July 2nd, 2006

[idea] Convenience and discretion.

FasTrak transponders contain an RFID chip that identifies you as you drive through a toll gate. The chip doesn't do anything until it is activated by a signal from a radio transmitter near the toll gate; the signal wakes it up and provides it just enough power to reply with some identifying information so that the government can charge you the toll.

The way these transponders work now, anyone can scan and detect your identity. The transponder will happily wake up and reply to anything that sends an activation signal. So carrying a transponder makes it possible for the government to track you everywhere you go, and in fact, RFID readers are now mounted along highways, not just at toll gates. The justification for installing these other RFID readers was to measure traffic flow. But they collect more information than they need to do that — each transponder sends a unique signal, so these readers are picking up identifiable tracking information all day long.

The problem is that there's no way to turn the FasTrak transponders off. They're ready to transmit all the time. Some drivers use the makeshift solution of stuffing the transponder in a mylar bag to shield it from radio signals. But why not just have a switch on the darned thing? That seems like a simple, easy solution. Reach up and press the button on your transponder (to make it capable of waking up) as you drive through a toll gate. The rest of the time, your privacy is respected. Paying tolls remains easy for drivers, the government get its tolls, traffic keeps flowing, and everyone gets voluntary control over their privacy.

I think they should just make transponders with buttons.

[idea] Fire-and-forget voice messages.

I think the big advantage of text messaging is not that it's text, but the ability to fire and forget. Sometimes it's too much trouble to make a voice call — you don't want to wait for the other party to pick up, you don't want to interrupt the other party, or it isn't urgent enough to require immediate, live acknowledgement by the other party. So you send a text message. But that means you have to futz with the text entry on your phone — usually dozens of button presses for even a short message. The word prediction on phones is getting better these days, but it's still tough to write a longer message or to use punctuation.

People find fire-and-forget so useful that they'll put up with stupid, cumbersome text entry interfaces just to get it. I think it happens fairly often that people send text messages in spite of them being text, not because of it.

What if you could fire a voice message? Hold down the Record button on your phone, say "I'm standing in line at the theater now. How many tickets should i get?" and press Send. Your friend's phone beeps instead of ringing, and when they press Play they hear your 5-second message. It's much faster and easier for you than typing in a text message, and much faster and easier for your friend than going through the (still stone-age) process of picking up voicemail. And your friend should have the option of replying by texting you "4" or saying "four tickets please — stay outside and we'll meet you there in ten minutes."

This should be trivial to implement in software on today's phones. These phones can already send pictures to each other; sending sounds would be a piece of cake. The question is, why don't they already do this? Surely this is not a new idea. Everyone knows that the United States is years behind in mobile phone technology, but even more puzzling, why don't phones already do this in Europe or Japan? Maybe they do?