BT changing the face of payphones

Now reaching out to touch people may mean more than just hearing their voice.

A new payphone designed by BT (formerly British Telecom) lets callers and business travellers send e-mail – along with pictures – or surf the Internet. The new Multiphone uses the wireless application protocol (WAP).

Les King, the media relations manager for BT payphones, said London-based BT hopes to beat the mobile phone market in offering this service.

“Our message is the payphone is not dead, it’s just changing,” he said, noting BT hopes to be a leader in this trend.

The Multiphone, a kiosk with a touch screen and keyboard, uses Kanata, Ont.-based QNX Software Systems’ MMU-protected architecture as its real-time operating system.

QNX technology analyst Paul Leroux said the system is reliable and is designed to use updated functionality with little memory.

“When you’re doing something like a payphone, where you’re doing lots of volume, saving memory is key,” Leroux said, adding that saving a dollar per unit on memory means a lot of money if you are building a million units.

The real-time operating system ensures that, while the unit is handling numerous tasks, when an important event occurs “it doesn’t matter how many other things are happening, that will get priority and be immediately responded to,” he said.

Leroux said the most important aspect of the software is reliability. “If it doesn’t work, nobody is going to use your payphone.”

He called the Multiphone the front wave of the Internet invasion.

“They’re taking these devices you’ve always known and changing them,” he said. “It heralds a whole slew of opportunities.”

The Multiphone is a small example of the pervasiveness of the QNX technology, according to Leroux. “You’ll see people redefining the appliances in the household now,” Leroux said. “We’re into invisible things. Take a washing machine that overflows. The machine could page you to let you know something is wrong.”

BT has installed 140 phones since July, with plans to increase that number to 1,000 by the end of the year. King stated phones are in place in several train stations, and will also be installed in shopping centres, airports and possibly hospitals.

“The reaction’s been very good so far,” King said. “I don’t think we’ll get real numbers of users until we get a few more in.” He added the popularity of the phones so far is partly due to their ease of use.

Brownlee Thomas, senior industry analyst with Giga Information Group, said she doesn’t think these phones will take off.

“Will consumers find a need for these?” she asked. “When was the last time you used a payphone? And why? Probably because your cell phone wasn’t working. Who has time to go digging for change? The point is, if you can use a cell, you’re going to use it.”

Thomas added that not many people will want to do their on-line banking at a kiosk, where others can easily look over their shoulder. She commended the phones for being ahead of third-generation wireless and all ahead of “this WAP-enabled everything.”

Thomas noted people may use the units if there was free Web access to some sites, and the idea could be successful if it was attractive to advertisers.

“There could be a huge billboard saying, ‘Come visit our Web site,’ with an arrow pointing to the kiosk,” she suggested.

One positive use for the phones would be for people trying to meet up at an airport or train station, she commented. They would now have the option to send an e-mail, as well as make a call.

King said BT has already noted the huge advertising potential for the phones. “We’ve had trials where you get a free call if you listen to an advertiser’s message,” he said. “We will have things like video technology coming, so we will have video ads in the phones.”

The phones charge a minimum of one pound for 10 minutes and 10 pence for each minute after that. Local calls are nine pence a minute.