV.

“The smartphone has emerged a continuous-engagement device,” said Prasanto Roy, a technology industry analyst and editorial adviser to CyberMedia.

Among India’s estimated 82 million active Facebook users, about 62 million access the social networking site through their mobile devices. Similarly, of India’s 198 million Internet subscribers, Roy says, about 89 per cent use a mobile device.

Jaisel Gaurav, a 16-year-old Delhi schoolgirl routinely chats, shares jokes, watches YouTube clips and accesses Facebook through her mobile phone. “But we also exchange class notes, explain lessons to each other and prepare for tests via the phone,” said Jaisel.

Sections of the technology industry itself are reeling under the impact of the mobile and the tablet revolution that has sharply eaten into the markets for personal computers and laptops.

“The sales of smartphones and tablets are strongly positive worldwide, while PC growth is negative,” Roy said.

But the high cost of bandwidth will limit the availability of full-scale video — and thus TV services — on mobile phones in many countries, including India, in the immediate future.

“Continuous streaming video or real-time face-to-face video via mobiles is unlikely in India, especially among prepaid users who make up 93 per cent of mobile users in the country,” Roy said.

India ranks 119 in the world in average connection speed, and the promise held out by 4G services is yet to materialise. One reason is that India has 143 million wireless data users but only 15.3 million wireless broadband users. Until the user base swells, companies will be reluctant to invest in the latest telecom equipment and technology to bring blazing Net connection speeds.

But remember, when cellphones debuted in the mid-1990s, no one thought that the then expensive service would change even the housemaid’s life forever and so soon.

Impact on lifestyle

Industry analysts say the set of handheld applications is still expanding.

“We’re seeing, for example, people using their smartphones to order gifts for friends and relatives,” said Sanjit Chatterjee, director of strategy at Reve Systems, a Singapore-based company engaged in mobile communications via the Internet.

Calcutta schoolteacher Sarmistha Sarkar, 32, has been busy exploring new apps since receiving a Samsung Galaxy Note2 as a birthday gift from her husband.

“I’ve always been very active on Whatsapp; I’m also planning to download Viber (an app that allows people to make free international telephone calls); I also listen to music on my iPod. It’s really relaxing,” said Sarkar, a resident of the Brahmapur locality.

“We live in a joint family and both my husband and brother-in-law love playing games on their mobiles or tablets,” Sarkar said.

But she admitted that these distractions can be a conversation killer.

There are times when all the family members are in the same room, but each is lost in a virtual world — Sarkar’s mother-in-law Mina Ray, 65, watching television; her sons furiously trying to get to the next level on Angry Birds; and Sarkar herself talking to her school friends.

Chatterjee cited another trend.

“Handheld devices are clearly helping people stay connected with friends. While this helps greater interaction within established interpersonal networks, there is less incentive to reach out of the networks and communicate with strangers,” he said.

Five years ago, a study by information technology specialist Marlon Parker at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa, showed that 29 per cent of schoolchildren spent three to six hours a day on their mobiles, while three per cent spent more than six hours a day using mobile instant messaging.

Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel last year indicated that 94 per cent of high-school pupils accessed social media via mobile phones during class hours. Only four per cent reported not using their cellphones at all in class.

Last year, research by James Roberts, professor of marketing at Baylor University in the US, cautioned that cellphone and instant messaging use appears to be driven by the same kind of impulsiveness linked to compulsive buying.

“At first glance, one might have the tendency to dismiss such aberrant cellphone use as merely a passing fad,” Roberts said in a media release issued by Baylor.

“But an emerging body of literature has given increasing credence to cellphone addiction and similar behavioural addictions.”

The study by Roberts and his colleagues was published in the Journal of Behavioural Addictions.

Parker’s words of caution five years ago appear as relevant as ever as 2014 approaches: “Time spent on mobile instant messaging means time away from true human contact.”

Gadgets 2013

Wearable technology

Keen on your golf? Just issue a spoken order to your Google Glass, a tiny computer fitted into a pair of specs, and it will give you the windspeed and the distance to the hole. The tech toys of 2013 ranged from the Oculus Rift (in

picture), a headset you strap on for 3D “virtual reality” gaming, to Samsung Galaxy Gear, a watch that pairs with a smartphone to let you check text messages and play games, to Fitbit Force, a “smart” wristband that measures the number of steps walked, calories burnt and hours slept in a day.

3D printers

You don’t need to go to the kitchen to bake a cake any longer. From a tiny robot to a giant rocket, everything is now a print command away. In the field of technology, 3D printing made the biggest headlines in 2013, and for good reason: guns were “printed” at home and fired, prompting bans on 3D printing of guns in some US states.

Practical obstacles remain to wider adoption of the technology, though. Detailed 3D designs, a must for 3D printing, are difficult to get and the printers are expensive. But the day is not far when you will be able to print a pen to solve a newspaper crossword.

Flagship phones

Smartphones made screens longer than 4 inches (diagonally) the norm, blurring the difference between phones and tablets. Samsung Galaxy S4 and Note 3, HTC One and One Max, Sony Xperia Z and Z1, LG G2, Nokia Lumia 1020 and 1520, BlackBerry Z10, Nexus 5, Motorola X and iPhone 5s spoilt consumers for choice. The iPhone 5s model with 64GB memory raised the smartphone price to Rs 70,000. With processors and graphics-rendering capability of most top-end phones on a par now, firms are banking on image quality of the inbuilt camera and fancy features like unlocking with fingerprint to attract buyers.

Streaming

Movies, music, TV shows, live sports, news... you name it and you can stream it. YouTube, Spotify, Hulu Plus, HBO Go, Google Play Movies and Music, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video are where all the entertainment is. The streaming boom spawned one of the gadgets of the year, the $35 (Rs 2,200) Google Chromecast (in picture), a pendrive-like device that mirrors on a big screen what is streaming on a phone or a tablet. India is still waiting to make the switch from the TV to the Net but here too, movie-streaming services will soon take the place of the neighbourhood DVD library, 3G and 4G service providers willing.

Gadgets2014

Budget phones

The first bunch of handsets running KitKat, the latest version of Android optimised for devices with modest hardware, will hit the stores early in 2014, starting with Motorola’s MotoG. Samsung, Nokia and the other big players too are focusing on basic smartphones that are likely to sell well. Phones that run new operating systems like the Firefox OS, Ubuntu and Tizen will add to the competition and further boost this segment. Basic already spells bestseller in tablets after the Nexus 7s showed the way. But the entry of iPad Air (in picture) could raise the price bar.

4K TV

Unlike phones, TVs will not become larger but the images will become more lifelike, thanks to 4K resolution or Ultra HD screens, a notch above Full HD. The technology debuted in 2013 but will enter living rooms in significant numbers in 2014 as prices drop to the mass-market level and TV filming in 4K becomes widespread. Sports broadcasters are among the first off the blocks. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in 4K will be hard to beat unless one makes the trip to Brazil for the World Cup.

Cloud storage

Millions will overcome their unease with storing personal photos and documents on the Net, as backing them up in multiple external hard disks and DVDs prove too cumbersome. Big players in cloud storage, such as Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive and Mega, are offering several GBs of free space in the cloud in the hope of attracting users, who might later be willing to pay for additional space or boost revenue through ads.

Applications that run directly off the cloud will make this transition easier. Devices like the Chromebook, which are little use unless they are connected to the Internet, will become more common.

Game Consoles

The big two consoles, Sony’s PS4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, are here with their new-generation controls and voice command and gesture recognition. For the first time, the competition is not restricted to Nintendo WiiU, thanks to the Android-based Ouya, Nvidia Shield and GameStick. Gamers have never had it so good.