Smartphones driving you nuts? Industry execs take note

They're seen as 'serial interrupters' that demand attention

BARCELONA -- If you find that your smartphone and other devices demand too much attention and generally drive you bonkers, industry experts agree.

At Mobile World Congress this week, one of the biggest smartphone and tablet exhibitions, vendors unveiled hundreds of faster new devices and software features, but several industry executives dared to publicly state that what we need are fewer devices per person -- not more -- that won't interrupt us as much.

"We're starting to live in a world of interruption technology.... Isn't anybody questioning this?" said Hampus Jakobsson, former head of TAT (The Astonishing Tribe), a cutting-edge user interface design company, and now director of strategic alliances at BlackBerry maker Research In Motion. TAT was acquired by RIM in December to help RIM develop the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

In comments delivered before a standing-room-only crowd gathered to hear industry executives share their visions of the mobile innovations we'll see in 2020, Jakobsson intoned: "We're not talking to each other, but talking to devices. That's something we have to think about.... Do we want a future where people stare at screens or a future where people talk to each other?"

Referring to short and quick Twitter communications, Jakobson added, "Suddenly people are communicating through 140 characters, but we're compressing through machines instead of talking about how we feel."

He concluded his talk on a note of warning: "Tools need to give us more time with each other and less with machines. Technology will be the fats and sugars of 2020: Everybody knows you should avoid it, but everybody is doing it."

Answering a question from the audience about what RIM is planning to do about device interruptions, Jakobsson suggested that RIM might want to prevent games from running on its BlackBerry smartphones to cut back on the crush of inputs peope receive that keep them from interacting face to face.

"Maybe BlackBerry shouldn't have games," he said. "Maybe there should be no games at all on BlackBerry. Actually, I'm not sure my company is brave enough to do that." (Jakobson had said earlier that after two months at RIM, he was "extremely impressed" with the company's focus on efficiency, security and quality in its corporate operations and devices.)

Another member on the "Mobile Innovation: A Vision of 2020" panel, AT&T CTO John Donovan, interrupted Jakobsson's comments saying, "Keep downloading games on BlackBerry!" which drew loud laughter from the audience. AT&T and every other major wireless carrier encourages its customers to download games and play them over their networks.

However, Donovan and others on the panel somewhat agreed with Jakobsson's view that smartphones and tablets should be designed to enrich lives and communities and not distract us from interpersonal communication.

Donovan predicted that mobile devices will continue to proliferate in the next few years, but he said that they should "disintegrate" down to fewer devices per person.

AT&T's vision, he explained, calls for personal data stored in the cloud. That data would be accessible by a range of devices, including TVs, and therefore would make it possible for people to carry fewer devices. Donovan said he's been known to carry several devices to work, including a laptop, a cell phone and an e-reader, but he wants fewer.

"We will have eight devices [each] in a couple of years and that's ridiculous," Jakobsson said.

Jan Uddenfeldt, CTO at Sony Ericsson, argued in favor of reducing the number of personal devices that users carry in coming years to one. Ironically, he made the comment just minutes after showing a slide of several new Xperia handheld devices that Sony Ericsson makes, including the Xperia Play smartphone, which doubles as a gaming console.

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