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Do Internet companies see wireless network providers as simply another pipe for their own use?

Been There, Done That!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

As the 700-MHz spectrum auctions draws closer, we hear Google might bid, reports are that Apple might bid, we have not heard from Microsoft (although I think it would be better off selling its Windows Mobile 6.0 OS to companies building phones for all of the networks), Frontline Wireless might bid on the shared commercial/first responder spectrum and many meetings are being held in back rooms around the country.


Meanwhile, the iPhone is either a success or not depending on whom you listen to (see September 9 Blog). Have they really sold a million phones? Why are there so many for sale on eBay?


New technologies in the form of LTE, UMB and perhaps even WiMAX M are on the horizon, Bluetooth is about to be challenged by or combined with wireless USB 2.0 and some network operators and those deploying WiMAX think the wireless Internet, rather, the wired Internet made wireless, will be the real moneymaker for data (I don’t think so).


Mobile TV is off and running over existing networks and using MediaFLO and DVB-H, and I understand tests will soon be underway to see if Mobile WiMAX can complete in this area. [A quick aside here, where I live in Southern California, Verizon does not yet offer EV-DO but has turned on the MediaFLO part of its VCast service. We are able to receive mobile TV but not the other VCast offerings. People here don’t know they are only getting part of the service, and this might become a test bed to find out if mobile TV will be purchased without the audio and video clips being offered over EV-DO in most of the rest of the country.]


I am giving a number of speeches in the next month or so, some to IT professionals, some to people within the Industry and a few to network advisory councils that meet a couple times a year. For each of these, I have asked about the topic of most interest so I can cover it in more depth. For IT professionals, it is security both across the wireless networks and on the devices, which should come as no surprise. However, the industry and advisory councils want to hear about the impact of Internet companies on wireless going forward. Their interest is not simply in who will show up at the 700-MHz auction, it goes deeper, asking how the wireless community and Internet community will work together or if they will compete.


Do Internet companies see wireless network providers as simply another pipe for their own use, or do they understand the differences between wired and wireless bandwidth? Network operators want to know how to avoid becoming simply wireless pipes and work with the Internet community to find new sources of revenue. No one has the answers to all of these questions but, as you might guess, I have some ideas based on what I have learned in talking to both communities. I share them with anyone who is interested and I add my predictions―some will be on the money and some will be way off base. That’s just the way it is. What we think is logical and will, therefore, happen, sometimes doesn’t because something else comes along.


I was right about the Palm Folio, which will never see the light of a retail shelf, but then again, so was every analyst in the world. We all anticipated the failure because we have seen failures in the past. I am right about the muni-Wi-Fi world, which is starting to crumble, though some out there still believe it will survive and thrive. I have seen the press turn from bullish to skeptical, and have received inquiries from cities that only a short while ago had no reason to talk to me because they knew I was not a believer.


The majority of the wireless network operators didn’t get too bent out of shape over the supposed threat of muni-Wi-Fi because they saw the same issues I did―unlicensed spectrum, interference, increased costs of deployment and slow adoption. It turns out they didn’t need to worry. In fact, one of the benefits of muni-Wi-Fi has been to whet the appetite of people who had never experienced broadband access to the Internet. These people like the concept but found muni-Wi-Fi systems to be unreliable so they looked around for better options. They signed up with a DSL or cable company or, if they needed mobility, with a wide-area wireless network provider. They probably wouldn’t have considered doing so had they not dabbled with muni-Wi-Fi.


The Analyst Community


I’d like to share an observation or two about the wireless analyst community. Our company provides education, consulting services and articles about wireless and mobility. What makes us analysts is that we put things into perspective.


At a recent RIM analyst meeting, I joined a group of my peers, about 75 analysts from around the world representing approximately thirty companies. It was a great event and I wish I could talk about some of what I learned in those three days. Over time, I will, but for now, I will share an observation about analysts in general. Those of us who have been around a while, or a long while, have a very different perspective of the wireless world than the younger generation now filling the ranks of some of the best known firms in the world.


At dinner, we were talking about PDAs and wireless PDAs and some of the more senior among us asked the younger analysts at the table who developed the first PDA and who developed the first wireless-ready device. Universally, they answered that it had been HP. When I told them Apple had the first real PDA, the Newton, and that HP did introduce the first wireless PDA but it was the HP 95LX handheld with a PC Card modem made by RIM, I found they didn’t know about either of these products. When we talked about the Folio from Palm, they all thought it was a first-of-its-kind product and were surprised when we started naming similar devices that pre-dated the Folio by many years.


Most of these young people are bright and very knowledgeable, however, knowing about the past―what has worked and what has not―is important when assessing technologies moving forward. Many products have been before their time and never made it past the first few years, but things come back around again. For example, I just read a press release announcing that you can now download ring tones with animated figures that dance on the phone’s screen as it rings. Remember a company called General Magic? It had a set of wireless devices that had animated characters dancing across the screen when you sent a birthday or other greeting, and it was done by sending only a few bits of data across the networks.


I recently met with a group that was proudly showing me they could send real-time EKGs over wireless and they believed it would save lives. In the 1970s, I worked for a company that was providing groundbreaking wireless technology in LA. The company was BioCom and we developed the first paramedic radio. It was full duplex, which meant it could send and receive voice simultaneously, and we were also able to send EKG signals by converting electrical impulses from standard EKG leads into audio frequency signals that were sent over the air and decoded at the hospital (our radio was featured on Rescue 51 in the TV show “Emergency”). While we pioneered the technology, it has been enhanced and improved a great deal since then. They had never heard of what we had done and did not know that EKG signals have been sent over wireless for a long time using a variety of technologies.


I received my first beta BlackBerry in 1998 after using a RIM interactive pager for a number of years, and prior to that, RadioMail back in 1991. It has taken a long time for wireless email to come of age, but there is no doubt that it is here and it has changed the world as we know it. Today it is commonplace and the next generation of devices and services are coming on strong. Perhaps some of them will represent ideas that were tried and failed a decade or so ago.


Companies that were before their time with ideas that could have and should have been huge successes needed today’s network technology to succeed. Likewise, companies that are ahead of their time today need tomorrow’s technology.


History is important as we move forward. Understanding what has already been tried and the successes and failures help us see our way into the future. Before new companies jump into their brand new product or service, they would be well advised to search history to find out if anyone has tried what they want to do and, if so, why they failed. Learning from the past will enhance our future.


Andrew Seybold




COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Chris Coles - 09/12/2007 06:05:59


Your last paragraph is a peach, well said. But just as pertinent is that those of us that have tried something new in the past are very happy to talk to the new masters of the universe. I am sure the conversations will enhance both sides of the equation.

Andrew Seybold - 09/12/2007 11:04:57

Chris--thanks for the kind words--and yes most of us don't mind helping those are coming up through the ranks, Perhaps there should be a way ro preserve this knowledge base.