RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Cell phone technology still socially backward

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I’m standing in the Convention Center downtown, looking down sourly at my cell phone. The designers of the phone have failed me, and I want to know why.

It was the IUPUI graduation last May, and the hallways were filled with thousands of people in fancy dress and black robes. I was trying to contact just one of those thousands, but I didn’t know his cell number. I knew he was there, and probably within a hundred yards, but without cell numbers or an agreed-upon meeting place, the chances of my congratulating him were frustratingly poor.

My phone has a contacts list, voice activation, several ring tones, text messaging, a calculator, a calendar, a voice recorder, a camera, and an alarm clock. What it can’t do is connect phone-tophone without the cell number and, as far as I know, no cell phone will do it. Why not? If Web 2.0 is all about social computing, why hasn’t social phoning been offered, too?

Social computing is the preferred term this week for Web sites that let people connect one-to-one, such as Facebook ( and MySpace ( These sites do for people what Google does for information. It’s one of mankind’s oldest needs, to find those with whom we need to connect. Merchants know this impulse well. We have evidence of human trade from at least 7,000 years ago, and I suspect it’s even older.

The Internet was born as a means of wiring people together, primarily with a primitive kind of e-mail. The Web was originally built to be a trading post for academic information, but quickly morphed into a social phenomenon as ordinary users created personal Web pages. Then along came dating sites, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn ( and blogs. Information sharing is still big, of course. Google and Wikipedia are in no danger of becoming irrelevant. But our phone networks haven’t ventured much into the social space, except perhaps for text messaging, which still requires the sender to know the recipient’s phone number.

In my imagination, I see a phone that can announce itself to those within, say, a couple of hundred yards. To get on the network, you enter a name into your phone and enable the sharing signal. To find someone else with your phone, you click through to a screen with all the names within the sharing radius. Scroll through the names and pick one. That person’s phone rings. If he or she wants to answer, pressing the usual call button does the trick.

If people wish, they can suppress their own reception from the sharing network, but leave the phone hooked up to the usual cellular signal. You can also leave a text message through the sharing network, making it less necessary to answer every call. Privacy and anonymity is preserved, yet it’s still possible to find others nearby.

This idea seems like something dreamed up by a shy electronics engineer in a singles bar, but people in business often have similar problems. We constantly have to contact people we don’t know from short distances. Think of all the lunches you have set up with new clients or colleagues whom you then had trouble finding in a busy restaurant. Lots of business folk don’t want to give out their cell numbers, but would like to be called.

I used to work in one of those office buildings with retail on the ground floor. There was a sandwich shop almost directly below us, and everybody had little menus or business cards so we could keep the shop’s name at hand and call with a pickup order. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to just pop open a cell phone and see “Joe’s Sandwich Shop” on the sharing network?

Imagine being at a conference and being able to see a listing on your sharing network phone screen for an ad hoc group to discuss the points the last speaker was making, or a plea for all those in a specific industry to gather together for a spontaneous caucus. Small businesses could use the sharing network to know who’s in the building and therefore accessible. Members of the same organization could easily find one another in crowds.

Connect the sharing network to something like LinkedIn, and the value of it goes even higher, with the ability to share profiles and links to others. It might one day be possible that a cell phone could eliminate the annoying times when you try to remember who that sales guy was that ol’ Bill brought to the party one evening last month. Just look at Bill’s sharing network listing, click on LinkedIn, and look at Bill’s contacts.

Oh, and it shouldn’t cost more than what I pay now.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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