Your Wireless Future
The next phase of the mobile revolution is about to begin, thanks to high-speed networks, smart applications, and a new generation of portable gadgets.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) - Want to get a sense of where wireless technology is headed? Think back to where the Internet stood at a similar point in its development - say, sometime around 1998. Back then the computer had already become a fixture in a majority of American homes, while the Web and e-mail were just beginning to reshape the way people interact, socialize, and shop. But better things were yet to come: At a time when 98 percent of Internet households still connected to the Net via dial-up modems, the telecom industry was spending billions to make broadband access more pervasive.
Fast-forward to 2006. Today, 55 percent of U.S. homes have high-speed Internet access, and the industry is experiencing another wave of innovation as entrepreneurs create new products and services to exploit today's faster networks.
Meanwhile, though more than half of all Americans now own mobile phones, most handsets are still limited by slow connection speeds. But this, too, will soon change. Three of the four major U.S. carriers switched on high-speed 3G networks in 2005, and Wi-Fi hotspots continue to proliferate, with places like Philadelphia and San Francisco planning to create citywide Wi-Fi networks. "We're connected in our homes. The next step is to be connected wherever we are," says Derek Kerton of wireless consultancy the Kerton Group.
And that's only part of the story. Technologies like Wi-Max could introduce more competition by eliminating the advantages that telephone and cable companies now enjoy thanks to ownership of the wires that deliver broadband into homes and offices.
Unlike a Wi-Fi hotspot, which provides wireless access within a radius of just a few hundred feet, Wi-Max creates a wireless cloud big enough to cover several square miles. "It's hard to get excited by the technology as it exists now," says James Enck, an analyst at Daiwa Securities SMBC Europe. "But when you look at everything that's happening, it starts to get really interesting."
Put simply, we're on the cusp of a dramatic transformation that will extend far beyond the mere ability to download e-mail, photos, and webpages more quickly. Plentiful wireless bandwidth, coupled with more sophisticated mobile devices, will usher in a new generation of wireless tools and services. On the pages that follow, you'll get an advance look at some of the technologies that promise to make this new era of mobility truly revolutionary.
The Everywhere Office
Alas, the mobile future won't be all play and no work. In many cases, mobile devices will stand in for laptops to handle basic workplace tasks like e-mail, messaging, Web access, and manipulating documents. Convergence will be the watchword, but with a business-oriented twist: On the road, workers will be able to remotely access essential contacts, scheduling information, and business documents.
Likewise, productivity-oriented convergence will combine the pervasiveness of the cellular grid with the versatility of IP-based data networks and the organizational capabilities embedded in many corporate phone systems. Voice-mail, extension dialing, and staff directories will be fully accessible from next-generation mobile devices, while BlackBerry-style e-mail will become commonplace, at a fraction of the current cost.
Professionals will have tools to help manage the flow of their communications, in the form of applications that prioritize incoming calls and messages. The bad news is that, thanks to broadband wireless networks, you'll never really be out of touch. On the bright side, however, you'll also have more sophisticated ways to control how and when you're reachable.
Companies to Watch
Location: St. John's, Newfoundland
Service: Push e-mail
Description: Delivers BlackBerry-like functionality using open-standard e-mail software.
Location: Ottawa, Ontario
Service: Call prioritization
Description: Intercepts and prioritizes incoming calls by linking to calendar and IM information.
Location: New York
Service: IP-based PBX
Description: Offers a peer-to-peer VOIP-based phone exchange that doesn't require a central server.
Location: Plano, Texas
Service: Mobile productivity
Description: Develops software to view and edit Microsoft Office files on mobile devices.
Location: Campbell, Calif.
Service: Remote PC access
Description: Provides access to files stored on users' computers from mobile handsets and resizes them for viewing on small screens.
A Flexible Presence
Although high-speed wireless networks will enable many new services, voice communication will remain the most important task for most mobile devices. But here, too, change is afoot. Today wireless data services are treated as applications that run on top of cellular voice networks.
But ultimately the reverse will be true: As mobile networks shift to Internet-based protocols, voice will become just another application running on what is essentially a data network. In the meantime, many mobile devices will enable consumers to route their voice calls over the most efficient (or inexpensive) network available. If you get better wireless coverage inside your home with Wi-Fi, for example, conversations can be carried by VOIP. Outside the home, however, your calls will be transferred to a more pervasive cellular network.
The way we communicate will also change as technology highlights the importance of "presence." Presence is simply real-time information about the status of a user. (Think of the "away" message that can be displayed on many instant-messaging systems.) On a mobile device, presence data will become more nuanced to indicate your location, busyness, or even mood. When advanced networks enable virtually any kind of communication anywhere, presence information will become the most basic way to encourage (or discourage) different kinds of contact.
Companies to Watch
Service: Mobile VOIP
Description: Automatically and seamlessly switches calls between mobile and IP-based networks.
Location: Richmond, British Columbia
Service: PC-to-mobile VOIP
Description: Extends any computer-based Skype connection to a user's mobile phone.
Location: Milpitas, Calif.
Service: Fixed-mobile convergence
Description: Offers products that make it possible to access cellular network services via Wi-Fi.
Service: P2P VOIP
Description: Rolling out VOIP services over European 3G networks for Pocket PC while also developing Symbian versions of its client.
Location: San Mateo, Calif.
Service: Presence systems
Description: Extends presence information to make colleagues reachable via different IM systems and office or mobile phones.
Here You Are
When advanced networks are available everywhere, location data will become the key to determining what kind of information is most relevant at any given time. The obvious location-based services - the ones available today - are basic mapping, direction finding, and Yellow Pages-style listings.
Even better are so-called mashup services that let users create, tag, and annotate their own maps. These have found a niche on the Web, but they'll be even more useful when adapted for wireless use. Some tips will be passive, like a flagged comment that "this restaurant serves good barbecue." Others will be more active, making it possible to leave a location-based "note" outside the corner store so your spouse will receive a reminder to pick up some milk when he or she walks by on the way home.
Services that push location-based information to users will have tremendous potential. That could entail letting you know when family or friends are nearby, or it could mean signaling when you're close to an event or attraction that matches your interests. (Naturally, this has marketers salivating at the potential to hit users with timely, location-based ad messages as well.)
Meanwhile, the venerable bar code is likely to play a prominent role in facilitating communication between the mobile and physical worlds. Camera phones will do double duty as input devices for bar-code-recognition software that links information tied to specific places, displays, or attractions, while mobile screens will be able to display bar codes that authorize entry to theaters, concerts, transit systems, or even airline flights. In many different ways, your mobile device will be your ticket to ride.
Companies to Watch
Bones in Motion
Service: Location-aware software
Description: Uses GPS to turn mobile phones into exercise-tracking devices.
Location: San Francisco
Service: Personalized mapping
Description: Lets users flag locations from their mobile phones to create customized maps marked with their own notes.
Location: New York
Service: Location-based social software
Description: Enables people to tag a location with notes or images. Notations are shared when friends approach the location.
Service: Social Location directory
Description: Users tag locations to find other users or related places nearby.
Location: Waterloo, Ontario
Service: Mobile bar-code software
Description: Connects the mobile Web to the physical world by using camera phones as bar-code readers.
Mobilizing the Buddy List
As high-speed wireless networks become ubiquitous, portable devices will become an essential way to stay connected to friends, family, and shared experiences. Call it the "mobile you" - a personalized set of social and entertainment services that will be available anytime, anyplace.
Some of these are already starting to appear, in the form of mobile TV and streamed audio that turn phones into broadcast media receivers. Going forward, however, the most compelling mobile content may come from users themselves. Just as TiVo lets couch potatoes "time-shift" to watch their favorite TV shows whenever they want, mobile networks will allow users to "place-shift" as well.
Whether stored remotely on a home computer or archived on a network-accessible server or simply grabbed from the Web, personal content of all types - music, video, photos, blog posts - will be accessible everywhere. It will also be shared, as wireless networks are harnessed to social-networking tools to enable the exchange of real-world experiences, almost in real time. So if a college student attends a concert, he'll be able to share more than just photos and sound clips; by comparing location information against his contact list, he'll be able to find out which of his friends are also at the show. Likewise, mobile gaming will become a more social experience as network connections turn the real world into a sprawling game environment. Anyone up for a citywide game of whodunit?
Companies to Watch
Location: Emeryville, Calif.
Service: Mobile TV and video
Description: Streams live TV broadcasts and video content to mobile-device users.
Location: Corvallis, Ore.
Service: Mobile music
Description: Extends social music services (like Last.fm and Pandora) beyond the reach of the wired Internet.
Location: New York
Service: Mobile content sharing
Description: Delivers RSS feeds to mobile phones and lets users pass them along.
Service: User-created content
Description: Allows mobile users to blog or share photos and video.
Location: San Mateo, Calif.
Service: Remote content access
Description: Uses Internet connections to transmit DVR content or local TV from users' homes to remote laptops or smartphones.
Tomorrow's wireless devices
A New Window on Your World
Wireless networks are only as useful as the devices we use on them. That's why the grainy screen of your trusty flip-phone probably won't cut it, and neither will its anemic processor. Tomorrow's mobile devices will come in a variety of configurations and designs, but most will share some general characteristics: high-resolution touchscreens, powerful processors, vast amounts of storage space, and an intuitive input system.
A few current devices offer elements of these features, but the total package has yet to reach the market. For product designers the focus will be on versatility, expandability, and convergence. This trend is already making an impact: Last year Nokia became the world's biggest camera manufacturer, shipping more than 100 million digital cameras in its phones.
It also built 46 million phones that can play digital music - a figure that exceeds the 42 million iPods sold by Apple. The device of the future will be powerful enough to usurp many of the capabilities of today's stand-alone gadgets, while wireless personal-networking protocols like Bluetooth will make it simple to connect to other handhelds and computers. But one popular feature of today's phones will remain unchanged: Despite all the added functionality, next-generation tools will still slip easily into your pocket.
While voice recognition may be used in some circumstances, text will remain the primary way to interact with portable devices. And for text entry, nothing beats the power of a traditional "qwerty" keyboard.
To display maps, videos, games, and mobility applications, handheld devices will need large, high-quality displays. Touchscreen functionality will give the user interface extra versatility.
A typical processor won't be able to handle all the demands placed on next-generation devices. They'll need specialized chips for audio and video, as well as software-defined radio capabilities to provide access to a wide range of networks and carrier frequencies.
Music libraries and video files are unwieldy. Yet demand for multimedia content will likely dictate that tomorrow's devices come equipped with multigigabyte capacity.
To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.