Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/08/14/branson_textaguru/

Branson's text-a-guru unlikely to fly

And the 'science' of SMS analysis

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Mobile, 14th August 2006 10:42 GMT

Comment How much "style" do you have, when you send a text?

The answer to this hangs all the tedium of a trans-Atlantic flight. It would seem that in the future all we will be allowed to do in a plane is either get stinking drunk, or twiddle our thumbs.

The thumb-twiddling idea is the brainchild of that nice Mr Branson of Virgin, who has installed texting in the seats of his planes. You can text from your seat! - but it's not what it sounds like. No, you can't text your friends. You can text a guru.

"Passengers will be able to text questions from their seat-back television screens to an existing land-based text answer service which promises to answer any question within minutes," reported Reuters. Any question? sure! - anything from "a recommended bar in New York, to what's the best way to get over jet-lag, or what's the best way to chat up the cabin crew", a Virgin spokeswoman said.

When you're stuck with nothing to do except chat up Virgins, you are indeed in trouble. But the question arises: if Branson's airline extended the texting service to allowing you to text friends, would they believe it was you?

The point of the story, obviously, is the threat to carry-on luggage. You can't/you can. Laptops are being permitted again. But what about the next scare? And this, finally, may end the vexed question of whether it's safe to switch a phone on in the cabin. Because, as long as it was just a vague threat to the comms system, nobody in the airline business gave a tuppeny damn whether you had a phone, or six phones, in the cabin.

But now that it might be a detonator, I suspect they're going to be more draconian.

How will you prove that the wireless LAN card on your laptop isn't rigged? There is no way.

I'm reminded of the occasion when I arrived in LA with a brand new US Robotics modem, in the days when the first 9600 bits-per-second modems appeared. In those days, nobody knew what a modem was. I was flying to London; that meant a security check. OK, in those days, security was nothing on what it is today - even before the ban on carry-on luggage - but there was a recognition that an electronic device was a possible threat. So the security guard asked me what it was.

"It's a modem."

She looked at it. She looked at me. "Make it work."

The airlines won't be pleased. Slowly, they've been shifting from a stance of indifference to mobile calls on planes, into a dream world where we all pay extra for on-board internet.

In the brave new world we're entering, the only way of doing this may be to give us a keyboard - a proper keyboard - to go with the in-set amusement screen.

So there you are, sitting in your seat, with the beginnings of DVT in at least one leg, a sense that if you chat up the Virgin one more time, even with the best advice from the off-plane guru, you might get put into restraint, and a desire to see what the latest score is at home, or the news about the family dog. And you text the number of your mate or the vet or your mother-in-law and say: "Hi! it's me!"

Put yourself in the position of the person on the ground. Your mobile comes alive and it's a message. It's from someone calling themselves Virgin Air Services, and it claims to be from a friend. Ho, yus...

Well, the solution, apparently, is stylistic analysis.

Stylistic analysis is something that Biblical scholars use to infuriate the religious, by demonstrating that some holy person couldn't possibly have written both the Acts and Luke (for example) because they are clearly written by a different author - or by six different authors. It's been used in Shakespearean analysis, similarly, and it's also come into forensic use. And there was the famous occasion when a schoolgirl disappeared, and kept sending texts telling her family she was OK, when in fact she was already dead.

On that occasion, the texts from her phone were analysed, and shown - using stylistic analysis - not to be from her. More to the point, they were shown to have been from her uncle, thus proving that he had her phone - a fact he found hard to explain, and which contributed to his conviction for her murder.

I'll admit to some scepticism, here, which may be unjustified. A group of students at the University of Leicester is analysing a huge volume of texts to see if they can identify the texters from style, and in six months' time, they hope to report on how good their forensics are.

Now, my own experience isn't typical. As someone who is constantly getting a new phone (to review) my experience is that texting style is more in the hands of the phone user interface, than in my own literary habits.

On my Sony Ericsson Walkman (current phone) there are things which are just too damn hard to do. The other day I had to reply to a request for a URL. It was case sensitive, and switching from lower case to capitals introduced a number of variables into the message which frankly, left me shouting "life's too short!" and throwing the phone across the room (fortunately, it hit the sofa).

This week, trying to test a 3 online mobile service, I found that I had to enter my bank card details on the keypad. It utterly defeated me, and I still haven't managed to see See-Me-TV (which, I'm assured, is well worth the effort) because I didn't manage, even once, to get all the digits in correctly on the LG 800 phone (lovely phone, but really not designed to text numbers).

But on my previous phone, an Orange SPV, the T9 predictive text was my master, and I wrote what it wanted me to say. I can't believe that anybody, analysing the style of what I wrote on the SPV, would recognise the person who used the LG, or the Walkman phone.

So, if you get a strange text from someone claiming to be me, chances are - unlikely though it seems - that it really is me. Also, chances are, it's an attempt to download some Trojan into your phone.

Somehow, I suspect that this idea of that nice Mr (sir) Branson, is not going to fly... ®