March 6, 2004
Nick Hunn's Mobile Musings
Posted by Stuart, March 6, 2004 5:51 PM
Yet another GSM conference is over (3GSM to be correct), and as a record number of attendees return home we can settle back and try to understand what it all means.
Cannes is an interesting show. Those of us who are long in the tooth have seen it develop from a small technical conference in Athens with no more than half a dozen tabletop exhibitors to todayÂ’s multi-million euro extravaganza, Despite itÂ’s meteoric growth and reckless marketing expenditure it still feels more down to earth than many such events. Most of the products on display come to market, and for a leading edge industry event there are relatively few booths from start-ups with no discernable business message (although the percentage is steadily increasing).
So what of this year? Inappropriate quote of the week must be attributed to Siemens, who proudly proclaimed that they 3G would run out of spectrum within the first twelve months. It looked like marketing led scare-mongering to persuade network operator to choose SiemensÂ’ proprietary TDD migratable infrastructure. But it also raised the questions of where all the handsets are going to come from to cause this spectrum crisis. Arun Sarin of Vodafone voiced the same concern Â– not because of spectrum congestion but the opposite problem of not being able to get any handsets. His call for the manufacturers to get their act together was strangely at odds with the SiemensÂ’ spectrum crisis. Perhaps Siemens have a secret master plan to parachute hundreds of millions of 3G handsets into the operatorÂ’s hands. LetÂ’s hope its faster than the SX-1 delivery schedule.
Of course everyone kept very quiet about the different 3GPP versions and the possibility of problems as handsets and infrastructure migrate through these over the next few years. Or maybe thatÂ’s behind the offers of handset upgrades from some of 3Â’s regions. But I think IÂ’m meant to toe the party line and not mention that.
Symbian is now generally seen as a division of Nokia within the industry, but is being bullish with a forecast of 18.1 million handsets this year. IÂ’ve long been a Symbian fan, if only for the traffic-i application which gives me real-time maps of traffic congestion in the UK. I canÂ’t think of a better reason to buy a colour phone. I still claim that email and exchange synchronisation are anathema on a handset Â– IÂ’m convinced theyÂ’re a ploy by the PC industry to make the smartphone unusable and drive us all back to PDAs. The bad news from Symbian is that there are no immediate plans to support higher screen resolution above the current standard. Unless this comes along soon, the buying experience when compared to the new generation of Japanese and Korean handsets is going to stall sales. Especially as most retailers have yet to come to terms with demonstrating applications and content to the purchaser.
As expected, lip service was being paid to acceptable content and use of camera phones. The sessions on social responsibility were noticeably empty, whereas anything that touched on adult content attracted far more attention. The mobile has recently been described as the Â“fourth screenÂ” by the media industry. Their reasoning is that the first screen for mass delivery of content was the cinema, followed by television and then the Internet. The interesting corollary is that each screen has become more personal. Think that one through and youÂ’ll also realise that as the screens have become more personal, theyÂ’ve been more efficient at delivering pornography, which has after all been a part of every communication medium from cave painting onwards. Cue some private salivation from the networks, accompanied by worthy words on how theyÂ’re going to control it. Last year saw the first adult content provider at the show, discreetly tucked away in the far-most corner of the furthest pavilion. This year they were still discreet, but more prevalent. Next year guess whoÂ’s running the show.
However, the item that most affronted me wasnÂ’t the prospect of small screen porn, but the ridiculous degree of press coverage around NokiaÂ’s new communicator. It wasnÂ’t the device as such that justified the coverage but the noise surrounding the fact that theyÂ’d included Wi-Fi in it. WeÂ’d had the trailers that Nokia was going to integrate Wi-Fi into handsets before the show and the appearance of the device drove a frenzy of speculation suggesting that this was the first step to getting VoIP into the market. According to the cunning plan that the Wi-Fi community has hatched, everyone is going to make their phone calls via Wi-Fi hotspots, 3G will immediately collapse, the network operators will lose all of their voice revenue and the PC industry will take over the world. The only thing theyÂ’ve forgotten to include is Wi-Fi based SMS, but they donÂ’t understand the difference between text messaging and email, so thatÂ’s understandable. This scenario obviously has nothing to do with: a) jealously that the mobile phone industry sells ten handsets for every laptop, b) a total ignorance of customer billing mechanisms, c) a simple comprehension of the limitations of the technology Â– notably battery life, d) history Â– in particular a little experiment called rabbit, and e) reality.
Of course we all need wireless in a mobile phone Â– without it, it wonÂ’t work. The question is what form of short range wireless is needed to complement it and to let the phone make connections to the other devices around it. Today the usage models in terms of volume are headset/handsfree, remote access and data transfer, with cordless telephony beginning to stir. All of these are covered adequately by Bluetooth. ItÂ’s cheaper, lower power, more versatile and here today. However the new mantra is that calls will be far better served if they are VoIP via an access point and Wi-Fi is the way to do it because everyoneÂ’s going to want to do it. I just donÂ’t understand how this is meant to add up. IÂ’ve no problem with VoIP Â– I use Skype whenever IÂ’m travelling, and would recommend it to everyone. It needs a PC to do the VoIP work, but I use a Bluetooth wireless headset to free me from the PC. That highlights the first flaw Â– why do I need to do VoIP processing in a handset? ItÂ’s power hungry. Surely it makes more sense to do the processing in the access point, in which case the link to the phone can use Bluetooth. The phone will need Bluetooth anyway, as I donÂ’t believe in the concept of a Wi-Fi headset with VoIP processing. Although maybe if I lived in Finland it would have an attractive secondary use as an ear warmer.
Add to this the fact that the biggest failure of the Wi-Fi hotspot is billing. I wonÂ’t describe it Â– just try it yourself as you travel around. Mobile phones have been successful because you dial a number without any additional setup and it works. And you get one bill at the end of the month. If itÂ’s not that simple a new usage model is unlikely to take off. The other question is who wants it? The only advantage for the user is lower cost. ThatÂ’s not very compelling for the network operator. There are also plenty of ways of implementing cheaper calls over an IP backbone with existing infrastructure with whatÂ’s out there today. The experience in Denmark shows the existing disruptive potential for new charging models, and these will become more ferocious as time goes on.
So why is everyone getting so excited? I believe that the answer lies in the increasing interest the PC industry is showing in telecoms. Ten years of sitting between the two industries has taught me that the word convergence just means Â“I want to steal your revenue streamsÂ”. The PC industry has been more prominent each year at Cannes as they try to work out how to steal it. IntelÂ’s marketing spend on Centrino has created a momentum that screams out Â“wireless good, wired-line badÂ”. TheyÂ’ve painted it on the wall of the barn and large chunks of the industry are buying it hook, line and sinker.
The only good thing is that given the PC industryÂ’s attention span it will probably be UWB next year, unless thatÂ’s old hat as well.
Incidentally, there were lots of new handsets. It seems that the 1Mpixel camera will soon be de rigeur for all. The question that no one wants to answer is whether users will print or send their pictures, or whether theyÂ’ll simply use the phone as a portable, personal photo album. Kodak thinks itÂ’s the former and is investing heavily in remote printing plans. The only flaw in the argument is the cost of sending the high resolution picture over GPRS. But if the latter proves to be the case the networks could be at risk of being set up by the handset manufacturers into giving all of their users a free digital camera. Maybe Christmas is coming early. Just give me the 1Mpixel camera now Â– because at Cannes 2005 IÂ’m going to want the iPhone with the 1GB hard driveÂ…
[Nick Hunn's Mobile Musings]