Visions of a wireless future

Most people underestimate the speed at which change will occur. The mere threat of change will alter carrier plans

2.11WirelessRedo.jpgBy James Bowen

The wireless world will be a configurable world. This has profound implications for the investment, development and marketing/sales of wireless applications.
When asked about the future of wireless broadband, Patrick DiPietro, managing general partner of VenGrowth Private Equity Partners, points out that WiMax is not the only wireless technology out there. Competition is intense, he says, with companies such as Cisco and Intel lining up behind WiMax with their own, fledgling offerings. Both have technology that will offer true wireless broadband (i.e. high-speed, “always-on” connectivity available over wide areas), but which will require new devices and infrastructure before it can fly. And their architecture may have trouble getting off the ground. Wifi – localized short-range broadband which has already been implemented in hundreds of city-core deployments and “hot spots” around the world – may end up commanding the market on the strength of its head start.

Mr. DiPietro sees a broadband world in which computing tasks “normally done on PCs will migrate to handheld devices. But today’s software applications are ‘CPU-hungry’,” he quickly notes, adding that this could change as some computer processing done on a handheld is handled by a network server. This approach harkens back to the old client/server architecture. Now called “thin client,” it could allow a handheld to serve primarily, perhaps, as an input/output display device. Professor Thomas Kunz, director of the Technology Innovation Management program at Carleton University, believes that, enabled by a network server, handhelds will behave more and more like “media-rich” PCs, combining sound, video, graphics and processing with uninterrupted, ubiquitous Email access. According to Mr. DiPietro, such use of network software to compensate for the lack of processing capability will lead to processing partitioning. This in turn will give rise to the long-awaited “utility computing” business model, whereby customers rent the use of online software applications as needed.

In terms of applications, Mr. DiPietro sees a variety of possibilities, many centred around making our “mobile experience more productive.” Wireless system administrators will be able to remotely monitor, diagnose and fix server problems. Customers will use voice recognition features for input, the voice processing done on the server. Using “voice notes,” individuals will enter video, photos and audio and catalogue and send messages which can be automatically converted to text.

These and other potential capabilities have moved a step closer to becoming a reality with Apple’s recent decision to open up the iPhone to third-party applications and Google’s imminent release of the Gphone. “People buy devices to get applications,” says Mr. DiPietro, who notes that once it’s possible to download third-party applications, there will be an explosion of offerings as small companies rush to develop software targeted at wireless. “There’s going to be a lot of innovations in the input method over the next several years,” he adds. “The iPhone touch screen is just the beginning.”

Stephen Rayment, co-founder and chief technology officer of BelAir Networks, anticipates a future in which “wireless broadband is [up to] 100- times better than what we experience now.” Before that can happen, though, more and better equipment will have to be deployed. In order to achieve broad, uniform coverage, wireless communications “nodes need to be removed from the cell tower and put at street level so everyone receives a broadband connection,” says Mr. Rayment, who adds that the wireless world will be one of sharing.

This vision will soon shape mobile entertainment, which is ripe for increased sharing potential. Following social networking trends that find their genesis in sites like Facebook and Youtube, much of mobile entertainment will likely take the form of personal content shared with family and friends, and tossed to the wireless winds to be spread to the connected world. This will require handheld wireless devices with real-time capability and user-friendly functions, like easily manipulated files. New applications will also provide functionality that changes from location to location. Mr. Rayment sees a real-time “mobile sensor world” for business, which will allow users to gather information from mobile sensors, or sensors within moving products, and combine it with information from other devices, such as TV cameras, for real-time decision making such as container tracking at ports or product supply-chain monitoring. “The focus will be on having the capability to make real-time decisions on objects that are in motion,” he says.

Invoking the phrase a “network of things,” an old idiom to describe personal devices, sensors and autonomous computers all inter-communicating, Professor Kunz sees applications going further still. He anticipates a time when network software will not only “learn” one’s processing needs but, perhaps, even correlate them with the needs of others. “If we are in a movie theatre and we turn off our cell phones, then others in the same area should have their calls blocked as well...” says the professor. He also speculates that handhelds might one day be configured to respond to a user’s given mood. Would we be interested in entertainment or forms of interaction geared to our emotional state?

Dr. Andy Lippman, co-director of M.I.T.’s Communications Futures Program and currently a Visiting Fellow at Nortel’s Research and Development Group, sees great significance in the advent of the iPhone and the sale of radio spectrum in the US. Taken together, they presage a paradigm shift that will favour users. Open devices and networks will permit a dynamic buffet of services provided by carriers, places and other people. And regardless of whose multi-network phone dominates the market, users will benefit from a multiplicity of applications targeted at that phone. Ultimately, everything will be managed by the device. Using networks opportunistically, cell phones, handhelds and other mobile technology will automatically switch from carrier to carrier and from one network application to the next, as needed, on a moment-to-moment basis.

Dr. Lippman says that most people underestimate the speed at which this change will occur, and that “the mere threat of change will alter carrier plans.” He points out that context is key. “If we have a heart attack in the mall, the server or device should automatically notify the doctor who happens to be shopping nearby,” he says, and again emphasises that the future of broadband wireless will be driven by context, as well as proximity, or our spatial relationship to others. “GPS location is merely a point but a map adds meaning,” he states “Place your friends on the map and you get context.”

Dominant applications will be architectural in nature – software that can be shaped to consumer needs. “It’s the difference between Lego blocks and a model airplane,” says Dr. Lippman. “We can customize the model but with the blocks we can build what we want.” Investment and marketing/sales models need to be flexible in order to adapt applications when the exact end use and target market isn’t clear. “Everyone will be inventing stuff and [applications that best anticipate the market] will be adopted,” Dr. Lippman says. Investors must be able to look at quick and cheap applications, put them out there and see if they stick. If they don’t, move on. It’s more easily said than done, but entrepreneurs would be well advised, as more and more minds focus on applications, to develop products at the edge of user demand and get them to market before the extreme becomes the mainstream.

James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Management.

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