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Wireless Communication: Divided, They Delay Convergence

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VoicenData Bureau
New Update

"I ntelligent wireless handheld devices are going to explode, absolutely

explode over the next several years," Steve Ballmer, CEO, Microsoft, said.

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"The current Internet gold rush will be dwarfed by what is about to

happen with wireless Internet access," The Economist wrote.

"The list of potential uses for wireless communications in the future is

as endless as we dare to dream," The GSM Association pointed out

emphatically.

"By 2004-05, we expect 65—75 percent of enterprises to deploy

extension to mission-critical applications for wireless and pervasive platforms,

and expect 75 percent of corporate knowledge workers to be mobile," a Meta

Group report opined.

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In recent times, no technology has shown so much promise and evoked so much

interest as wireless communications. This new phase is as big and ambitious as

any other in the long and checkered history of communications. It is believed

that wireless communication will change the way people work, communicate and

carry their very lifestyle.

With an ambitious ‘anyone, anytime, anywhere’ agenda, the wireless

technology was touted to bring all the paradigms in vogue together, to truly

un-tether the users. It was expected to converge all manifestations of computer

and phone usage onto one device that would be anybody’s single window to the

world. The new buzzwords were pervasive computing, m-commerce, 3G networks with

ultra-broadband, bluetooth, and so on.

However, the reality is far from what was projected. Each sub-domain has

progressed pretty well but the fruits of labor are yet to reach the end user.

After a lot of wait, hype, and disappointment, the mood now is of guarded

optimism.

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The Backdrop



Telecommunication presents a perfect example of human spirit wanting to

break loose. The fascination of distant communication is interwoven with our

collective history.

With information technology coming of age in the last 30 years, the

telecommunication domain’s possibilities, mandate and focus has also changed

tremendously. A need to connect machines, transfer huge volumes of data, and

security of the data transfer have grabbed as much attention as the typical

communication services provided to the subscriber. In fact, the very concept of

need and access of information underwent a sea change in the nineties and a new

set of services became the order of the day.

Mobiles

may lose the race

Indications are that the mobile manufacturers’ vision of the conv ergence device may not receive mass endorsement
The limitations of screen size, or the kind of applications that could be run, would limit it to being a phone with a few add-on features
Palmtop and PDA evangelists’ vision of a truly personal device with no hangovers from other domains, such as PCs, sounds sounds more logical
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Telecommunication is also a representative of spheres of human endeavor where

evolution is a collective growth of various inter-related domains. In fact,

today’s wireless communication is dependent on and embodies computers,

communication, networking, and applications, all rolled into one. A broad

similarity can be drawn with the evolution of the modern day personal computers,

which involved integrated electronics, principles of core computer science,

software engineering, and networking and communication. It took a collective

growth of all these realms for the personal computer to become what it is.

Some of the realms that are guiding the evolution of the new wireless

communication idiom are:

n Communication:

Standardized, wireless service anytime, anywhere



n
 Networking: Secure, high-bandwidth medium/pipe



n Devices: Those
that can provide the needed features and punch



n Operating
Systems and Core Services:
Those that are scalable, easy to integrate with

the rest of the IT superstructure



n Software:
Killer apps that are intuitive and natural for palmtop usage



n Integration: Fully
integrated, wireless personal space–at office, at home and on the move


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In a nutshell, these features would bring the world onto the palmtop. The

user will have a PC, a mobile phone and a personal digital assistant–all in a

single device on his palmtop. The term used for this phenomenon is convergence.

It has to be noted that each of the above mentioned domains are progressing

pretty well. However, the final product/solution that the end-user is seeing is

far from expected. The new thrust in the industry is on convergence. It is

broadly agreed that one of the main reasons for the advances in individual

domains not translating to tangible products/services is that they are growing

individually, without enough focus on convergence.

Convergence of Devices



The movement is towards having a single device with features of a mobile

phone, a personal digital assistant (PDA), and even a PC. The approaches have

been varied. Mobile phone manufacturers, such as Nokia and Motorola are leading

the "Enhancing a phone to have other features is easier" brigade. PDA

manufacturers such as Palm, Handspring, Psion, Casio, Sony, and Samsung are

working on the theory that essentially, the eventual device will be a personal

assistant with applications addressing various needs of the man on the street.

Palmtop manufacturers are working on the premise that what is required is

essentially a palmtop PC.

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The initial indications are that the mobile manufacturers’ vision of the

convergence device may be slightly different from the general consensus. The

limitations of screen size, or the kind of applications that could be run, would

limit the mobile phone to being a phone with a few add-on features. At best,

they would cater to a small market with limited requirements.

Crystal Ball Gazing
Some of the important developments that one may expect to see in the days to come are:
With individual realms reaching the desired threshold, the focus will shift to convergence–of devices, networks and content. The end-user experience of the wireless technology and the value-adds that this technology would bring will figure on top of the list
Polarization of the industry along a couple of groups. This would be a good thing to happen, as there would be coherence in the efforts and choice to the consumer
Enterprise applications reaching the palmtop would precede the much-fancied personal systems with entertainment and other information. The convergent device addressing personal needs will need to become more economical, and have rich new features complemented by secure high-bandwidth networks becoming available before people go out and buy them
There will be a growing demand for professionals with expertise in areas across the spectrum of this domain. While specialists/companies with niche expertise would still be in circulation, resources/companies with a larger repertoire would be needed in the days to come

In case of PDAs and palmtop PC makers, the essence is the same, but the focus

of what (and in what form) could be available on the device may be different.

Palm and other PDA evangelists’ vision of a truly personal device with no

hangovers from other domains, such as PCs, sounds logical and should address a

substantial section of the market. On the other hand, the ilk of Microsoft and

HP-Compaq will like to just miniaturize the PC. It is too premature to guess

which camp will have the last laugh. It is likely that the market will be split

between both the camps for some more time, till the applications on both the

devices start appearing similar.

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Another class of players is companies like TI, and Intel, which are working

on chips/chipsets that would address the requirements of future devices. Some of

the chips that have emerged in this context are TI’s ARM processor

complemented by its OMAP chipset, and Intel’s Strong Arm processor.

Convergence of Networks



This is one area where there are multiple standards, and multiple approaches

have been in existence for quite a long period of time. This is also a domain

that has attracted special attention from the lawmakers across the globe.

As of today, there are networks conforming to 802.11b, 802.11a, bluetooth,

Tri-band GSM, GPRS and other standards/protocols. All of them are attempting to

realize part of the 2.5G and 3G visions (visions with performance standards laid

out, such as 2 Mbps bandwidth) to varied degrees. Even though some of these

standards/protocols address different requirements and different sub-domains and

differ in the approach to usage measurement (packet-based or airtime-based), the

primary goal is to deliver a secure channel for high-bandwidth wireless

communication.

The need of the hour is not just realization of the bandwidth but also

interoperability between the various standards. Although some companies have

come up with adapters that can allow interoperability, there is a need for more

concerted effort in this regard.

Convergence of Content



This is a weighted term. We may set aside the mobile phone content as

specific to a category of users. The desired content for devices with either PDA

origin or a miniaturized PC is still hazy and will take some time to

crystallize. Broadly, here we are looking at:

n A personal

system with access to phone, mail and Internet access



n A productivity
enhancement device with connectivity to enterprise applications that can be used

at work (by people ranging from sales force to the supervisor on the shop floor)



n An extension of
the existing system at offices that would help people to carry work with them



n A one-point
personal communication device that can be used to stream any content

(entertainment, sports, news, business critical data, etc)


As of now, different vendors are essentially trying to capitalize upon their

existing expertise. While Palm and other PDA manufacturers are addressing the

issue of adding new features, Microsoft is focussing on reinforcing its

dominance of the desktop applications and .Net realms. Companies like IBM,

Oracle, and Sun are in a wait-and-watch mode with specific add-ons to extend

their existing suites to palmtop devices. Broadly, the industry is divided along

PalmOS/ Epoch operating systems and WinCE. The industry is still in turmoil and

a lot of alignments and realignments are underway.

State of the Mart



The overall picture that emerges in today’s wireless communication

industry is of an evolving industry undergoing growing pains. Any casual

observer would notice that there is something amiss. Unlike the PC phenomenon

driven by IBM, or the Internet phenomenon driven by Sun, there is no single

company driving this initiative. While conceding that this is too large a canvas

for any single company to handle, it is seen that most of the players seem to be

working independently, pursuing divergent agenda.

Indeed we are hearing of tie-ups and joint concerted efforts towards varying

degrees of convergence, but we also notice a lack of coherence/concerted effort.

Short-term business considerations appear to be the driving force.

There is a valid school of thought that fragmentation and divergence is the

way to address this issue, with individual players focusing on specific tasks.

The void of a guiding authority with representation from all concerned is being

felt badly.

Members, India Inc



Quite interestingly, most of the reasonably big companies have a presence in

the telecom domain. Many companies have a broad expertise base and that should

come in handy in the emerging market. It is also heartening to see companies

coming up with totally indigenous devices and technologies.

However, India is at a stage where it should be aiming higher and growing

beyond being just an outsourcing backyard. The emerging telecom landscape

presents a perfect setting for this. Companies that have studiedly and

strategically focussed on the telecom domain stand to gain. Ideally, they should

have worked with the leading telecom service providers, PDA market leaders, and

mobile phone manufacturers. Any assimilated expertise in domains that address

different segments of the industry will be a value-add.

CK Keshav Chandra, senior project manager HCL Perot Systems

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