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6/4/09

One of the great things about on-line conversations is that they can change your opinion on something even if you are only listening in. I used to think that mass market phones would concentrate  on voice and text forever and that the view that phones would get smarter was jsut a bunch of people who’d had their brains warped by spending too much time with an iPhone.

That was until the Mobile Monday London mailing list had a thread along the lines of “is the mobile phone the home computer for emerging markets”.  The Mobile Monday thread ran a course along the lines of defining a phone and defining a computer, and instead of the conclusion that the emerging markets would all get smartphones and that would be their computers it ran into one of basic phones becoming a little smarter to provide computing functions. Web, email, music.

But one function was missing: programming. Time was when every kid had a home computer and wrote code in Basic. My older brother spent hours typing in listings from magazines.

In the UK, thanks to the masses of magazines and particularly because of Acorn and Sinclair home computers we grew a nation of programmers and now, after the US and Japan, the UK has the strongest games development community.

Today home computers don’t even come with a programming language. OK there are things you can download like Shoe and Sketch, and there are games creators like YoYo games, but you have to be proactive to use those. There is no programming culture anymore. And there is nothing like that on mobile.

What’s needed is something on mobile phones where those with inquisitive minds can tinker. A simple programming language which allows access to all the features of a phone like cell ID, the ability to send text messages, the camera, ringtones and the like which will lead to back-room development.

Ideally it needs to be something that lots of people already know, something they feel familiar programming in.

So where, given what I’ve said about computers not coming with a language would you find such a thing? The answer is in a toyshop.

Lego Mindstorms is proper, structural programming. It teaches about loops and decisions, using variables and subroutines. Thousands, possibly millions of kids have used it to build robots.

What is needed is Mindstorms for mobile, taking the programming language that lots of people know and putting it into phones. Not smartphones but ordinary ones. The kind that kids of a Mindstorms age (12+) would buy. Code could be developed on the handset while on the bus or in the playground. Using something the know overcomes the initial learning curve, there is already a passionate development community with all the support that engenders.

I’m not saying that Mindstorms is the programming language used in the third world. There isn’t one, but if the emerging markets want to do what the UK did with home computers in the 1980s the phone is the platform to do it with and using something where the kids in the developed world are literate is a great place to start.

The mobile phone has transformed the lives of millions of the poorest people in the world. It is their radio, torch, diary, alarm clock and camera. Qualcomm thinks that the phone is the basis for the games device of the future.  I promise not to say anything nasty about that. This week.

A programmable phone could be the key to future computer literacy.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here.
Follow me on Twitter here.

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