Today I find myself perched in the foyer of the British Library, without enough ID to get a reader’s pass so instead of working, I am making the most of the free wifi here. Or at least I would, but for the service not working on my, ahem, brand new iPod Touch.

Those who follow my Twitter feed would know that I have gone back on forth on the why or why nots to get a Touch or an iPhone. An iPhone didn’t work for me because I don’t use cellular service very much at all, and the price plans didn’t seem logical. I had been holding out for a device that would function as a replacement for a laptop at conferences – eg ability to make videos, take photos, blog on the go etc.

So why did I get a iPod Touch, which doesn’t do most of those things? Apple in the UK are offering the Education bundle which includes a nearly-free iPod Touch, and so I got one yesterday. So far, I’ve loaded it up with RSS readers and social networking apps, but I am hoping to use location aware services that tap into semantic search, like a more accurate Urban Spoon that picks a restaurant for you based on where you are now or the quickest Underground route to get somewhere else.

A barrier to location aware services though is the availability of wifi. At home I can share my (somewhat poor) mobile broadband connection with my iPod using my MacBook. But when out and about, I rely on being able to pick up a connection. Connections with have an authentication service behind them, like that here at the British Library, are problemmatic. The SSID does’t show up (BL), or security apps need to be installed (UTS, Athens airport, EduRoam), or accounts need to be created in a browser (eg The Cloud). While organisations have good reasons for requiring authentication and acceptance of terms and conditions, it can make getting online with a Linux or Mac based system hard, let alone trying to do so with a mobile device. My mobile phone has wifi that I hardly ever use because of authentication layers.

It is very difficult to support platforms like mobile devices which have enormous diversity in operating systems, features and usage in different markets. I have noticed that Blackberries seem to be more popular in London than iPhones were in Sydney, and Push to Talk really does seem to be a feature that only those in the US use. Phones are completely different again in Japan (though I would buy a Japanese phone if I could) and serve very different needs in the African market. How can an organisation possibly provide a service like wifi that will enable all devices to connect easily and securely? How can we steer away from designing apps and authentication just for PCs, Android, or Symbian, or Palm and design universally? Is it even possible?

Beyond authentication, the dream of city-wide wifi seems to be long dead, with many announced project never coming to fruition and existing services mostly being run by a variety of subscription services that greatly restrict where you can get online. For example, I can use The Cloud with my mobile broadband account, but there are no hotspots near me. Yesterday, Ofcom in the UK released a report about Internet take-up across the UK. Turning the figures around, there are a lot of people who don’t have Internet at home (I currently am one of them – there is no phone line in my flat and cable Internet is not wired to my floor). There is a need to provide Internet in and out of the home other than private subscription, and wifi is one way to do it.

Originally published on the semanticlibrary.net blog