A Different Year, A Different 3GSMTuesday, February 20, 2007
This year's 3GSM conference was larger and more crowded than last year's, and the energy level was high. This is not to say that last year's was a dud, it certainly was not, only that there was a shift in focus this year and many more companies appear to be excited about the future. The exhibits on the show floor provided a progress report on the past year and a look at what is expected in the near future.
The DVB-H/MediaFLO TV contest continues. DVB-H is live using pre-standard versions in a number of countries including the United States, and MediaFLO is live in the United States. Nokia gave a mobile TV and mobile Internet briefing and fully expects DVB-H to follow in the footsteps of GSM, gaining world dominance as a standard. The only problem I see with that is that MediaFLO has signed Verizon Wireless and announced at the show that Cingular has also decided to move forward with a MediaFLO offering. Rumors persist that there is some MediaFLO activity in Europe, as well as Asia, but the smart money for device chips has to be on Qualcomm with its TV/video/audio chip that supports MediaFLO, DVB-H, and Japan's ISDB. Both DVB-H and MediaFLO are open standards, so I don't think Qualcomm will be alone with multi-system support for long. This will be an interesting battle that bears watching as we move into off-network video and content delivery.
There was a lot of WiMAX activity, too. Intel had a booth with Sprint (the poster child of WiMAX), Motorola, Samsung and Nokia showing the mobile Internet, streaming video, VoIP applications and more, and there were other signs of life for WiMAX in the halls. What WiMAX supporters don't take into account is that as existing 3G networks deploy DVB-H or MediaFLO, they gain a huge amount of downward capacity. By off-loading a lot of data from their own networks, they will be able to provide a wider variety of services to their customers. We'll have to wait and see what transpires over the next year as some WiMAX systems are deployed in true commercial settings and have to live up to the hype that has preceded them.
I am reminded of John Sculley, then Apple CEO, unveiling the Apple Newton, a pre-cursor to the PDAs of today. The Newton was not a great success and Apple finally pulled it from the market. It was a good first machine and a great start, but it was doomed before it reached the market because of the claims that preceded it. While Sculley was sharing his vision with us, he gave the impression that the first Newton would fulfill that vision. It turned out to be a work in progress. I also remember the introduction of the wireless data technology CDPD. Invented by IBM and driven by McCaw Cellular, it was designed to send and receive packet data at 19.2 Kbps. It was launched far before it was ready for deployment in the hopes that it would slow the adoption of wireless data with the two incumbents, ARDIS (Motorola/IBM) and RAM Mobile Data (then partially owned by BellSouth).
Well, CDPD was finally made to work, but it did not attract the number of customers AT&T, Bell Atlantic and others had hoped. However, the hype did delay the development of notebooks and other products that would have supported the other two technologies, at least until the first BlackBerry was introduced on the RAM network.
My point is that we are nearing truth time for WiMAX. It will have to live up to all of the hype that has surrounded it. I do not believe it will and I am not alone. Frankly, I don't think the GSM community has anything to worry about in spite of the warnings that the GSM community needs to set the LTE (Long Term Evolution) standard sooner rather than later. I expect WiMAX to find a niche and probably live up to some of its hype, but I don't see it becoming the platform of choice for the mobile Internet or ultra-mobile devices.
Location-based service (LBS) took a front row seat at 3GSM this year, too. Tele Atlas, Navteq and the other usual navigation companies were out in force and the number of phones being shown with navigation and turn-by-turn directions capability was amazing. SiRF, one of the biggest names in GPS chips, was showing a host of its customers' phones, handheld devices, car systems and more. More importantly, it was talking about the LBS ecosystem and providing some interesting software to enable LBS in a variety of applications including embedding locations in your address book to find a friend or a place or to locate the friends nearest you (or how about a police officer being able to see the locations of the closest cars when he needs help?).
Now that most network operators have recognized that LBS will play a big role in the wireless ecosystem, GSM and UMTS handset companies are building in GPS receivers. CDMA handsets have contained GPS receivers for a long time, at least those using Qualcomm chipsets, and every CDMA cell site has a GPS that is used for time coordination and locating phones on the network prior to their acquiring enough GPS satellites. However, GPS was not seen as a requirement in the GSM/UMTS world until LBS started heating up. Now, many network operators are outfitting their cell sites with GPS and looking at devices with built-in GPS. SiRF gave me a long list of phones that sport its chip, other chip solutions are available now and Qualcomm's chips have GPS capabilities. It won't be long before we see a flurry of GPS-assisted LBS activity from the GSM/UMTS community.
Among the most appealing new handsets (at least to me) is the new BlackBerry 8800 for GSM. It is not a 3G handset and it is about the same height and width as my earlier full-sized BlackBerry, but it is thin and sleek, it has longer battery life and it has built-in GPS and navigation. The only down side for me is that the thumbwheel I have become addicted to on the side has been replaced by a round ball pointing device above the keyboard. I played with it and can use it, but it makes my one-handed use of the device a little more difficult. Oh, RIM has embedded Kodiak's PTT software on the 8800, which means it is push-to-talk-ready on the U.S. Cingular network and other networks around the world.
There were new phones from everyone at this show. Thinner is in as are better screens, price reductions, higher-resolution cameras and more memory. More phones have video and audio capabilities including the Nokia 7700, a DVB-H device that can download and play IPTV movies and clips from the Internet. The big news in handsets was the awarding of the GSMA contract to LG for what is being called the "3G for all" campaign. The GSMA organized this competition and has partnered with twelve operators to be able to order a substantial quantity of the phone. LG beat seven other bidders with its LG KU250, a sleek, thin GSM/WCDMA phone that will undercut wholesale pricing for low-end UMTS phones by as much as 30%. It is hoped that this phone will help the twelve network operators convince their more than 620 million customers to move from GSM to UMTS.
I guess I should start using the term "WCDMA" again. I was surprised that this show, which was a UMTS show last year, was a WCDMA show this year. Nearly every vendor, it seems, has gone back to the WCDMA terminology instead of 3GSM or UMTS. I haven't been able to figure out exactly why, but the trend was very apparent. Another surprise was that Qualcomm was the major sponsor of the show. According to the European analysts and press I talked with, even though there is some legal maneuvering between the EU and Qualcomm, there is a new respect for the company and its product offerings. It didn't hurt that the largest U.S. network operator, a member of the GSM/WCDMA family, announced the first day of the show that it had signed on as a MediaFLO customer. In only one short year, and in spite of the legal wrangling, it was nice to see that Qualcomm's image as a leader in the wireless industry is finally being recognized in Europe.
The Next Big Thing?
In one hall there was a small "village" with a sign over it saying "WiMEDIA Is Here." More than a year ago, I met with a chip company involved in WiMedia and became a believer in the technology. WiMedia is essentially ultra-wideband wireless, which is short range but capable of video and high-speed data, that has been married with the USB structure we have all come to appreciate, resulting in wireless USB, or WiMedia. I saw some demonstrations and received an update at the show. WiMedia is coming on strong, rules have been changed in a number of countries to permit its use (it is permitted in the United States) and according to the people at Alereon, it is about to make its global debut. It is as easy to use as USB 2.0 and just as fast. For now, you can plug a USB dongle into your notebook and it will run out to a wireless USB hub for USB port expansion. Soon, WiMedia will show up in some wireless handsets, then a little later in notebooks and printers, flat screen TVs and perhaps even in our cars.
Since it can handle both voice and data (data speeds are very fast), I think wireless USB has a real shot at becoming the new standard for personal-area wireless devices, both fixed and mobile. I will be receiving some of the early commercially-available products to try out and will report on their performance. The beauty of the USB concept is that once the device is paired or learned, it can be connected and disconnected easily, and multiple devices can be connected. There is still some work to be done, but I am encouraged by how much has been accomplished in the past year.
I have to hand it to the GSMA. The layout of the Barcelona location for 3GSM is great. There are eight halls divided by types of products with Hall 8 being primarily for the big players and one hall holding seven floors of meeting rooms for companies that exhibit. It was easier to hold meetings without having to worry about booth traffic and noise, and since many of the companies I was scheduled to meet with had rooms in the same place, it was easy to get from meeting to meeting. The GSMA estimated that this year's event would see a record 60,000 attendees and the city was able to accommodate all of us. The GSMA really knows how to take care of the press and analysts. We were each given a five-day pass on the metro system and my hotel was a short walk and three stops from the conference center so I never had to worry about the cab lines.