CIO

The Rise and Rise of the MoPho

Today's mobile phones have a life of their own. Be afraid. Be very afraid . . .

I have detected a new, evolving life form. Like all life, it started as an inorganic compound - called a telephone - before developing into the simple cell-based mobile phone. This rudimentary organism has now transformed into a highly adaptive, intelligent being with new capabilities like e-mail, Internet, video and music, and more developing all the time.

IBM is even creating speech applications for it, where the user talks into the device and receives information back in a spoken form. This could well be a major technological advance, but I thought telephones worked that way since Alexander Graham Bell started playing with them in 1876.

It began as a parasite, initially connected umbilically to its external battery pack, before evolving to a human parasite, clinging desperately via a modified hook called a belt clip. Then it developed a symbiotic relationship - still needing us, but increasingly us needing it.

Now we're becoming utterly dependent on it every waking moment (including the waking moments it causes), having to check it constantly in case it's made a noise. Any call is immediately responded to like we'd respond to a baby's cry. We are comforted by its light, pulsing like a mother's heartbeat, and in utter despair if it ever leaves us for any length of time. We play with it during the day, we change its outer garments, and proudly show it to other new parents, boasting of its particular talents and appearance or being envious of another newer model.

To continue to refer to this closest of companions as a mere mobile phone is like calling the modern luxury car a mobile engine. We need to recognize the evolution of this new life form and honour it with its own unique biological name. I humbly suggest "MoPho" (Latin name: Facilus Confabulii).

Taxonomically, with a Genus of PDA, PocketPC and telephone, the MoPho is a Family. Although traditionally in the Class of Electronics, competing Classes of Computer (particularly HP) and Software (with Microsoft folding Origami models) are frantically trying to adopt it. The Telecommunication Class provides an essential nutrient of bandwidth, finally finding a use for their G3 crop, and the Class of Media (admittedly an oxymoron), with the other food group of content, is hopeful MoPhos can be persuaded to finally fork out money for it.

Our previously ordered life differentiated between entertainment (such as the TV), social interaction (such as the telephone) and work (such as the computer), and created separate spaces to meet each need. The rise of the MoPho is ushering in the new era of convergence, delivering telephony, video, television, cinema, photography, radio, podcasts, Internet, instant messaging, tickets for shows and bill paying all from the one device. In short - everything, everywhere, to everyone, thus changing our lives forever.

There is a battle looming for these creatures. As in historic times, when opposing forces were led by flag bearers carrying different standards, we again face a battle of standards not seen since Beta lost to VHS, despite being a superior force. With forces powered by competing frequencies, competing formats and different country regulations, the MoPho war is shaping up to be a drawn out contest that guarantees instability and an enormous number of losses. Sounds familiar!

The second battle comes from another evolving creature that's threatening to move into the same habitat. It's the LapChat, a descendant of the laptop computer that's developed the ability to make free voicecalls over wireless broadband. This battle is like that between dinosaurs and mammals. Can the incumbent adapt, can the usurper gain a foothold or will a huge meteoric crash just decide it for us? Move over Intelligent Design, this is Intellectual Property Design!

Oddly, MoPhos rarely propagate despite their enormous (and growing) amount of genetic data. In common with all life forms, much of this is junk material called DNA (Data Never Accessed), such as fuzzy photos of unwilling people in poor light and thousands of unlistened-to MP3 sound files. The remainder, though, is valuable and irreplaceable. Phone numbers and e-mail details of friends, colleagues and family, a list of all Internet logins and passwords (securely stored using the "clear text" method of encryption), and e-mails too vital to delete (or too unimportant to act on).

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Although MoPhos propagate similarly to coral, spraying out their material in a process called synchronization and hoping their male counterpart will, seahorse-like, take in and store their genetic data, this mating ritual is very infrequent. This is not surprising since its mate, the PC, is also poor at its own reproductive backup.

The MoPho is constantly seeking out new territories to colonize. Its most common method of migration is by taxi, in which thousands of MoPhos are found each year making a break from their human companions. In a tragedy equalling the pets-for-Christmas problem, less than half are ever reclaimed. This problem is compounded not only for the owner, who without any contact or calendar details becomes a social outcast, but for the sensitive corporate data the MoPho often contains. The cost to business each year of managing MoPhos is estimated to top $1 billion by 2009.

The growing risk of uncontrolled MoPho migration has caused some companies to restrict the use of MoPhos for fear of vulnerable data escaping, either mistakenly or maliciously. Although this is a legitimate concern, the captivation of a species on the grounds it may stray is a short-sighted and ultimately unsuccessful argument. It's the same claim used against USB memory keys five years ago, laptops 15 years ago and PC diskettes 25 years ago. I'm certain some Egyptians campaigned against the use of papyrus because it could be more easily concealed than traditional stone tablets.

MoPhos are increasingly at risk from viruses, including recent reports of a species crossover virus, sexually transmitted to the MoPho when it synchronizes with a PC. However its most insidious threat are not viruses but parasites - lawyers launching patent lawsuits on behalf of companies that produce nothing but one filed patent and a string of litigation. These parasites could wipe out a whole species of MoPho, a threat BlackBerry users have only recently been spared. Fortunately they act very slowly and there is a very effective cure that's been used to eradicate them. Simply apply vast amounts of cash and these parasites will settle.

Although it is your companion, your MoPho can turn against you. If you received MoPho from your company as a "productivity aid", you've just agreed to be available for work every hour of every day. It's your personal 24x7 service upgrade. Not only are you expected to answer it immediately in the office, you must also respond on weekends, at nights and on holidays. Given they can be tracked by their cells, your MoPho can also be used to prove that rather than ailing on your sickbed at home, you were actually at the racetrack.

As the MoPho develops and gains capabilities, its impact on society will increase. Having a MoPho has already meant I've cut back from four essential items carried everywhere - wallet, keys, phone and diary - to three. Now I'm trying to teach my MoPho to pay for groceries through an Internet debit (a skill I call MoPhoFood) and to start my car with a Bluetooth signal (MoPhoGo). Then I'll only need to carry a single device which, for me, would be heaven.

Until I lose it, resulting in complete social isolation. That would be hell.

Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT satirist and professional speaker specializing in leading edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much "dot com" as "dot comedy"