Download Your Phone
By Jeff Goldman, Thu Jul 10 00:00:00 GMT 2003
New technology could let you download a software patch to change your phone from TDMA to GSM, upgrade to 2.5G, or even to turn it into an MP3 player. So what's holding it back?
It's an all too common dilemma. You've
been eyeing that new phone for a while now, but you just heard that
another one, with a digital camera, is about to be released - and
you're not sure if it'll run on your network anyway. Then, as
soon as you resolve your questions about that model, yet another appears
on the horizon, and you're faced with the same decision all over
With networks constantly being upgraded worldwide, the
number of standards in use will only increase in the years to come - and
as mobile device continue to do more and more things, each new phone
will only become obsolete all the faster.
Still, there may be an
alternative to replacing your phone every month or two.
concept is called software radio. Joseph Mitola III, now a consulting
scientist with the MITRE Corporation, coined the term
in 1991 to describe wireless devices that perform signal processing
using software instead of hardware. Think of it as running a phone like
a PC - on software that can be easily changed, rather than on dedicated
A number of companies are now exploring commercial
applications for software defined radio (SDR) technology. By looking at
mobile phones the way we're used to looking at PCs, these companies
are opening up enormous possibilities for wireless
The Power toChange
Vanu Bose, CEO of the SDR company Vanu,
Inc., explains that it isn't yet possible to give mobile
devices the flexibility of software radios - simply because of battery
life. "Power issues are the real limitation today," Bose
said. "To do everything in software takes more power than to do it
in an ASIC, which is the way cell phones are built
Bose says it should be about three to five years
before a truly competitive SDR handset is available on the market. In
the meantime, his company is looking at such goals as emergency
services, military uses, and mobile phone base stations-applications
that don't need to be able to run on a battery for days at a time.
"They're less power-sensitive, and they're good targets
today," he said.
In a police car or an ambulance, devices
can be run from the vehicle's power supply - and Bose says
emergency services are an ideal market. "They have a terrible
interoperability problem, which is always highlighted at a disaster when
20 or 30 agencies show up and none of them can talk to each other,"
he said. "Software radios can help solve their problem by creating
virtual patches between any two systems."
The U.S. Army has
been exploring SDR technology for well over a decade, currently with the
Joint Tactical Radio System
project. In Grenada in 1983, Marines and Army Rangers, using
different radio frequencies, had to resort to calling the United States
on pay phones in order to relay messages to each other: ever since then,
flexible wireless communication has been a significant
And Bose points out that SDR technology is an ideal
solution for mobile phone base stations, particularly as carriers
migrate from one standard to another. "If you get a TDMA call, you
start up a software process that handles a TDMA call; if you get a GSM
call, you start up a software process for a GSM call," he said.
"You don't have to waste resources, and you can fill up your
Still, John Watson, Vice President of
Marketing at the SDR company QuickSilver Technology, says the
real challenge lies with mobile phones. "In the base station
market, you can just cram enough silicon on there to get something that
looks like it's software-defined," he said. "The issue
is to try to put that in a handset."
The advantages of building a
software-based phone, Watson points out, are all but limitless. "I
could sell a phone to somebody as a TDMA phone, but if they go roaming
anywhere, I could change it instantly to a CDMA phone, a GSM phone, or
who cares," he said. "More radically, forget the phone: I can
turn it into an MP3 player."
As a result, devices built
with SDR technology could stay at the leading edge of consumer demand
even after services are introduced that weren't anticipated when
the devices were built. "It literally means that you can build a
cell phone, and you don't have to know what it's going to need
when you build it, because you can define it later by just downloading
software," Watson said.
Bose points out that the most
obvious advantage of SDR technology lies in the ability to switch
seamlessly between standards, either as an upgrade or for travel,
without having to replace hardware. "You could upgrade easily,
say, from CDMA to 1xRTT-or you could have a CDMA phone that you could
also use as a GSM phone when you're in Europe," he
Similarly, such flexibility could greatly increase the
number of different networks you can connect to on a daily basis.
"Imagine that you're in the office and you connect to your
LAN, you connect to a cellular data network while you're driving
home, and at home to your local cordless phone system," Bose
Watson says the ability to add new functionality to a
phone is another great asset, particularly in terms of potential profit.
"Let's say you had a handset, you sold it to a customer, and
you could then change their handset into an MP3 player," he said.
"You do that by downloading software, which costs you nothing, but
what if you charged 20 bucks to do it? That's 20 dollars of pure
profit you never had before."
Think ringtone downloads are
popular? Imagine being able to download the latest gadget from your
carrier's web site as soon as it's introduced, at a tiny
fraction of the cost of new hardware-and an MP3 player is just the
beginning. "There's a thousand things you could turn a
handset into, all with high profit margins," Watson said.
Finally, Mark Cummings, CEO of the SDR company enVia, points out that a reduction
in risk for the manufacturer may be the technology's greatest
strength. "When there's a code problem in a handset device,
there's no way to download new code to it-so they have to recall
all the devices," he said. "Something that's more
flexible could be very valuable in that
Still, will manufacturers be willing to
consider something that could greatly decrease the replacement market?
Cummings contends that they will-and he points to a strong precedent.
"We have upgrade paths with PCs, with operating systems and
applications-but there's still a healthy replacement market,"
he said. "People buy new devices for lots of reasons, and they
Bose admits that many carriers have trouble
seeing the benefit at first. "Service providers are worried that a
software phone would enable churn," he said. "What's to
keep me from buying my phone subsidized from Sprint, then downloading
AT&T's software to run the phone? But the truth is that
providers control the phone, and they can control the software than runs
Once carriers understand that they're in
control, Cummings says, they'll realize that the benefits greatly
outweigh the risks. "Carriers want to have carrier-loyal
phones," he said. "They would like to have a phone that could
always stay on their network, instead of having to roam on a
competitor's network when you go from city to suburb, just because
they don't have the same air interface standard," he
Similarly, he says, device manufacturers have a lot to
gain from such simple flexibility. "Manufacturers would like to be
able to hang a device on a hook in any retail outlet anywhere in the
world," Cummings said. "Imagine a flexible device that you
could just turn on, see what services were available in your area, and
sign up with a carrier. Manufacturers could sell a lot more
Ultimately, Cummings says, it's all about
looking at a phone the same way you look at your desktop computer.
"There's a big advantage to being able to follow something a
lot closer to the PC model, to have a standard hardware platform to
which you can just add different software," he said.
"Everybody in the value chain can benefit from this."
Goldman is a freelance writer covering a wide range of
topics for a number of online journals. He currently writes regular
articles for Internet.com's ISP-Planet. Brought up in Belgium,
Jeff spent the last decade in New York, Chicago and London; he now lives
in Los Angeles.