Packet Pushers
By Andrea Orr, Thu Oct 18 00:00:00 GMT 2001

Some cool hardware releases may spur development of that elusive killer app. What's out there now?

The breakthrough mobile users worldwide have been waiting for? Or just the latest marginal new technology being forced on consumers by manufacturers desperate to prop up sagging gadget sales?

No one is quite sure yet whether GPRS wireless technology will transform mobile computing, but a clearer picture should emerge over the next several months as a slew of new GPRS products come onto the market.

GPRS, which stands for General Packet Radio Service, is a new technology that allows information to be sent and received across a mobile telephone network at speeds that are about three times as fast as the data transmission on existing fixed communications networks. Consumers who buy GPRS phones should be able to, with the right browser, access any Internet Web page, or Web service.

Product offerings

GPRS products first began appearing late last year and are beginning to gain critical mass with recent introductions from Nokia, Motorola and some other big device makers.

Some products that have recently come on market include:

Nokia's 8310, a part of the company's fashion line, comes in multiple colors, is smaller than a pack of cigarettes and contains several advanced features like voice recognition, a built-in radio, and, of course, Internet access. The 6310, which combines GPRS functions with mobile payment systems, is due out later in the year.

Motorola's Accompli devices introduced earlier this year have already been identified as some of the most attractive and user-friendly products on the market. A Java-enabled device that offers both cell phone and PDA features, the Accompli has been praised for offering full surfing capabilities while still being easy to use.

Research In Motion has upgraded its popular Blackberry email pager with GPRS functionality and voice-recognition technology. Early reviews of the products have been mixed, with critics saying the product is too clunky and should be repackaged to better compete with some of the other "fashion models."

British Telecommunications plans early next year to begin shipping a GPRS-enabled handheld computer with built-in phone functions. This new XDA device will be a personal digital assistant with a color screen, and will contain Microsoft's Smartphone portable operating system as well as a permanent Internet connection.

Compaq Computer plans in December to start shipping an add-on module enabling always-on Internet access via GPRS for its popular iPAQ devices.

Handspring says it is working on a version of its new Treo PDA that incorporates GPRS technology, primarily to enable always-on instant email capabilities for business users.

Toshiba has announced plans to offer a GPRS phone in Europe next year, complete with a mobile Internet handset, although few details about its differentiating features are available to date.

A Silicon Valley start-up company called Danger Research has a product in development that is somewhat like the Research In Motion Blackberry, complete with full keyboard and always-on Internet access. Danger plans to aim its Hiptop device primarily at the consumer market in the U.S. early next year.

Palm is planning to upgrade its PDAs to always-on Internet access with a snap-on PC card adapter called the Guyver, which can be inserted into the card slot to provide a connection to GPRS networks.

Product support

One potential hurdle in the way of broad adoption is the question of how much network support these products will have in many parts of the world. In the U.S., wireless carriers have been generally slower than expected to upgrade their networks to GPRS.

Upgrades that were expected by the summer of 2001 are now not seen nearing completion until next winter. The first GPRS network in the country was just launched commercially in Seattle. But other network operators should have the incentive to follow course. As a new and less costly way to transfer data over small devices, GPRS will not only offer consumers a host of new services, but will give mobile operators the opportunity to push all these new services to their consumers.

This is a key benefit, since data transfer sessions are usually longer and far more lucrative than mobile voice exchanges.

Although some features differentiate the products that have come on the market to date, they probably share more common ground in their ability to offer mobile consumers an instant, and constant Internet connection that does not require dialling up.

This in effect transforms the cell phone from a limited device capable only of offering a pared down, or an extremely slow version of the Internet, into one that packs as much power as the fastest PC connections.

Many people say a big benefit will be providing a jump-start to mobile commerce, by, for example, enabling instant credit card authorizations. Others talk about improved mobile email, job dispatching to remote workers, file transferring, and document sharing. They say that just about anything available over a PC with a broadband connection could be brought to a GPRS device. Audio would become crisper, video would actually be watchable, and chat rooms would be accessible from all devices; no longer would mobile users have to build their own chat communities that were cut off from the larger Internet population.

Although much of the current GPRS development seems to be aimed at markets in Europe, U.S. providers too are showing strong interest. Organizers of the annual Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, where new products come on display each autumn, say they expect a strong showing of GPRS products this year, compared with almost none the year before. And many believe that by 2002, GPRS will routinely be incorporated into new mobile phones.

Is the timing right?

It all sounds good. But the timing could be problematic. Coming at the end of a long tech bust when a number of promising new gadgets have failed to take off, there is reason to be skeptical that consumers will be wowed. Most new technologies surfacing today face the test of convincing consumers they address some sort of real need. An added concern, of course, is the accelerating slowdown in consumer spending. Mobile phone sales have plummeted and discretionary purchases have fallen even further. New data shows the vast majority of mobile phone sales are currently replacement sales.

But the success of GPRS will not be strictly based on economics. There are other questions about the quality of the technology, for example, whether GPRS will actually produce satisfactory video, or will just be one more incremental improvement acceptable only to the early adopter crowd.

It is worth mentioning that GPRS is indeed more of an interim technology than a final product. Several industry analysts regard it as a sort of 2.5 generation wireless technology that is being pushed now only because of the challenging delays in getting a much faster third generation technology to the market.

Bob Bierman, vice president of Key3 Media, which organizes Comdex and other high-tech trade shows in the U.S. said GPRS will give companies an opportunity to offer better performance products while they are waiting for 3G, the holy grail in mobile computing, to become a reality. GPRS, said Bierman, offers only about half the speed that companies eventually hope to offer over 3rd generation networks.

"It remains to be seen how well it will work," said Bierman.

Some other concerns are that actual speeds may be much lower than advertised once multiple users clog the networks, and whether the cost of the new GPRS services will be prohibitive. So far there has been limited discussion of cost. Still, aside from the official rates that operators set, there are concerns that GPRS consumers may be put in a position of paying for information they did not request.

Users who initiate a GPRS session will essentially be agreeing to pay for the delivery of content, so problems may arise if they become the target of a kind of high-speed spam.

And there is an even bigger unknown: the killer app. Just like the WAP-phone operators before them have talked of a menu of promising new services but struggled to get mass adoption around any single one, GPRS providers will eventually have to offer more than a long list of potential applications.

Beyond all the messaging and data sharing applications being discussed, some companies are already promising sexier uses, such as 24/7 home monitoring from wherever you are.

So, the sales pitch goes, the burglar alarm goes off in your home, and no matter where you happen to be, you are alerted. You also are able to see the perpetrators, maybe even lock them inside the house until police arrive.

Aside from the problems that could conceivably arise with locking thieves inside one's house, though, that scenario unleashes many more questions about whether GPRS technology could perhaps turn out to be a bust. The concept of remote home monitoring, remote oven pre-heating, air conditioner setting or freezer defrosting, is actually by now one of the older promises of the Internet.

But after years of talk about the wired home, consumers have shown little interest in that degree of connectivity. Whether that will change if the connectivity is brought to a mobile device remains to be seen, but it is surely not a certainty.

"Right now there just is no killer app surrounding GPRS," said Bierman. "Three months from now, that could look very different though."

More on that tomorrow...

It's GPRS Week on TheFeature! Get up to speed on GPRS rollouts, devices, applications and services all week right here.

From Silicon Valley, Andrea Orr covers developments in the mobile world for TheFeature. She is also a correspondent for Reuters in the Palo Alto, California, bureau.