The top mobile and wireless trends that will emerge in 2007 wouldn't be possible without the two biggest stories of 2006: the advent of the cheap smart phone, and Sprint Nextel's bodacious announcement that it is building a nationwide mobile WiMax network. So before looking ahead, let's take a brief look behind.
Toward the end of 2006, a glut of competent smart phones costing US$200 or less hit the market, which is two to three times less expensive than similar phones had been previously. These phones include the BlackBerry Pearl, Samsung's BlackJack, Nokia's E62 and the Treo 680. This trend will lead to far broader adoption not just of smart phones but also of many applications.
"I have a friend who drives a backhoe -- he's a construction worker -- and he got himself a BlackBerry Pearl," said Derek Kerton, principal of telecommunications consulting firm The Kerton Group. "If I get an SMS message from a friend, chances are it's from him." And that level of communication will increase even more, Kerton predicted, when his friend sets up the device for sending and receiving e-mail.
The other top mobile and wireless story for 2006 was Sprint's announcement that it would build a $3 billion nationwide mobile WiMax network, which it expects to start rolling out by the end of 2007. Sprint will use an enormous chunk of wireless spectrum it inherited when it merged with Nextel in 2005. No other U.S. mobile operator comes close to having that amount of spectrum available, making it highly unlikely that any of Sprint's competitors could launch a competing network.
"The Sprint announcement is the coolest and wildest and most risky gambit we've seen in the wireless industry in quite some time," Kerton said. "They said,'We have an asset that nobody else has, and if we're successful, we'll have a sustainable advantage that nobody can match for years to come. And if we're wrong, we just bet the farm.' "
Skeptics claim that Sprint's network will fail because it is expensive and redundant with Sprint's existing cellular 3G EV-DO network. Sprint says it's certain that the gamble will pay off, as its network provides fast, cheap nationwide mobile access for laptop computers and a plethora -- it hopes -- of other mobile consumer devices, leaving its EV-DO network for delivering media and other content to cell phones.
These two top stories of 2006 lead us to my predictions of the seven top mobile and wireless trends for 2007. Some of these trends will fully flower in 2007, while in other cases we'll just see the start of a big trend that will develop more fully in years to come.
1. More mobile access, more competition
If Sprint sticks with its schedule, we'll get a taste of mobile WiMax by the end of 2007. Besides being mobile and nationwide, the network Sprint is promising will be fast and cheap -- at least compared with 3G mobile data service.
But that isn't the only new type of access we'll see in 2007. In the next year, we'll see the launch of a number of major citywide Wi-Fi networks. Philadelphia is, perhaps, building the most discussed of these networks, but about 300 municipalities are reportedly either building or planning to build these sometimes controversial networks.
The bottom line is that these two emerging types of networks will lead to increased mobility, more demand for mobile services and applications and, perhaps best of all, more competition for your mobile access dollar.
If you want mobile data access, you'll no longer be limited to using the services of a cellular operator or hunting for a Wi-Fi hot spot. Providers such as EarthLink and MetroFi will be installing and running the municipal networks, which will make them, at some level, competitors to the cellular operators and even to incumbent telecom operators that provide DSL. That type of increased competition can only be good for both enterprise users and consumers.
2. The era of 'the big bundle'
This increasingly available mobile access also will lead to the beginning of another trend that could be called the "big bundle." Sprint, which has been partnering with several large cable operators, has indicated that it plans to offer all-in-one bill bundles of mobile and landline voice and data services as well as media and other entertainment. The incumbent telecom operators are likely to follow. Companies such as EarthLink Inc., which will be installing metro Wi-Fi in a number of cities, could easily create partnerships to create similar bundles.
In the short term, this will mean more competition and lower prices as regional incumbent carriers such as AT&T Inc. will compete directly with other large providers such as Sprint and its cable partners, a competition that doesn't exist now.
"Right now, there are mostly monopolies for these services," Kerton said. "This will lead to duopolies, which are somewhat better."
However, this trend also will make it difficult for so-called competitive telecommunications companies to stay in business. These are the small telecom operators that are available in many areas but don't have the wherewithal to offer such bundles. So, in the long run, this trend threatens to decrease competition.
Again, we'll see the beginnings of this trend in 2007, but it won't become a major factor until a year or two after that.
3. The democratization of mobile e-mail
Cheaper devices and more mobile access options will mean that more people will use more mobile applications. The most popular of these applications is likely to be mobile e-mail. Previously, only early adopters and higher-level executives had mobile e-mail devices like the BlackBerry. But with e-mail-capable smart phones now available for the masses, the masses will start using mobile e-mail.
"BlackBerries used to cost $500 or $600, which made them available mostly to people in the boardroom or high-level employees, where that expense could be justified," Kerton said. "Now, as IT managers are more familiar with mobile e-mail, that brings down the IT challenge. If you add cheaper devices, you have a significant drop in the total cost of ownership. So we're looking at any employee who spends time away from their desk having e-mail access."
Some of that e-mail access will come via enterprise-class server-based applications such as Microsoft Exchange. But Kerton also predicts the rise of services from vendors such as Visto Corp. and Seven Networks Inc. that are being offered by cellular operators to provide easy, no-configuration access to e-mail for nontechnical users.
4. Search and discovery
Advanced mapping applications tied to the ability to track people carrying cell phones will start to catch on in 2007. These technologies build on the inherent ability for cellular operators to know where subscriber phones are.
As a result, we'll see more "child finder" and "buddy finder" applications. This class of applications enable parents to see where their cell-phone-toting children are, for instance.
"It's the parental thing -- 'Where are my kids?' " Kerton said. "Look them up on a map." This capability was first offered in the U.S. by The Walt Disney Co., which runs its own cellular service, but other providers are starting to copy it. The service could just as easily find friends and colleagues on a "buddy list."
Similarly, GPS that's built into cell phones will become increasingly popular, said Scott Smith, a futurist for Washington consulting firm Social Technologies.
"The U.S. has been behind in terms of familiarity with things like GPS in cars," Smith said. "But we're getting to the point where you can walk into a Target store and buy dashboard GPS devices for less money than before. And we'll see it increasingly in mobile phones."
5. Mobility gets social
The social-community-based approach of Web 2.0 will increasingly become part of the mobile landscape in 2007.
"This is the glue that could tie a lot of [applications] together," Smith said. "It could be as simple as mobile MySpace or sharing media with friends. Or it could be mobile blogging."
While these sites are already popular with desktop users, it's taking longer for them to become as big for mobile users, said Ken Dulaney, a Gartner Inc. vice president for mobile computing. Certainly, more powerful mobile devices with larger screens, such as the new generation of inexpensive smart phones, will speed adoption of these newly mobilized applications because such devices make it easier to access such sites.
Ultimately, mobile communities can be connected with location-based services, the experts agreed. In other words, you'll not only be able to access a person's MySpace entry, but you'll also be able to find out where they are -- if they want to be found.
6. Convergence: One phone, many places
Convergence refers to an old but still largely unrealized dream of using a single phone -- and having a single phone number -- for both mobile and home-based calling. Sure, some people have switched to a mobile-only scenario, but true convergence means you can use the same phone for both landline calls and mobile calls. The phone will automatically detect the most advantageous network in terms of cost or signal strength and route voice calls and data over that network.
"If you have the right device," Smith said, "you won't have to figure out where to use a particular technology." Converged devices would include both cellular and voice over IP using Wi-Fi networks. Built-in software would seamlessly transfer between the two types of networks.
Some European operators have started offering such service, but in the U.S. it has been limited to a test launched recently by T-Mobile. That test is currently being conducted primarily in the Seattle area, but the company has said it expects to offer the service broadly in the next year.
"We'll see an acceleration of convergence in 2007, but it'll still be a bit rough around the edges," Smith said. "Initially, it'll be for the early-adopter audience, but people will clamor for it when they see what it can do."
7. Media, media, media
More and cheaper mobile access and better and cheaper devices will lead to more use of mobile media.
"Development of media applications is accelerating," Smith said. "Look at the success of Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones. Apple already is facing competition for its iPod, and it may release iPhone. Microsoft will be developing the market for Zune. All those things will accelerate mobile media in a more consolidated fashion than has been the case before."
In particular, Smith said he expects an upsurge in so-called place-shifted television, which uses products from vendors like Sling Media to transmit television from home to mobile devices. This has already started but will accelerate in 2007, Smith said.
Ultimately, though, this will lead to somewhat larger mobile devices that are more appropriate for watching video, he added.
"We'll see an evolutionary split where one branch will get smaller -- kind of like phones as jewelry," Smith said. "But for media and other applications, like mapping, you need a larger screen."
One type of media that won't succeed is mobile television, despite the fact that cellular operators have been touting it vigorously.
"There's a lot of noise out there, but things aren't very far along in terms of broadcast to mobile devices," Smith said.
Gartner's Dulaney was even more dubious.
"We'll see a lot more experiments with mobile television," Dulaney predicts. "Personally, I think it's a joke. I've watched TV on a phone. It's OK, but you can't see much, and if you have to pay, well ..."
This story, "The seven top mobile and wireless trends for '07" was originally published by Computerworld.