Weekly Wrap: Sync or Swim
By Carlo Longino, Fri Oct 22 08:45:00 GMT 2004

A slew of earnings reports this week, and convergence, synchronization and multitasking in the news, and more...


Third-quarter earnings season rolled on this week, with reports from a number of major companies. Motorola's sales and earnings jumped, but its handset sales fell by 900,000 from the second quarter to 23.3 million, meaning Motorola's lead over Samsung for the number-two spot in global handset sales has slipped to 600,000. Investors will be looking for the company to maintain the momentum its handsets have generated since the beginning of the year.

US carriers Sprint PCS and Cingular both gave generally positive reports, adding significant numbers of subscribers, while AT&T Wireless' figures were again lackluster. Both AT&T and Cingular reported lower ARPUs as they lowered prices and offered promotions to retain users. Sprint also gained a significant number of users through from the MVNOs that use its network. The world's biggest carrier, China Mobile, added 9 million or so users in the quarter, growing to over 194 million.

Convergence has been in the news quite a bit lately, spurred on by all the talk that mobile phones are going to kill off the iPod and other mp3 players. But separate from device convergence is the convergence of business models -- how do companies deal with a changing hardware landscape? Now, the battle over who owns the customer looks to be expanding beyond just the handset vendors and operators as more functionality gets added to mobile devices.

One area that's still ripe for development is synchronization. Syncing up a PC and a handset can still cause major problems, but sync can be a problem even for users without computers, for instance when someone buys a new handset and wants to move over contacts. Some carriers are beginning to offer subscription-charged backup programs that copy a device's information to a server, allowing the user to resync in case of data or handset loss, and one company has launched the "MegaSIM" -- a standard GSM SIM card with 256 megabytes of memory, enough for plenty of contacts and messages.

Multitasking is a old hat, but when it requires a mobile device to use multiple flavors of radio, things get a bit more complex. While software-defined radio is supposed to solve many compatibility problems by letting a device's radio chip adapt to many different types of networks, the idea that a user might want to use multiple connections at one time -- say listening to FM radio on a Bluetooth headset while checking e-mail over Wi-Fi -- is one that that will add even more doubt about the viability of SDR.

Research in Motion said this week that it wants to grow its business outside North America, where it has the vast majority of its users. The company's CFO told an investor meeting that Europe and Asia will see major growth for the company over the next couple years, with RIM likely to launch BlackBerry devices and service in India very soon.

Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo wants to increase the number of business users on its FOMA network, which currently only accounts for 5 percent of its subscribers. DoCoMo will launch new business-focused handsets from Motorola and Nokia, but since the operator already offers flat-rate data plans to its general users, ekeing out additional revenue from business users might prove difficult.

Many European carriers are taking the opposite approach with their 3G launches -- selling to business customers before the mass market. Several of the early carriers to launch locked their users into long-term contracts in order to justify the high subsidies they shelled out for expensive handsets, but one analyst says the time is right in the market for carriers to compete for customer loyalty instead of forcing it through contracts.

One Austrian town has declared itself the world's first "mobile city" after setting up four simple mobile applications, though none of them are particularly groundbreaking. It is interesting a local government is getting behind these things, but it's hard to tell if they're really interested in extending the benefits of mobility to their residents and users, or if they were just looking for something that made a snazzy press release.

News of some new technology that could help solve the growing power problems of mobile devices emerged this week: miniature silicon versions of jet-engine turbines, small enough to fit inside a handset. Researchers have got all the components working, and are now trying to manufacture the turbine systems from a single stack of silicon wafers. The turbines do have a few drawbacks, though, the least of which are that it runs on diesel, and also expels a stream of hot exhaust gas. So don't hold your breath waiting to see it in a handset just yet.

Elsewhere on the site this week, we took a look at how the mobile industry is addressing the youth market -- Mark Frauenfelder talks about reasearch into mobile-phone design for teens, Douglas Rushkoff says mobile marketers can can have their Ovaltine and drink it too, and David Pescovitz gives a listen to the new social sound of mobile music.