Wireless innovation faces roadblocks

July 16th, 2009 By Chris O'Brien in Technology / Consumer & Gadgets

Sometimes you can recognize a revolutionary upheaval only in hindsight. You look back years later and think, "Oh yes, that was the moment when everything began to change. And we hardly even noticed at the time."

With , there's no need to wait. The revolution is now. The evidence of its effects is all around us.

In just the past few weeks, we've seen the release of the Palm Pre, and the new iPhone , and now comes word that 1.5 billion applications have been downloaded from the App Store in a year. It's hard not to get giddy about the pace of change.

But it's time for a midsummer reality check. There are some major speed bumps ahead that are likely to slow down the revolution.

How quickly these are resolved, and more important, whether they're fixed, will determine if and when we'll reach the true wireless promised land, where mobile computing is so pervasive that we don't even use the word "mobile" anymore.

Here are the immediate problems I see:

1. Cost: The smart-phone plans are still way too expensive. While there are several tiers of service available, the lower versions where you pay by the volume of data remind me of the days when you had to pay by the minute for your dial-up account to America Online. You had to constantly limit yourself whenever you went online.

To really take full advantage of the features these devices offer, you need an unlimited plan. And these are simply too pricey for the average user. The more people carrying one of these devices around, the faster the transformation will come. I'd love to see companies like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon find ways to dramatically lower the costs of these plans with the goal of putting them within reach of a far greater chunk of the population.

2. Platforms: Even if every one of us had a smart-phone in our pocket, there would still be other limitations on what we do. That's because at the moment, there are six major wireless platforms, or operating systems: the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Google's Android, Nokia's Symbian, BlackBerry and now the .

That means application developers have some tough choices to make. They have to choose one of these platforms as a starting point, and then rebuild their applications for each platform. That's a lot of work for little return, and it means that a lot of developers will just build for one or two platforms.

One workaround would be to build a mobile service that sits on a server and is used through the phone's browser. While that would make it accessible on more phones, it would also require developers to limit functions because such server-based applications will naturally run much slower than those applications that sit right on the phone.

3. Ubiquity: Somehow, the discussion of free municipal Wi-Fi networks seems to have dropped off the radar. But it's time to restart that discussion. It's certainly true that there are more and more free Wi-Fi hotspots every day. But why should I have to go hunting for an access spot? I want free, or at least super-cheap, broadband mobile access whenever and wherever I want it, whether for my laptop or for my smart-phone. The mobile broadband services available through phone companies, like the smart-phone data plans, are still too pricey.

The goal in all these cases should be moving us toward a world where the Internet is everywhere. Only when we're all there, with affordable devices and access, will we see the next great wave of mobile innovation.

One final thought. There's been a lot of discussion about the issue of lockups and the latest smart-phones. That refers to the exclusive arrangements between a smart-phone maker, say Apple, and the phone company, AT&T, to be the only provider of a device like the iPhone. Palm has a similar arrangement with Sprint for the Pre, and BlackBerry with Verizon for the Storm.

Critics have labeled these arrangements anti-competitive and bad for consumers, in large part because they limit choice. There have been congressional hearings and now word that the Federal Communications Commission is going to investigate them.

But these lockups don't really bother me. Given the heavy research and development costs for device makers and marketing costs for service providers, I think letting them have exclusive arrangements is necessary to bring these gadgets to market. Practically speaking, for something like the and the Pre to be available on every network would involve far more development costs than most people realize.

And that's the legacy of bad decisions made years ago to allow different phone companies in the U.S. to adopt different cell phone technologies for their networks. So Palm would have to build a different version of the Pre to get a device that works on AT&T's network. Requiring the phone makers to do so, I think, would be an unfair burden.

There's good news here, though; the next generation of wireless technology will make this problem go away.

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"Wireless innovation faces roadblocks." July 16th, 2009. http://phys.org/news166946106.html