America wakes up to wireless

9 Feb 2005

In the late Nineties when the US led the world in dotcom mania and the Nasdaq soared on the promise of technology companies, European technology businesses consoled themselves with the thought that the US just didn’t get mobile, unlike urbane and cultured Europeans who had evolved to m-business and text messaging.

Zoom forward three years and the Americans have exploded yet again another myth. Not only has the resilience of dotcom stalwarts such as Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and Ebay on the stock markets chastened fair-weather investors and amazed the business world, but its innovative adoption of mobile services is now showing European mobile manufacturers and network operators the way forward. Stateside devices that have raised the bar and are today influencing European mobile trends include RIM’s popular BlackBerry device and the PalmOne Treo 650 smart phone. Not only are they geared towards providing instant email and web access on the move but also feature accoutrements such as digital organiser, digital camera and Bluetooth. The phones are still big, but every bit better.

Meanwhile, a raft of consolidation among US mobile carriers is leading to innovative pricing options that we Europeans can only marvel at. On a recent visit to Silicon Valley the driver who collected me from the airport explained how he enjoys “all-you-can-eat” mobile services for US$110 (€85) a month, including calls to anywhere within the US.

The next big trend to be pushed by wireless operators will be the rollout of network data cards for PDAs and laptop computers that combine 3G standard EDGE with Wi-Fi and GPRS, guaranteeing internet connectivity anywhere across the US. Recently US operator Cingulur, which boasts 46 million subscribers, signed a deal with Belgian firm Option for the rollout of combined data cards to take advantage of advances in mobile working on the move and within wireless hotspots.

At a briefing in Silicon Valley last week Hewlett-Packard (HP) set its own agenda for the future of mobile and later this year will bring out its own smart phone device to compete with RIM’s BlackBerry. Ted Clark, senior vice-president of mobility, underlined HP’s mobile vision for 2005 by revealing a mobile email technology alliance with Microsoft, a data collection and entry deal with Nokia, new HP wireless local area network assessment and set-up services, a new range of financial options for SMEs as well as 10 new products, including handheld computers, laptop computers and tablet computers.

“It is our intention to bring out a new smart phone devices later this year as well as an iPaq pocket PC with EDGE, GPRS and Bluetooth functionality,” Clark said, adding that the move was encouraged by HP’s corporate customers who want to combine the functionality of BlackBerry-type services with HP’s track record in corporate IT. Clark paraphrased a recent statement by HP’s CEO Carly Fiorina: “HP is moving to capitalise on a major shift in the business world from analog and physical to digital, mobile, virtual and personal.”

At a roundtable the same afternoon, it is clear that although the US has embraced mobility like wildfire, issues such as how to capitalise through mobile content, 3G services and the arrival of mobile virtual network operators are just as prevalent in the US as they are in Europe. Ken Dulaney, vice-president of mobile computing at Gartner, noted: “Mobile data is a huge opportunity right now, particularly in terms of enabling data on the move for laptop and handheld users. However, a lot of work needs to be done to make these devices easier to use and more compelling. As well as this, on the 3G front, the networks are almost entirely in place but a lot of work needs to be done to create compelling applications.

The wildfire success of voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) players such as Vonage and Skype (projected to become the largest telecoms player in the US although it doesn’t own a network) the analysts believe may also have repercussions on the future of mobile.

Analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group commented: “VoIP is taking off in US homes but operators need to remember that VoIP is a data packet similar to anything else on the net. Wireless VoIP I have to admit I am cautious about. Unifying standards such as session initiation protocol that makes voice, video and applications such as games work together need to mature and make these services tangible.”

It seems that in Europe we have become slightly complacent when it comes maximising the potential of mobile and future applications in this medium. And, it seems, we must once again succumb to enterprising Americans taking their time with the technology and doing the homework to make it truly work.

By John Kennedy