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21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

Smartphone Applications To Influence Travel Choices: Practices and Policies

Chapter 2. Background: Setting the Stage

Background and Evolution of Smartphone Apps

To understand how mobile technologies and smartphone applications are impacting how people travel, it is helpful to explore the history and trends leading to the growth of smartphones and mobility applications. This scan identifies five key phases in the evolution of smartphone apps: basic applications, wireless application protocol, the rise of proprietary platforms, platform wars, and the rise of multi-platform advanced features. These phases are summarized in Figure 1 on the following page.

Phase 1: Basic Hardware, Basic Applications: Early-1980s to Late-1990s

Motorola DynaTac phone
Source: Thinkstock Photo

The first mobile applications trace their origin to the mid-1990s and were extremely limited by rudimentary processors and user interfaces that early generation mobile phones made available. The Motorola DynaTac 8000X was the first commercially available mobile phone. First marketed in 1983, it had talk time of about 30 minutes and retailed for approximately $4,000 (a new Ford Escort the same year retailed for approximately $5,200). The Motorola DynaTac made calls and included a simple contact application as part of the device’s early software (Clark, 2012). This and other trailblazing applications focused on basic functions, such as arcade games, ring tone editors, calculators, and calendars. During this phase, software and application features and design were facilitated by the original equipment manufacturer. As the underlying computing hardware of mobile phones began to advance, new multi-functional applications began to emerge in which some took advantage of early developments in resistive touchscreen technology to deliver richer user experiences (e.g., Sony Ericsson P-series). These developments fundamentally changed the way owners viewed their phones: from a single-purpose calling device to a multi-purpose personal and business tool. Over time, consumers began to demand more features (Clark, 2012).

Five key phases in the evolution of smartphone apps

Source: Transportation Sustainability Research Center, University of California Berkeley and Booz Allen Hamilton, December 2015

Figure 1. Five key phases in the evolution of smartphone apps

Phase 2: Emergence of Mobile Data: Mid-1990s to Mid-2000s

As time progressed, manufacturers began to turn to the Internet as a mechanism to deliver customized content while limiting third-party access to potentially proprietary software and hardware developed by the original equipment manufacturers. Because early mobile technologies were not directly compatible with the Internet due to limitations in screen size, bandwidth, and processing power, manufacturers developed the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP). WAP was a simplified form of hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), and the foundation for the World Wide Web (Clark, 2012). WAP was designed to operate within the confines of cellular memory and limited bandwidth. Third parties could develop mobile content using a standard language, known as Wireless Markup Language (WML). For equipment manufacturers, WAP offered them the ability to develop a single mobile browser and allow content developers to create third-party content. However, the lack of direct interface with HTTP and limited user interfaces, often symptomatic of technological limitations, were common criticisms of WAP (Clark, 2012). Additionally, WAP browsers were slow and tedious, and there was no integrated billing system with WAP, and payments had to be awkwardly facilitated through either Short Message Services (SMS — known as text messages) or Multimedia Messaging Services (MMS — known as picture or multimedia messages). A poor user experience from technological constraints limited commercial viability. Users found it difficult to type on numeric keypads; small screens resulted in content that was hard to read; and users found it frustrating to load a sentence fragment and would then be forced to wait for the next data fragment to download.

Phase 3: Step Change in Hardware and Software: Mid-2000s to 2007

Improvements in memory, low-energy microprocessors, and battery technology coupled with lower costs enabled the creation of dramatically more powerful non-cellular mobile device hardware that could run more sophisticated operating software, such as Windows and Linux. Most of these were proprietary, "closed ecosystems" controlled by the handset maker and/or operating system developer. Desktop computer developers, which were previously non-participants in mobile development, had new devices for content development (Clark, 2012). During this phase, a variety of proprietary platforms emerged including Palm Operating System (OS), RIM’s Blackberry OS, Symbian OS, and Windows CE. These early proprietary platforms were primarily geared toward personal digital assistant (PDA) functions and business-related tasks.

Mobile manufacturers began a marked shift in the late-1990s and early-2000s aimed at bridging the gap between business-use mobile computing and mobile phones. In 1996, Nokia launched its communicator series that was intended to serve as a mobile phone and computer simultaneously with a convertible clamshell design and fax, email, messaging, and web browsing capabilities. Similarly, Microsoft’s Pocket PC (later renamed to Windows Mobile) was designed to mimic the user interface of Windows XP with a mobile start button and to bridge hardware gaps by operating on smartphones with touchscreens, mobile phones without touchscreens, and on PDAs with stylus functionality. These early hardware and software platforms laid the groundwork for today’s smartphone technologies but were limited by hardware and data bandwidth capabilities.

an iPhone  held in a hand
Source: Thinkstock Photo

The 2007 launch of Apple’s iPhone marked significant advancements in hardware and software capabilities, as well as the user experience. In addition to these advancements, the iPhone became the first mass marketed mobile device supporting third-party applications and cloud computing using a mobile Internet connection. Incorporating GPS (later coupled with GPS assist using cellular triangulation) enabled the iPhone to quickly lock onto GPS signals and be used for a variety of mobility functions, thereby changing not just how smartphones were used but also how people traveled. A key advancement with the iPhone was full website compatibility. Web sites no longer needed special mobile sites. Instead full web pages could be fully displayed on a mobile device. This was crucial in bringing a complete Internet experience to mobile devices and bridging the hardware and software digital divide that had severely curtailed the delivery of products and services to mobile Internet users. These advancements were followed by Google’s Android and an updated version of Windows Mobile, dubbed the "Windows Phone."

With proprietary mobile platforms, developers and/or their products are closely regulated and vetted under contractual agreements. Under these proprietary mobile platforms, developers typically must pay for access to publish. This limits innovation, app availability, and compatibility across platforms.

Phase 4: Platform Wars: 2007 to Present

Increased competition has given rise to a new phase, known as "platform wars," marked predominantly by increased competition among Apple, Google, and Microsoft (Clark, 2012). As new entrants launch, the mobile marketplace becomes more fragmented. The provision of the same types of apps and data availability across platforms becomes an increasing challenge for developers. While this is rarely a problem for well-resourced companies that can develop application versions for multiple platforms, this represents a tiny selection of the huge universe of apps available. Lack of open-source standardization has created an increasingly complex marketplace where it is challenging for new market entrants (entrepreneurs and app developers) with limited resources to make their content available for all mobile users across a wide array of operating systems.

Phase 5: Advanced Hardware, Advanced Applications: 2014 to Present

Cloud computing and new hardware interfaces, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)1 and near field communications (NFC)2, are also redefining the way people use smartphones and offer a number of practical uses in transportation. In addition to BLE and NFC, a number of new trends are shaping what apps do and how users interact with them:

  1. Wider, integrative use of data: Apps, like Google Maps, draw on disparate data feeds (traffic sensors, device GPS tracks, self-reported roadway incidents) to offer more tailored and accurate predictions of travel time to the user.

  2. More data sharing among services: Apps like Google Now pull data from multiple sources and third-party apps to offer "at a glance" overviews of important information. For example, a user could draw from the map app to show the best trip routing in a calendar app .

  3. Functional disaggregation: Apps are becoming less multi-functional and are instead focusing more on one or two key functions.

  4. Bundled apps as services: As data flows freely and functionality becomes more dispersed, new aggregator services—either new apps or native functions of operating systems—are creating new services, or "cards," from assemblages of multiple apps. For example: a card notification on a smartphone informs the user of a new e-mail, next it allows the user to quickly respond (making use of the mail app), and it can add an event to the user’s calendar (making use of the calendar app) or respond using an SMS (using the texting app)—all without opening a single dedicated app.

These trends are ultimately leading to more seamless, targeted, tailored and real-time services for the user. For example, the new App Extensions platform from Apple allows app developers to make app functionality available all over the device operating system: displaying information in new places, allowing sharing to new channels, adopting common data stores and more. Other app developers are already embedding other apps of their own (e.g., Twitter cards support payments using functionality borrowed from the Stripe mobile payments app). Transportation apps are also experiencing changes: Uber ridesourcing vehicles can be hailed from inside Google Maps, and delivery services are being embedded in restaurant apps. In the future, we can expect that the basic activity of getting ride options to a desired destination may call on multiple separate apps (mapping, scheduling, ride providers, social media, and more) to deliver the ideal suggestion, yet seamlessly so that the user is not burdened by the underlying inter-app collaborations required.


In recent years, there has been a number of hardware and software developments contributing to the growth of smartphone transportation apps. In the next chapter, the scan reviews these types of apps in greater detail. Subsequent chapters review the behavioral and economic impacts of these applications; opportunities (e.g., planning and data collection) and challenges (e.g., privacy and digital divide); and best practices for deploying them.

1Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE): With BLE, wireless transmitters known as BLE beacons (approximately the size of a matchbox with a coverage radius measured in feet) transmit Bluetooth signals to smartphones and other Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices. BLE communicates with many users, allowing people to be notified of coupons, offers, and promotional information when entering the Bluetooth range. For example, a user walking past a bikesharing kiosk, public transit station, or a bus stop could be notified of bicycle availability, special rates, or the departure time of the next public transit vehicle. BLE also supports beacon-based navigation, which can assist in guiding users to destinations. San Francisco International Airport is using BLE-beacon technology to assist the visually impaired in navigating its terminals. BLE does support mobile payment (Mogg, 2014). [ Return to note 1. ]

2Near Field Communications (NFC): With NFC, smartphones communicate with postage-stamp sized NFC tags. NFC has a range of inches and communicates with a single user. NFC is best suited for settings requiring one-on-one secure data delivery. NFC can be used for mobile payment, transportation passes, and access cards (such as accessing a carsharing vehicle). [ Return to note 2. ]

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