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Saturday, December 08, 2007

So what has been the 'device of the year' in 2007?

I reckon the three most influential mobile products this year have been:

  • For FMC and VoIP: I'd nominate the Nokia N95 for its relevance in driving assorted top-end features like WLAN and good-quality Naked SIP support into the mass marketplace - especially from the point of view of Mobile VoIP. And of course the 5MP camera and GPS, and more recently its 8GB version have also been major catalysts driving the initial sale of the device to customers. The E65 has also escaped from its original intended market of the enterprise, and become an important part of the SIP-based FMC landscape, and the 3 Skypephone (made by Amoi) is cool as well.
  • For user experience & changing perceptions: The Apple iPhone has lived up to its hype. I have to confess I was a skeptic initially, but having played with a few and listened to lots of owners, I'm pretty impressed. It's certainly forced the rest of the handset industry to sit up and pay attention. And its forced the operators to ask themselves hard questions about whether they can really do cool UIs themselves - and given them another concrete reality check that consumer like hardware rather than services. And above all, it has that ineffable "Oooh I want one of those" quality.
  • For driving data services and defining mobile broadband: It's got to be the Huawei family of USB-connected 3G modems. They've facilitated the adoption of mobile data by consumers as well as business users, and illustrated perfectly why 3G-embedded PCs are niche products. Why would you want to have an operator-customised (and possibly locked-down) laptop, when you can get a proper unmolested one and just add a separate plug-and-play connectivity device? Laptops last longer than mobile contracts, so the user wants the ability to switch providers (or rent a local modem when travelling to avoid roaming charges). Lastly, they're better for operators too - they really don't want to put 500 different types of PC through their testing labs, when they can just test 3 external modems instead. And they're (finally) driving 3G data revenues - laptops are the best devices for getting 'the real Internet' when you're mobile. According to a presentation I saw last week, the Huawei devices are the current top-selling 'phones' in Sweden.


Gabe said...

Hey Dean... I really want my next laptop to have integrated 3G... The modules are standardized and you can always change out the SIM.

USB dongles are good but can be a hassle... get lost, forget them, etc.

The problem is my employer is very unlikely to make integrated 3G part of the standard laptop build in the next two years. Half the IT dept. aren't even aware of the concept. I'd bet lots of organizations are like this.

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Gabe

In theory what you say is true - the 'embedded' laptop appears to be the most 'elegant' solution.

Unfortunately, the reality is not as simple. I'll do another more detailed post another time as this is an area I've done some quite a lot of work (including a white paper for the GSMA).

Issues include:
- while the module is standardised, the antenna may be separate (eg around the screen), meaning the whole thing has to pass RF compliancy tests.
- comparatively difficult to upgrade to the latest version HSPA / HSPA+ etc which is likely to be needed during the life of the laptop
- although the hardware is standard, operators may have preferred suppliers, which means integrating somewhere in the PC supply chain to get built-to-order
- PC and mobile operator channels are different, and neither understand the others products particularly well.
- Embedded 3G adds a lot of cost - especially for corporations for whom only a fraction of employees justify the service costs (esp roaming)
- lots of issues with customised connection manager software & enterprise device management
- operators don't generally support all brands/makes of PC - and most customers choose the PC first & will not want to be restricted to certain models supported by a given operator
- complexity of UMTS and CDMA (and soon WiMAX) embedded laptops. Ideally you'd have a quad-tech PC (ie all 3 + WiFi too) but that makes all the other problems even worse.

In a nutshell - separate modems are a bit less elegant, but are much easier from a practical standpoint for most users.