CXO

Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: Mobile folly

Phone sex at the airport...
Why are people so careless and rude on their mobiles? Some of it is surely psychological - but it also has to do with sub-par technology. Peter Cochrane explains.

It is an early Monday morning and I am in the lounge at the North Terminal London Gatwick Airport. There are few passengers around and the scene is one of a calm business-like operation. As ever, I have commandeered a desk with Wi-Fi connectivity to the internet. I am concentrating on getting my emails and a presentation completed and reports written. But total disruption comes from a direction, and in a form I had not anticipated.

A middle-aged and balding man directly opposite me makes a mobile phone call and seems to assume that he is in some invisible and 100 per cent soundproof acoustic bubble. When it comes to human relationships, I am pretty broad-minded, but this guy is obviously well into phone sex with his girlfriend. Not only is he very loud, he is very intimate with his detail and promises.

It stops me working, and everyone around us seems to be captured by the barrage of interesting detail as well. I'm not alone in sitting back to just stare at him in total disbelief as he paces up and down dragging his luggage behind him, giving ever more lurid detail. Is this Candid Camera or what?

He says goodbye and this might have been it, but no - he initiates another call to a second girlfriend. Again he is loud and amorous. Eventually, he concludes this second call and then proceeds to call a friend, male I presume, and relate his conversations and recent exploits. All in all, this episode lasts around 20 minutes, which he at last concludes with a chirpy "bye" and then wanders over to get a coffee. I don't think he is an exhibitionist, I think he is totally oblivious, and a fool to boot.

Over the 14 or so years we have had mobile phones I have witnessed many such incidents, but none so intimate, generally embarrassing and stupid. What is it with mobile phone calls that makes people so careless?

The number of times I have involuntarily been given company confidential and personal information by the same mechanism is now legion.

Companies are spending a fortune on computer security whilst neglecting the biggest hole in the bucket - the fallibility and stupidity of their people. Individuals tend to be paranoid about their private lives and information but shout it out as loud as can be on a mobile call in a crowded place.

One of my favourite and recurring tricks whilst travelling is to pick up people's banking details and give it to them written on the back of my business card. I can generally get the bank branch and sort code with ease. And for credit cards it is mostly the whole nine yards: name, number, expiry and start date, plus security number. Home address, phone numbers and email address are often thrown in for good luck too. All I have to do is sit and listen.

People's reaction to this is always outrage, as if I was a thief, as if I had committed a crime. But, I respond, they shouted, I could not help hearing and at least I am giving them good warning to be more careful in future. I just wonder if they modify their behaviour as a result.

I don't see any of this changing until we pay real attention to the acoustic performance of our mobile devices. On the old fixed-line phones there is a purposeful provision of acoustic feedback so you can hear your own voice. Technically this is referred to as side-tone, and it serves to give us a measure of our own loudness.

Bluntly, this has been neglected by the mobile industry. Hence, we tend to get insufficient acoustic feedback and thus tend to talk louder and louder when we are in noisy environments, or when the distant caller speaks quietly or is indistinct. Unfortunately, I don't see this feature getting fixed in the short term.

So what is going to happen? I think we are going to see a massive and rapid growth in the number of mobile-free zones - on a par with those now inflicted on smokers. Cinemas, restaurants and coffee shops are now introducing bans, and in some cases even jammers, to prevent mobiles working at all. A lot of rail services ban mobiles and computers in their dining cars and some first class sections - all because of the disruption wrought by a few fools.

Written on BA flight 7946 from London Gatwick to Inverness and at the Aviemore Highland Resort Hotel. Despatched to silicon.com via a free Wi-Fi service in the conference centre the next day.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.