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What It Means To Be 'Always On' A Smartphone

A woman walks by a new Apple location in London. Chen says the iPhone's reach has extended beyond the gadget market to impact all areas of our lives.
AFP/Getty Images
A woman walks by a new Apple location in London. Chen says the iPhone's reach has extended beyond the gadget market to impact all areas of our lives.

Millions of people around the world are carrying smartphones and computer tablets that keep them constantly connected to the Internet. There are now more than 400,000 apps in Apple's online store — and 250,000 in Google's Android market — that allow their users to do hundreds of everyday tasks, all from the comfort of their handheld devices.

Constantly having access to these hundreds of thousands of applications has far-reaching implications for our society, says technology writer Brian X. Chen.

"Millions of us are carrying these devices that have a constant Internet connection and also access to hundreds of thousands of applications of very smart interfaces tailored to suit our everyday needs," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "If you think of that phenomenon [of being constantly connected], everything has to change: the way we do policing, the way we do education, [and] the way that we might treat medicine."

In Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future — and Locked Us In, Chen examines what it means to have an uninterrupted connection to the Internet — and how smartphone-based applications will revolutionize the way we conduct our lives on- and offline.

Some of Chen's personal favorite applications, he says, are DropBox, which allows users to transfer files between computers and mobile devices; Uber, which helps hail black cars in San Francisco; and Pocket God, a game that allows users to manipulate a virtual island full of people.

Educational Applications

Some apps, he says, are not just fun — they may alter the way we relate and learn from one another.

For example, Abilene Christian University in Texas now gives every incoming freshman an iPhone and integrates the device into the curriculum.

"Instead of lecturing students and saying, 'Hey, open your textbook and go to page 96,' the teacher is acting as a guide and saying 'OK, so here's the topic we're going to discuss today. Take out your iPhone and go search on the web or search Wikipedia and let's have a conversation about where we want to take this discussion," Chen says.

He explains that students at Abilene are being taught the importance of discerning good data from bad data — and not just to blindly accept the information that would have been presented in a textbook.

Brian X. Chen is a contributor to <em>Wired </em>magazine. In 2008 he led a global study to investigate the iPhone 3G's network problems. <em>Always On </em>is his first book.
Jonathan Snyder /
Brian X. Chen is a contributor to Wired magazine. In 2008 he led a global study to investigate the iPhone 3G's network problems. Always On is his first book.

"Abilene Christian is thinking forward and teaching people how to do ... a very important skill, because there's so much bad information out there on the Web," he says. "This is something they're experimenting with, and it's been successful, because students who are part of the iPhone program are actually getting better grades than the students who are taking comparable classes without iPhones."

Medical Applications

Some applications will revolutionize the ways doctors practice medicine and the ways patients interact with their physicians, Chen says.

Researchers at the University of Washington have taken initial steps to create a digital contact lens that would monitor vital signs in real time and provide instantaneous feedback to physicians through wireless radio connections.

"What's interesting about the eye is that the eye is like the little door into the body," Chen says. "And you can collect information about, say, cholesterol or glucose levels or blood pressure and transfer this information to a smartphone."

Currently, the researchers are testing their prototype contact lens on rabbits, but they hope to eventually integrate their designs into everyday eyewear.

"I think eventually we're going to see more of these technologies embedded into our bodies," he says. "Not just our eyes but maybe our hands and our feet, just listening to our vital signs so that we can get real-time feedback and keep good track of our health."

Law Applications

Police officers and lawyers also will benefit from having mobile apps always at the ready. "Some police officers are testing an application called Morris," Chen explains. "[It] allows officers to scan fingerprints of suspects and also scan their eyeballs and cross-reference that information with the database they have back at the police station."

Morris shaves hours off of an initial booking because police no longer have to drive suspects to a station for fingerprint analysis.

"It could help them make a lot more arrests that are accurate in the future," Chen says. "There are only a few stations that are testing this application [because] it costs $30,000, so it's unlikely we're going to see it anytime soon in every police officer's hands, but it's something we're working on to reduce costs and potentially streamline law enforcement a lot."

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