Mobile in Barcelona –
Mobile broadband, cheap smartphones, operating systems, software and the killer around the bend
The Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona used to be called the 3GSM Congress. The name is new, but its importance and the spirit of anticipation remains. Each year, basic shifts in the mobile sector are signalled by the keynote speakers and the new products and services announced at the MWC.
This year’s show, as expected, was all about the promise of broadband, broadband-based services and applications, and the standards and devices needed to deliver on the promise. In his keynote address, Vodafone’s CEO Arun Sarin best summed up where the sector is going and where it should be going. He focussed upon two subjects, the proliferation of mobile operating system software products and the competition between LTE (Long Term Evolution) and WiMAX 4G broadband standards. His call to simplify the mobile world’s development through further standardisation resonated strongly with operators – and many manufacturers and applications developers as well. There are now some 30 or 40 mobile operating systems in use today. Mr Sarin would like to see that reduced, at most, to four or five and let the market decide which systems best meet their needs.
Most of today’s handsets use the manufacturer’s proprietary operating system, so when Google announced its Android ‘open’ mobile operating system it upset everyone – from Nokia and Motorola to Microsoft and the Linux fans. Mr Sarin’s plea is a needed call for sanity and standards in an increasingly software dominated sector.
Mr Sarin also suggested that integrating WiMAX with LTE may be the best way to move forward, perhaps by incorporating LTE and WiMAX within common TDD-based standards.
TDD? Time Division Duplex – TDD – is an increasingly popular way to provide simultaneous two-way broadband for mobile. FDD – Frequency Division Duplex – a more commonly used technology slices the available bandwidth into time slots and proportionately allocates them to the incoming and outgoing traffic, imperceptibly interleaving them on the same channel. FDD needs two channels – one outgoing, another incoming. Since traffic in each direction is segregated by channel, excess capacity in one direction cannot be used to handle peaks in the other direction. TDD, given the same total bandwidth as TDD, efficiently utilises whatever capacity is available for traffic in any direction; it provides much greater effective, useable, bandwidth than FDD. Mr Sarin called for a combined TDD-based WiMAX/LTE standard to end the counterproductive wrangling between existing 4G standards.
Generally speaking, the Mobile World Congress was a showcase for the sardine-can school of mobile design – let’s see how many functions, features and gadgets we can cram into a mobile phone the size of a sardine can. Equipment suppliers and operators alike seem to think super/hyper loading handsets with features is the way to go, the way to catch and keep subscribers, so super-stuffed devices with features nobody uses are quite popular. Nevertheless, several recently announced products counter the Swiss Army knife – do it all in one box – trend and move in the other direction by radically simplifying handset features. Most of the simple designs are low-cost efforts aimed at emerging markets. Apple’s wildly popular iPhone takes the middle course; it maintains the complexity, but simplifies the interface so people can actually use more of the features. It is no wonder that it has set the standard to beat.
Two announcements, in particular, delighted me. First, it was heartening to see ZTE announce the first commercial SDR (software defined radio) base station. In my second eLetter in January I predicted that SDR would be coming to the market shortly; I just didn’t expect it so soon. I also didn’t expect SDR base stations would come sooner than handsets. It makes sense though – just ‘add new software and serve’ when you wish to transmit a new standard, use a different frequency or adopt a different modulation scheme. The base station, which initially supports GSM and WCDMA simultaneously, uses software instead of application-specific hardware to process the signals. In the future, according to ZTE’s news release, the platform will also be able to support CDMA and WiMAX.
As a first step towards an SDR world, the base station makes sense. It is a lot easier, considering how new and demanding the technology is, to try it out first in a big box instead of a handset. It also makes great sense to offer operators a platform that can, at least in principle, handle whatever new technology arises in any bit of spectrum that the regulators allow, with little more to do than install new software. I was looking forward to SDR handsets, but this is still a great first step.
The next bit of news that truly pleased me was the ultra low cost Smart Entry Phone (SEP) aimed at emerging markets. It would have pleased me even more had the price been announced, but the Mobile ULC2 Alliance – consisting of Infineon Technologies, Jurong Technologies Industrial Corp. Ltd, TJAT Systems Ltd. and Brightstar, has been careful not to release any price data, although they do claim it is the world’s lowest cost smartphone. Talk, speculation really, at the MWC puts the price at under US$100, even at below US$50. The phone, targeted at emerging markets throughout the world, will provide access to the Web, email, location-based services and IM (instant messaging). According to the press release, the SEP combines “exceptionally low operational costs with no requirement for additional infrastructure purchases”. It has been apparent for some time – and numerous studies support this – that given the developed world’s saturated markets, most new mobile subscribers will come from the developing economies. Indeed, ABI Research believes that by 2011, one of every four handsets sold globally will be ultra low cost handsets.
I have written several times before that ultra low cost ‘smart’ handsets were bound to come. A variety of such devices are sure to reach the market in the near future. The astounding size of the market at the bottom of the pyramid will inexorably drive growth, competition and the development of better, cheaper, devices. Low cost smartphones will likely become the world’s dominant form of Internet access within the next few years. Smartphone will bring far more than email, games and messaging – they will be vital business tools, sources of education and of a still unimaginable variety of services.
The show, above all, demonstrated the growing dominance of software. From Software Defined radios and software-driven smartphones to operating systems, software – always strong – is growing yet stronger in mobile communications. Network management, operational support systems, business support systems, diagnostics, security and marketing – the operators’ entire operating structure, content and user applications all depend entirely upon software. The newer the product, the newer the service, the more it depends upon software.
Okay, you’re impressed with the stranglehold software has on the industry – so am I. The show, though, never lets one forget that software without hardware has nowhere to go. And the hardware is getting slicker and slicker; some of it is downright mouth watering. There’s the iPhone, of course, and a growing number of iPhone ‘wanabees’- some great feature-rich phones. There’s no iPhone killer yet, but given the hot and heavy innovation seen at the MWC, Apple needs to run fast, there’s a killer just around the bend.
Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008) will be published next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are media sponsors such as: ITU Telecom Africa (12-15 May, Cairo), Tunisia Telecom, (Tunisia, 22-25 October), and GSM ME Gulf and North Africa (UAE, 2-3 December).
In addition to our normal global mailing, this issue will also be distributed to a select list of world leaders, to the ranking executives of the world’s largest companies including the Fortune 1000, to government authorities, and to international institutions. This issue will also be available on our website to all other interested readers throughout the world.
The theme of Connect-World: Africa & the Middle East (2008), our coming edition, will be Convergence and data – pushing the limits of the network, pushing the limits of economic and social development.
The growth in data transmission, together with the exponential rise in video and images in general, and the tendency to funnel more through fewer, converged, networks are largely fuelling the need for greater broadband capacity and speed. Not so long ago, we looked to universal telephony as a goal all nations should strive for to meet the needs of their citizens. Today, the growth of the Information Society has raised the bar; universal access to broadband is now the goal – indeed the necessary pre-condition – for digital, economic and social inclusion. This has stretched the resources of governments, service providers, equipment suppliers, businesses and all others involved in the provision and use of broadband.
The need is evident, but there is much to do not only to rollout broadband access and pay for it, but also to make the best use of it to contribute to economic growth and the personal well-being of urban and rural users alike. What should we all be doing, what can be done, not just to provide broadband, but also to use it productively?
Africa and the Middle East 2008 Media Pack; Click here