Wireless Confusion Reigns
By Dave Mock, Thu May 10 00:00:00 GMT 2001

With mobile device convergence at hand, the lines between device-types and the applications they enable become blurred. How does it all fit together?

The distinctions between a vast array of mobile devices and services are blurred to a point where many consumers are misled about the promised value of mobility. Even as companies struggle to differentiate their offerings and explain their use, investors and consumers alike are left wondering how it all fits.

With the advent of advanced wireless technologies upon us, it is common to see new capabilities and applications lumped into a single bucket called 3G. Without a crystal ball, even the most forward thinking technophiles struggle to differentiate various mobile practices and form factors. In the early years of wireless, voice services were simple enough to break down and compare. After all, there was only one interface element (speech) and one goal, real time verbal communication. With new data capabilities being thrown in the mix, the picture gets much more complex.

The same blurred vision in the 3G space carriers over to financial circles where analysts and investors try to gauge the success of product strategies of mobile companies. Without a clear picture of a company’s mobile product or service, many are left wondering who their competition really is and what factors influence sales growth. Companies spend years pushing products in consumer spaces where they don’t belong. Many of them learn quickly and make adjustments, sometimes pulling entire product lines. But some forge ahead, naively assuming that at some point a large consumer pool will turn to their way of thinking.

Keeping it real

The distinctions between various types of mobile wireless technologies are much wider than most people anticipate, even the companies that are bringing them to market. In the best case, this leads to poorly received services or slow moving product inventory as users struggle to see how this new capability fits into their daily activities.

In the worst case, huge market share is lost to those who get it right, and customers are left with another gadget gathering dust. Either way, the company selling the new gizmo, as well as the customer buying it, both grow wearier of the value and freedoms that mobility can actually bring.

To the gadget guru that follows wireless technology closely, knowing what they want and need is simple. They usually have a line on upcoming products and know just where they are “wirelessly lacking” in their lives. But with the other 98% of the population, confusion reigns.

The average person doesn’t even know what they would do with an entry-level cellular phone let alone some sort of WAP device. With this level of understanding, how are companies going to sell the mass population on mobile video streaming?

When a PDA is not a PDA

First of all, lets keep PDAs and Pocket PCs far apart, where they belong. Just because you can pay the same price for a high-end Palm as a basic iPaq doesn’t mean they are even remotely related in function and purpose. The broad application of the term "Palm" and liberal use of the PDA acronym are the primary causes of confusion in this area.

Pocket PCs have processing power and capabilities magnitudes above most PDAs. For instance, the Pocket PCs that most consumers see video streaming demonstrated on (such as the iPaq 3600) clip along with 206MHz engines. While PacketVideo does not specify the application size or processing demands of its PVPlayer video streaming decoder, it’s mainly relegated to Pocket PC devices with 100MHz+ speeds and a minimum of 16MB of RAM. They also recommend closing all other applications while running the client, as parallel tasks run the risk of degrading performance.

By contrast, even the high end PDA has a scaled down processor running around 20MHz with 8MB of RAM. This puts even the low-end Pocket PC far ahead of the best PDA. With such vast differences in capabilities, there’s no way to even compare the platforms. Just ask the PacketVideo folks when they will have their application running on your Palm V and you'll get an idea of just how deep and wide this chasm really is. Unfortunately, they still advertise their products as being designed for wireless PDAs.

Applications for the Palm OS, on the other hand, are lean and mean. Since 3rd party developers compete for widespread adoption of their creations, the incentive is to build low overhead applications that fit easily into an already slimmed down processor platform. For example, a popular interactive mapping application, StreetSigns2.5 takes up only 105Kb of space. Most applications for Palm OS PDAs are less than 50Kb.

With this large distinction between Pocket PCs and PDAs, the demand to increase wireless data capabilities in the PDA realm is really non-existent. The services available today at 9.6kbps – 14.4kbps are more than adequate for the bulk of applications capable of operating on such a platform. Of course portable devices will continue to improve in price and performance, but the key to remember is that wireless capabilities are not the only limiting factor for the emergence of new mobile media applications.

Dumb phones work just fine

The same type of confusion carries over into cellular handsets. Most units in the hands of consumers today are low to mid-level models that support voice and limited data features. Scaling up to “smartphones” with color screens and high-speed data capabilities is a huge leap, even for the high-end phones of today. The next generation phones will have a whole new processing engine added just to keep up with the newer media applications. This will not come easily as consumers are unlikely to give up certain expectations such as battery life and small form factors in a phone.

In the U.S., AT&T is getting a lesson in mobile consumer tastes. They’re seeing unexpected demand for their stylish Nokia 8260 phones even though they don’t contain a WAP browser. Conventional wisdom and the competition were telling AT&T that people wanted advanced features and technology. But consumers seem to be more than content to spend a little more money on a mid-level phone that doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. Sometimes just providing the basics in an attractive package is what gets the most attention.

This story also helps point out a fallacy about the elusive “killer app” in wireless. Just about every company, journalist, or industry follower that tries to pin down the answer to decreasing ARPUs has picked out an advanced, feature rich application as the one that a vast majority of consumers would want. In all reality, true killer apps must by nature be simple and straightforward to be adopted by the most users. The most widely adopted wireless practices must be simple enough for even the wireless neophytes who are still trying to figure out how to use all their phone’s features.

So while companies strive to develop what they think a mobile user will want tomorrow, consumers are still struggling to understand what they can do today. This lack of focus on today leads to missed opportunities, a frustrated population of mobile users, and an overall disenchantment with the freedoms that mobility brings.

Dave Mock is a freelance writer covering mobile technologies and markets. He's published papers to educate investors in wireless markets that are available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. He also speaks at seminars and provides training to corporate clients. His first hardcover book on investing in wireless will be published with McGraw-Hill in Spring 2002.