Phone App Writers: The Next Generation

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 16 October 2008

Last year, it was Dodgeball. What do this year’s students have in store for the mobile phone?

New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program recently concluded its thesis week, an annual event in which graduating Masters students present a dazzling menagerie of projects and prototypes to the public. Over the years I’ve taught at ITP, I’ve found that these projects tend to predict the trends that dominate interactive media three or four years later.

Significantly, a full third of ITP’s thesis projects this year were mobile. Sophisticated and remarkably imaginative, these projects highlight the priorities of a design and development community that’s bound to make an impact.

Like Dodgeball – the mobile startup bought by Google and easily one of the most successful projects to come out of ITP in recent years – many of this year’s projects were inspired initially by New York City. Not only is this city the creative spark for nearly all of these apps, but it presents a most challenging urban litmus test as well. We also see that group connectivity is a priority across the board, but these projects have moved far beyond the matchmaking novelty of existing social networking services and now aim to mine the deeper treasures of connection.

Perhaps surprisingly, light apps still rule the day. SMS-based interfaces are vital to most of the projects reviewed, design choices no doubt influenced by Dennis Crowley’s “lowest common denominator” approach (indeed, the Dodgeball founder guided many of them in his Spring 2005 course, Ubiquitous Computing for Mobile Devices).

ITP’s new developers also seem to understand that networks in mobile space can thrive independently of the Internet. One project in particular demonstrates a forward-thinking move toward proximity-based networks made possible by Bluetooth. Most notable though, are the effective utilizations of scale and density present in these mobile applications. Each project takes a slightly different approach but recognizes the immense value in using our collective knowledge and experience to give us tools to better engage our cities, as we move within them.

Four projects in particular stand out as exemplars of these qualities.

The first one could have only come out of New York, the city with a subway so dysfunctional, it’s reliable. Karen Bonna wanted to design a system that could help NYC’s public transit users schedule their local commutes more effectively and flexibly. Her answer to the metro nightmare, SubAlerts, relies on text messaging to distribute service advisories, train schedules and even community alerts when train lines shut down without warning (as they love to do).

Users of SubAlerts can schedule regular notifications if they have a typical daily commute or query the system directly. For instance, sending the message “C?” would return a list of any and all service advisories for the ever-troubled “C” line. Riders can also report delays via SMS, for the benefit of others.

The only thing SubAlerts can’t do is make crowded subways fun. Enter Ian Curry and the incredible Pantopic, which may be just the app to bring a little love to the sardine can. Described as “digital ESP for your mobile device,” Pantopic creates temporary, ad hoc networks with nearby devices, allowing some interesting shades of information sharing.

Being one of the brave few to go the J2ME route, Curry admits that while light apps are “chipping upward at the technology ceiling,” apps like Pantopic are “upstairs drilling down through the floor.” This brought him to a clever approach to Bluetooth: “If you are an early adopter of this kind of technology, your social network is more likely to include other early adopters.” That’s why Ian designed small-group functionality into the core of his software, hoping that Pantopic would take off “in little pockets of users who might ultimately emerge as some kind of global density.”

Although Pantopic lacks a specific purpose, Curry has given the software enough versatility to “nearcast” everything from sound files to profiles. He’s hoping his community of self-selecting users will take it from there.

Another project, already garnering heaps of attention, is Limor Garcia’s Cellphedia. Promoted as a mobile, distributed encyclopedia – think Google SMS meets Wikipedia – its users subscribe to lists based on their individual interests and can then send questions to the rest of the community in hope of an informed response. With Cellphedia, Limor hopes to give people easy access to community knowledge, effectively creating a search engine that indexes its participants’ minds. In a sense, it’s the service that AskJeeves always wanted to be: users ask questions in natural language and receive answers – but now the responses are provided by real, informed people, live.

Cellphedia’s users have already answered hundreds of queries – often accurately, if occasionally cheeky. Still, almost all the questions do get answered. Fielding inquiries from “Is Dom DeLuise alive?” (“yes he is. he is 71.”) to “how does a diode work?” (“a diode blocks current from flowing in a certain direction. current will flow from the non-striped side to the striped side”), Cellphedia is clearly building the foundation for what could become an indispensable resource.

Perhaps the most inventive and predictive of all is a new project by Neighbornode and Grafedia creator John Geraci called FoundCity. Taking clear inspiration from folksonomy-based services like and flickr, FoundCity extends this system of casual organization and documentation from the web into physical space. As users move about the city, they “bookmark” various sites with a quick SMS or picture message, and then tag them up, folksonomically speaking, either immediately or later at their desktop.

Like the photos its users employ, FoundCity gives permanence to the ephemeral but takes this idea a step further by wedding these images so directly to physical geography. Of course, many projects have approached the idea of annotating space before but few have succeeded as well as FoundCity in giving this networked effort a more personal quality. By overlaying the perspectives of thousands of people, FoundCity approaches the dynamic nature of place and space.

These projects all point to a more sophisticated conception of cell space as a shared, always-on and collaboratively managed datasphere. It’s only natural, since they represent some of the first applications for cell phones created by the generation who grew up with wireless. So even if you can’t quite see what’s so exciting about these apps, consider the mindset from which they emerge, and remember: this isn’t just the way the designers of tomorrow are thinking – it’s the way your customers will probably be thinking the day after that.