The ultimate remote control?

We use them to make calls, send texts and surf the web. And soon we could be voting, buying train tickets and setting the central heating using our mobiles.
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The Independent Tech

In these days of inflated fuel prices, central heating is both a necessity and a financial headache. If you don't want to leave it on all day, you have to wait for it to come on every time you arrive back from work, and even if it has a timer and you can work out how to set it, it's pointless to do so if you don't know exactly when you'll be back home.

However, if Nokia has its way then these heating headaches could be a thing of the past. At the end of last year, the Finnish mobile giant announced an agreement with the German power company RWE to develop a system that will give their customers control over their domestic heating, wherever they are. You can turn it on 10 minutes before you get home, or adjust the temperature by a few degrees even while sitting at the office. The best bit? All of this will be done through your mobile phone.

"The rate at which gadgets, features and services are being incorporated into the mobile phone is astonishing," says mobile phone expert Thomas Newton of www.mobile-phones.co.uk. "Two or three years ago it would have seemed a bit Star Trek to imagine people playing with their heating on their mobile – now it is not only plausible, it's in the process of being developed."

Nokia's ambitions don't only cover heating – the agreement with RWE is one aspect of the phone company's big plan, the Home Control Centre. Your lights, appliances, security system, curtains – if Nokia's vision is fulfilled – will be controlled with the stroke of a finger on your mobile phone. Smart homes are not new, but no one has so far come up with a solution that will make them commonplace. With a big household name behind it such as Nokia, the Home Control Centre could be the platform that makes "networked homes" mainstream.

One of the brains behind the Home Control Centre is Toni Sormunen. He believes that what people want to do with their mobile phones is always changing. "People are already quite used to reading emails on their phones, and have been sending text messages for more than 10 years," says Sormunen, who is director of the Smart Home project at the Nokia research centre. "Now we are also seeing people who, when asked, are saying they would like to communicate with their homes, not only their friends and relatives."

The Home Control Centre is scheduled to appear in shops around the end of this year, but this is only the start. Mobiles stopped simply being devices for us to speak to each other years ago, and we are now seeing them become the central component in a world where everything is connected, turning into – in effect – remote controls for our lives.

Yet why is this happening now? Daniel Sung is the editor of technology blog Tech Digest (www.techdigest.tv), and he says that in the past two years mobile phones have seen a massive advance in their ability as powerful multimedia tools.

"You only have to look at a handset such as the Motorola Wing all those years ago, and other such tiny models that were seen as the peak of development," says Sung. "Now, it's more focused on what your mobile phone can do and less so on the design."

Sung feels the turning point for the current development of the mobile was when it became possible to connect to the internet via a handset: "I wouldn't look at the mobile phone as a remote control but more as a personal mini-computer the likes of which we haven't seen before. The reason is that no computer has been designed to be carried with us for 24 hours a day before, and the moment it was possible to connect it to the internet, it was all blown wide open. Once it's online, the possibilities are virtually endless."

One of the major success stories on which many new features continue to be based is GPS (Global Positioning System), and Peter White – mobile technology analyst – says that its development shows how handset capabilities change: "It's something that we consumers don't see, but GPS was a seven-year struggle. It was once believed that a handset wouldn't be able to pick up a GPS signal. It's taken all these years to get there, yet suddenly now the consumer is starting to use it for all these daily tasks, and not only in the car."

With more and more handsets coming with a GPS chip, mirroring the growing popularity of satellite navigation systems for drivers, new uses and applications can be created. Nokia's upcoming handset, the N97, will come with a service named So-Lo, or social location. Much like updating your status on Facebook, the phone will tag your location so friends in your network can see where you are in real time.

As the technology in handsets grow, third-party developers have more freedom to come up with new applications, opening the mobile up to new users that the phone companies didn't conceive. "There are people out there who spend their time hacking various objects for remote control just because they can," says Sung.

"I watched a demonstration by a company that uses mobile phones to take power consumption readings of sockets in the home... they were using the phone as a tool for which it was most certainly not designed, with the help of the Bluetooth functionality." Another major development, or so the phone companies hope, will be "m-commerce" – paying with your phone – which has been around as an idea for a long time and is already popular in Japan, although the UK is lagging behind.

O2 hopes that this will change following last September's successful trial of a phone that can be swiped over a sensor to pay for sums of under £10. They say a working system could be up and running within five years. In the London borough of Westminster, drivers can pay for their parking by text message, a scheme which has won a National Customer Service e-commerce award. Mobile phones are also becoming a key factor in the business of wiring money, with Western Union already announcing ventures into various countries. The idea is that anyone with a phone and an account can wire money across the world, either to a traditional Western Union agent or to another mobile-enabled account.

Perhaps the boldest move has been taken by the Estonian parliament, which last month decided to allow voters to submit their ballot by mobile phone in the next parliamentary elections in 2011. Estonians will have to pick up a free chip for their phone that will allow them to vote, and the chip maker claims it is very reliable and secure. The country does have something of a pioneering tradition where technology and democracy is concerned – in 2007 it introduced voting via the internet.

No one can really imagine what new services await mobile phone users. Yet, as the proportion of people around the world who have one grows, it is unconceivable that they will not become part of more and more of our daily lives, and that controlling our homes will be just be the beginning.

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