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iPhone, Android, 700 MHz: What Maximizes Wireless Innovation?

At the Emerging Communications Conference eComm 2008, I’m moderating a panel “Wireless Innovation, with or without operators.” This will be a discussion—smart people from differing camps responding to (hopefully) probing questions from yours truly, and the audience. Points of view represented include Google Android, J2ME/JavaFX Mobile, iPhoneWebDev.com, Skype and Trolltech Qtopia (Nokia), plus Chris Sacca, formerly head of Google’s wireless initiatives. I’ve been thinking about subjects and questions for the panel. As a start, I’ll set down my current views, then seek others’ views and questions.

2007 Breakthrough—Public discussion of “Open” wireless networks

For the first time ever, US mainstream media is talking about open handsets and open networks. It started with the iPhone launch in June, as people discussed pros and cons of the Apple-AT&T lock in. Then Google proposed, and the FCC partially adopted, a set of open access criteria for the 700 MHz auctions that are currently in progress. Finally, speculation about a G-Phone got resolved when Google announced the Open Handset Alliance and Android open source mobile phone software.

What’s Next?

In the near term, we won’t see open wireless Internet access at 700 MHz—that will take years. The 700 MHz spectrum doesn’t even become available until analog TV is turned off (scheduled for February 2009). Then building out a network takes time, independent of whether it’s WiMAX, HSDPA, EVDO or LTE. And at this point, neither base stations nor mobile devices are available for the 700 MHz band. Vendor’s will talk a good story, but are unlikely to make major product investments until they know they have orders in the pipeline.

There are two areas that should drive innovation in the US wireless market over the next 24 months.

  • Affordable open mobile Internet access as a result of competition, i.e. in advance of 700 MHz
  • Further innovations in the handset space

Open mobile Internet access in advance of 700 MHz services

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, US competition to offer mobile Internet access is about to ratchet up significantly, as T-Mobile USA uses the spectrum they acquired in the 2006 AWS auctions to go head-to-head with AT&T, Verizon and Sprint. In 2006, T-Mobile USA spent more than $4B to buy additional spectrum that will allow them full national coverage. Then they committed another $2.7B to build out 3G mobile coverage on this spectrum. Recently, they’ve disclosed $10B of investment for 2007-2009. In addition to these four cellular networks, there’s at least the threat of a national WiMAX network, between Clearwire and/or Sprint. Finally, WiFi access points continue to proliferate. Four plus competitors is enough to unbalance a market, so it’s likely we’ll see affordable flat rate data bundles that are effectively open access at some point in the next 24 months.

Handset innovation

Here’s the real excitement, at least in the next 24 months. The iPhone is truly a break through device, if nothing else it’s the first mobile Internet browser that really works. Every other handset vendor has embraced iPhone concepts and is scrambling to bring out their own next generation devices.

Meanwhile phones based on the Android stack should show up later in 2008. During the next 24 months we’ll see if the Google initiative has a significant impact on handset software. Remember, Google doesn’t have to make money on their software (as Microsoft does with Windows Mobile) or on handsets (as Nokia does with Symbian).

Finally, there’s an open question of where, in the handset stack, maximum innovation will occur. John Puterbaugh distinguishes five layers where innovation might occur:

  1. Operating Systems and Mobile Platforms - Symbian, RIM, Windows Mobile, Palm, Java FX Mobile, Android, LiMo
  2. Application UI Frameworks - Series 60, Qtopia, uiONE, GNOME / GMAE, KDE, GTK
  3. Runtime environments - Java, JavaScript, Flash, BREW, and various Mobile Internet Browsers
  4. Media Players - Windows Media Player, Quicktime, Real, Ogg Vorbis
  5. Applications - Celltop, Yahoo! Go, Nokia WidSets, and various Mobile AJAX “players”

I might have separated out mobile Internet browsers and mobile AJAX as an area that deserves a layer of it’s own, but you get the idea. Yes, there is no single answer for mobile application development and that’s a problem, but it’s also prompting an enormous amount of competition and innovation.

Do you have questions for the panel?

I look forward to a lively discussion at eComm 2008 in Mountain View California on March 14th and hope to see you there.

In the spirit of full disclosure, NMS Communications is a member of, and contributor to, the Open Handset Alliance, primarily through our LiveWire Mobile subsidiary. But then we’re also active in various GSM Association working groups including contributing to the GSMA’s (IMS-based) Video Share Project and we’ve delivered IMS handset software for Symbian, Windows Mobile and several other environments.

By Brough Turner, Founder & CTO at netBlazr

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