Weekly Wrap: Scanning Amazon
By Carlo Longino, Fri Nov 26 08:15:00 GMT 2004

Amazon rings up a barcode-scanning service, WiMAX deconstructed, you might not own enough phones, and more...

Amazon.com's Japanese unit launched a barcode-scanning service this week that lets users take a picture of a product's barcode with their cameraphone, then look it up on its site to check the price and place an order. It heads off third-party applications that offer similar functionality, and reinforces the notion that innovation in this space needs to come in terms of the technology, rather than trying to beat retailers like Amazon at what eventually will become their own game.

WiMAX has become overhyped enough that there's been plenty of backlash against it, and this week saw the release of a comprehensive rundown of the standard's shortcomings. But while WiMAX may not be the be-all and end-all of wireless broadband technologies, getting bogged down with its exact capabilities and those of other systems doesn't really help out end users.

Ever since the first brick phones were taken as a sign of affluence and status, mobile phones have been a fashion accessory of sorts. But now, as phone sales begin to slow, manufacturers are keen to stress the role devices play as fashion objects, and try to convince customers they need to own more than one. But consumers are likely to see through the ploy and not buy into it -- but that doesn't mean that they won't buy multiple devices that are specialized for certain tasks.

The Federal Communications Commission this week approved the first software-defined radio product, a base station that's designed to support multiple frequencies and standards. While SDR holds a lot of promise for end-user devices, Vanu, the base station's manufacturer, is initially targeting rural carriers that are looking to expand their revenues by signing roaming agreements with multiple carriers across multiple networks. It's still early days for the technology, but it looks quite promising.

While the FCC was deliberating on SDR, regulators in two other countries were showing very different approaches to handling spectrum: Ofcom in the UK said it take what's essentially a free-market approach to spectrum allocation, while the Finnish government said it might revoke one of the 3G licenses it awarded a few years ago because the company that won it hasn't done enough to build out its network. While it would appear the UK regulators are happy to sell off the spectrum, then let companies figure out how best to use it, Finnish authorities look much more comfortable with dictating the best use to the market.

It was a year ago this week that wireless number portability was launched in the US, and things haven't turned out nearly as badly as carriers had publicly predicted. Less than 5% of the country's total mobile subscribers took advantage of the ruling, and while the carriers' trade body argued long and hard against the change, arguing it would divert resources from solving problems like poor service and network coverage, it appears that the introduction of portability has actually forced carriers to improve the service they're providing to customers, and compete on factors other than price alone.

Elsewhere on the site this week, Douglas Rushkoff explains why hackable phones are a good thing, and David Pescovitz takes a look at the wireless research going on at a large California institution.