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Sunday, 10 October 2010

Cell Phones Evolve And So Do The Worries

When I was a youngster I was among a very few latchkey kids in our neighborhood, but today, according to the Census Bureau, at least seven million "latchkey children" return to an empty house on any given afternoon. Most of us with latchkey kids have created a list of rules for them to follow, covering topics such as snacks, strangers at the door, phone calls, etc. They are pretty much the same ones our parents outlined for us as kids. But today, we have a growing list of additional worries to address, such as television programs, video games, computer programs such as instant messaging, and use of the Internet.

A couple of years ago, my daughter was old enough to walk to her grandmother's house after school. I wrestled with the idea, but finally conceded that she was responsible and mature enough to handle the three-block trek on her own. There were some days when an after school activity she forgot to tell us about delayed her and caused everyone to worry. And sometimes even her grandmother lost track of time and wasn't there to greet her. We decided that she might be better off with a cell phone.

I searched the Internet and found out what lots of experts and other parents had to say on the topic. I contacted her school to learn what their rules were regarding cell phones and then created a list of our own rules. She is required to leave the cell phone off during school hours and has a cutoff time each school night for all phone calls. She is allowed to make long-distance calls to her friends on weekends and can talk as long as she wants providing her chores and homework are done.

She got a camera phone and has had some fun taking photos of her dogs and friends. All in all, she has done a good job of managing the responsibility. The only problems we have are that she is constantly losing her charger, forgetting to recharge and forgetting to turn on the phone when she should. Hum, sounds just like some adults I know! But I digress!

I remember the first cell phone I had -- it was called a "bag phone" and it weighed about five pounds. It had to remain plugged into the lighter in my "mommy-mobile" but it was there in case I needed emergency assistance or to find out if my husband wanted something in particular for dinner when I stopped at Ukrop's.

Gee, portable phones have come a long way! I just read that Palm has announced it will offer Microsoft® Windows Mobile(TM) software on its Treo(TM) smartphones. The phones, the first of which will be available from Verizon Wireless on its national broadband network, will permit calls, e-mail, Internet access, Office Mobile and more. I might actually like one of those if the buttons and screen are large enough for my feeble fingers and aging eyes.

On another front, the federal government is considering a national all-hazards system to alert you via text message on your cell phone in the event of a disaster or attack directly affecting your area. You could receive Amber Alerts and the like on web-enabled devices. A public-warning solution such as this will require legislation to at the federal, state and local levels to create standards for interoperability as well as integrated technology so it isn't likely to be available in the very near term.

This would however be a significant improvement over the 50-year-old system, developed during the cold war, which relies on radio and television broadcasts to communicate emergency news. With all the newfangled technology we have now, not many of us are carrying a "portable" radio in our pockets. You can bet though, that a cell phone or two and a BlackBerry® device are sure to be found in just about any high-tech gal's handbag!

As the technologies continue to advance at a rapid pace, we are using our phones as business tools for e-mail, calendars and text messages and industry experts say it will not be long before we can use specially equipped phones instead of credit cards. Oh my, that could get us in trouble! And, frankly, as they do with most new technology, our kids are embracing new cell phone technology at a rapid pace.

Today there are so many things you can do with a cell phone, I can't even keep track of them all. For example, I was recently on a business trip and the mobile phone for one member of the team was constantly sounding. Gosh, I thought, he is certainly a busy man, and then I found out that he was receiving stats on a sporting event!

And though I haven't personally witnessed this, I understand that downloading images of Playmates on cell phones is the latest fad in 17 countries. Playboy has announced plans to develop adult-theme games and ring tones for cell phones in the U.S. Oh great; yet another distraction for every prepubescent boy and many of my male coworkers.

As with every technology come the associated risks -- such as hackers targeting the data on our mobile devices and creating malicious software specifically designed to exploit all of those innovative features! The Trusted Computing Group (TCG) has developed hardware-based standards for mobile devices, to thwart criminals and to provide greater control by cell phone operators. Although hardware-based security is not new to the industry, manufacturers have yet to standardize, which keeps costs higher for everyone.

In addition, several manufacturers have created cell phones designed specifically for younger kids, which include many parental control features, simple buttons, flashy designs and limits on permissions for incoming and outgoing calls. If you have a young child who needs a cell phone, consider the TicTalk(TM) by Enfora® or the Firefly(TM) by Firefly Mobile.

However for teenagers (and possibly those in a corporate environment) there is another solution on the horizon. RuleSpace has developed a parental control solution for mobile providers that rates mobile content on the fly. Mobile operators can offer subscribers the ability to block inappropriate content from web-enabled devices. In other words, Johnny can't look at porn and staff can keep focused on the work at hand!

James Dirksen, vice president of operations for RuleSpace, said, "The biggest difference between the traditional Internet and the mobile web is the size of the content. The technology we've developed is capable of recognizing inappropriate content based on a much smaller message that is going to a cell phone versus a PC."

So despite the fact that with every emerging technology there is a corresponding threat, we can be thankful that there are an equal number of technologists working hard to combat those threats. If we could put our techno-teenagers to work developing technological solutions, we would have a real home run and could all be notified of it on our mobile devices! Ring-beep -- you have web-mail!

Donna Johnson Edwards has more than 20 years' experience implementing and managing IT projects for companies including the Federal Judiciary, IBM/Lotus and Hamilton Beach Proctor-Silex, where she was the senior member of the New Enterprise Technology Team.

Her clients include Fortune 100, 500 and 1,000 companies as well as not-for-profit entities. Her background includes both the technical and the business aspects of IT projects.


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