Where Are We Headed?Friday, August 07, 2009
I have listened to several speeches recently by industry pioneers about where wireless is going and I have given a few speeches of my own. The main technology points are agreed upon: We are heading toward an IP-centric world where, for awhile, three generations of technologies (2G, 3G, 4G) will continue to provide wireless voice and data services. Over time, 4G will become voice capable, and at some point the migration to 4G and beyond will begin. The timeframe for this is open to discussion and each speaker has a different view of the timing. For my part, I believe that 2G and 3G services will be around a lot longer than others are forecasting, partly because voice still pays the bills, and partly because until data and applications become mainstream, the demand for data will continue to increase at a slower-than-predicted rate.
Other things we all agree on are that our wireless devices will become our command-and-control devices, giving us freedom to interact with other people, other devices, our homes, our cars, and even devices in stores. At some point in the future, we will use our mobile devices to pay for purchases just as we use our bankcards today and, if we want them, we will have coupons residing on our mobile devices for use when purchasing certain types of products. And, of course, we will have full access to the Internet and all of the services that can be found there.
This is where those of us who have ventured into what lies ahead differ greatly, and I will admit that I am outnumbered on several of these points. I believe that the first thing we must do is convince more voice-centric customers to become both voice and data-centric. To accomplish this, we need applications that are so compelling, easy to find, and easy to use, that voice-centric people will want to try them. To me, this means applications that do not require the user to invoke a browser.
If we cannot accomplish this, I think that while data usage will continue to climb, it will not reach the level of saturation network providers and others are counting on. Most of the other speakers have not focused on these points, concentrating instead on the concept of making our mobile devices really good at browsing and searching the web. They believe that extending today's methods of accessing information on the Internet to wireless devices is all it will take for everyone to want to use data services. Interestingly enough, they all point to the iPhone as a testament to that, stating that Internet access by iPhone users is higher than for users of all other devices combined, and since the iPhone has a good browser, the answer is to provide better browsing capabilities.
I believe they have missed a point here. First, many of the iPhone applications that are used to retrieve information from the Internet are standalone applications that do not use the browser. Second, many iPhone applications that do use the browser are more like applets and mask the fact that the browser is involved. If you eliminated these two types of applications, I wonder how many iPhone users actually invoke the browser to get to the Internet.
Another observation is that the iPhone is not being bought by people looking for a good voice phone, it is being bought by people who want the wireless Internet, music, videos, games, and other applications. In other words, it is being purchased by people who already have a propensity for data usage. This is not the target market of the future; these customers already employ data, applications, text, video, and audio on a wireless device. The future target market for data services is made up of today's voice-centric customers-we will need to find new, innovative ways to appeal to these people.
One of the reasons cited for why so many people think browsers are the key to our wireless data success is that we have multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, multiple types of devices with different screens, memory capabilities, and form factors. For developers to be successful, they must write a great application and then port it to all of the various operating systems, programming interfaces, and devices, which is a daunting task to say the least. If they stay with browser-based applications, they don't have to do as much work before introducing their applications into the marketplace.
But as long as this remains the general thought process of the wireless industry and development community, we won't have a majority of voice customers using data services. Look at the differences between the United States and Japan today. On NTT DoCoMo's network with more than thirty million customers, 78% use at least one form of data (includes text). In the United States today, 70% of all wireless customers do NOT use data today, saying the main reason is that it is too difficult. Data usage is higher in Japan because before they had PCs at home and before they took their work PCs home with them, i-mode, an NTTDoCoMo text-based applications platform, provided users with their first glimpse of the Internet.
This is not a new story. In the early days of Ethernet and in-building networks, I remember sitting down with Bill Kruse, one of the founders, who told me that even though 3COM was selling Ethernet devices to many corporations, the uptake was slower than the companies would have liked. Then he citied one company's success in getting its employees to use the LAN. Suddenly, a report they all needed to see that had been distributed in paper form every Monday was only available over the company LAN. Voila! It worked, and the employees went on to find other ways to make the LAN more productive for themselves.
In another case, when IBM installed the Computer Aided Dispatch system for Los Angeles County Fire in the late 1970s, it had to train all of the dispatchers, who had been using pen and paper for many years, how to use touch-screen technology. (Yes, there were touch screens back then.) Instead of setting up a typical training course, IBM delivered the screens one at a time. The first had tic-tac-toe and nothing else on it. The dispatchers started playing the game, using their fingers to enter the Xs and Os. The next two screens had a few interactive games on them, e.g., battleship, so the dispatchers could sit at their own consoles and play the game with each other. A month later, the system went live and it was a huge success. The dispatchers took to it quickly and completely with no need for additional training.
So how do we use what we have learned to help grow the wireless data market? I have several ideas, the first of which is to build smart applications or applets that use a browser but hide it from the customer. Today we can push data to devices-not only email, calendar, and phonebooks, but other data stored on the Internet that we had to go find. Now we can have an application push updates for flights, provide time and gate change information, the status of an upgrade request, and the weather in the destination city. Push enables all manner of alerts, information, notifications, and, if we opt in (I hope), coupons for products in stores we are approaching. We can set up the push services we want via the application on the mobile device, or even better, on a PC.
When we think about turning voice-centric people into data customers, we need to keep in mind how they do things today. Here's an experience we have all had. We are sitting on a plane, ready to go, when there is an announcement that there is an equipment problem, we will have to get off the plane, and the airline will arrange a new flight for us. Some people get off the plane and stand in line waiting to find out what is available, some go to their phone, open a browser, go the airline page, and try to find a flight. I simply dial the airline on my phone, talk to a real, live person, and by the time I am off the plane, my new flight is booked and I am on my way to the new gate. If we cannot make it as easy to do something using data services as it is using voice services, why would anyone choose to use data? What if my application had alerted me that the flight was cancelled and offered me some options on the screen. If all I had to do was make a selection and the flight would be booked for me, I would certainly use that data application instead of voice.
Another thing that would help increase data usage would be to make it easier to program our data-capable phones. When you bought a new phone, you would take it home, turn on your computer, go to a website and enter the phone number, model number, and network operator. A depiction of the phone would come up on the screen along with its menu structure and perhaps some links to applications available for that phone. You could then drag and drop your phonebook, photos, calendar, etc. onto the computer phone from your desktop. You could try out the menus, set your favorite ringtone, buy a ringtone, or otherwise customize your phone, learn the menu system and experiment with some of the phone's capabilities, and download the data and settings when you are done. To see what I am talking about, go to clonefone.com (not a client).
When you explore the applications function on the site you are taken to a list of software that works on that device only, and if you choose to try a program it is loaded onto your computer phone, not on the actual phone. You can try it out, see if you like it, decide to buy it, and when you are finished, send everything to your phone, either over the air, via a cable connection, or with Bluetooth. Your phone will be ready to go. You can go back to your desktop anytime to try out a new application.
While the speakers agree on a future of wireless that will bring a wide variety of devices, resulting in a penetration of 300% or more, we disagree on how we will get there. The Internet browser was the consensus, so for now I am still in the minority. But I am willing to bet that once we see a few more really good applications that don't use browsers (or perhaps do but hide them from customers), there might be a shift in views about how we will reach our wireless future, and how soon we will be there.
No one can really tell what lies ahead, but in order for the future being described by so many very smart people to become a reality, we must convert voice users to voice and data users. From where I sit, we are a very long way from being able to accomplish that.
Andrew M. Seybold
Andrew Seybold MobileApp Challenge
The fall session of our Wireless University will be held on October 6, the day before CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment 2009 in San Diego. At the spring Wireless University we initiated a competition to identify the most innovative of the latest group of mobile applications and we have integrated this feature into the fall segment covering wireless applications as a demonstration of what makes a great mobile application.
We would like to invite our developer readers to participate. We will select four or five finalists to give a 3-4 minute demonstration and the audience will select the winner. All finalists will be recognized with a set of prizes that will increase awareness of their company and application in the wireless industry, and the winner will receive a very special prize-a ride with one of the top five aerobatic pilots in the United States!
Rules, entry form, and other information will be posted at www.andrewseybold.com during the week of August 17. We are specifically seeking applications that do not require users to open a device's browser. The browser may be used as part of the application or applet, but its use must be hidden from the customer.
Andrew M. Seybold