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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Post #500... so what's changed in 2.5 years?

This is my 500th post on this blog. By coincidence, it is almost exactly 2.5 years to the day since I started on this journey, so I'm averaging 200 posts a year.

It's been ages since I even thought about the stuff I was writing about in 2005, so I thought I'd go back to my very first post and see what's changed, what I'd got right/wrong.

I had a list of Over-hyped wireless technologies:

  • UMA (unlicenced mobile access) - well, it still hasn't got much traction after another 30 months. Maybe 1.5m subscribers at Orange & T-Mobile US, plus some hopefulness around femtocells. My original forecasts (considered horribly pessimistic at the time) of 5.5m UMA homes at end-2009 now actually look insufficiently pessimistic after all.
  • Cellular operator IM - I was spot on. Branded mobile operator IM, with a couple of niche national exceptions, has gone precisely nowhere. Even familiar Internet IM from MSN, ICQ, Y! Messenger has been pretty patchy on mobile to date, albeit a bit more popular in markets like the US where teenagers think that QWERTY phones are socially acceptable.
  • Near-term massmarket WiMAX - Sprint's Xohm launch was delayed again yesterday. 'Nuff said.
  • Free wireless VoIP - Sure, mobile VoIP still has some buzz, but it's been hit by complexities of handset user interface design, operator obfuscation of key APIs, power consumption issues, unwillingness of users to install 3rd-party applications.... and above all, ever-cheaper mobile circuit phone calls.
  • Dual-mode WLAN/cellular phones - Yes, they're still important and the basis of lots of interesting new business models and FMC vendors. But predictions that "all phones would have WiFi" were misguided - most end-users are more prepared to pay for 5MP camera modules or a pink casing than 802.11 on their phones. And even where phones are dual-mode, quite often the WiFi is never or rarely used.
  • Wireless presence - It's been overhyped like mobile IM, but more so. Maybe it'll make a return with the eventual rollout of IMS, and things like the rich communications suite. Or perhaps it'll get absorbed into some of the cool Mobile Web 2.0 and social networking applications that are emerging. But there's a lot of outstanding issues - such as whether operators want to subsidise presence capabilities for the mass of youthful prepay users, or whether their often low-end handsets can support it anyway. I still think it's overhyped although it's at least now a bit more feasible.
  • Smartphones - I still think the industry cares more about smartness than end users do, although clearly the iPhone, Nokia N95 and assorted Blackberries & WinMob devices have raised the game. On the other hand, on a local trip to my closest Carphone Warehouse store, I counted 9 types of smartphone on the shelf, and 11 types of pinkphone. Hardware is still more important than software to Joe Public.
  • "Seamless" roaming - I think Motorola's (tagline "Seamless Mobility") recent problems have perfectly highlighted the ridiculous 2005 hype around "seamlessness". As I've consistently said, seams are important and I see no reason to change my assessment.

And what about the things that I thought were under-hyped?

  • Under-estimated- PBX/cellular integration - Certainly, this seems to be the ongoing focus of enterprise FMC these days. Yes, there are still plenty of "bin the PBX and use mobile centrex" announcements, but the story's the same as it was, and there's still virtually zero traction. I don't see it changing.
  • Poor indoor performance of 3G, WiMAX and other services - The interest in the recent 700MHz auctions (and digital dividend frequencies in Europe in future) have partly sprung from an awakening awareness that 2GHz+ signals don't go through walls very well. It's also a huge limiting effect on WiMAX (especially at 3.5GHz) and metro-WiFi at 2.4GHz. It seems that the annoyances of basic physics have penetrated a bit further into mobile executives' brain tissue than into buildings.
  • Novel in-building wireless coverage solutions - I first mentioned the term femtocell a month after the blog started. At the time it drew blank looks whenever I dropped it in meetings with clients - but now it might be time to transfer it to the list above.
  • "Single-mode" (non-cellular) VoWLAN phones. OK, hands up, I got this one mostly wrong. I'd been expecting the price/feature curve to have intersected that of DECT and similar cordless devices by now. It's been very, very slow except for a couple of interesting-but-niche Skype handsets, and a handful of slightly less-clunky enterprise devices.
  • Impact of VoIP on cellular pricing. It's difficult to dissect the drivers of flatrate and "big bucket" voice pricing in mobile - competition, regulation and VoIP all play a role in carriers' decisions. But VoIP and call-through is certainly exerting pressure on international tariffs.
  • Upgrading cellular network backhaul. In 2005, backhaul was an unloved backwater of the industry. But it's now one of 2008's hottest topics, especially as 3G networks fill up with data from cheap flatrate HSDPA modems.
  • Difficulty of integrating & testing new features on mobile handsets. There used to be an assumption that handset software was easy, because devices are small. So many firms have now had their fingers burned trying to get client software user-experiences working across a decent range of phones, that there's been a huge move to "put things in the browser" instead. Certainly, those companies that are doing handset client applications now seem to recognise the magnitude of the task they face. And then there are the prizes awarded by the likes of Apple & Google Android to sweeten the pain for app developers.
  • The impact of a lack of "email portability" on FMC business models. My thought here was that many people still use ISP-based email addresses, and wouldn't want to switch broadband providers just to benefit from FMC. But to be honest, there's been so many other problems with consumer FMC propositions that email has been way down the list of pain points.
  • The role of "service enabled" home gateways for FMC. In 2005, most home broadband users still had simple broadband modems, often USB-connected. In 2008, there is much greater interest in dedicated and sophisticated end-points like BT's Home Hub and Orange's LiveBox as an entry point to the "digital home". I expect this to continue.

So... where will this blog be when I get in post #1000, perhaps in late 2010?

Will we all be consuming huge amounts of mobile advertising, while talking via VoIP to our IMS-presence enabled buddies on our LTE iPhones running at 2.6GHz on our integrated home femtocell/gateways?

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