10 Predictions for Wireless in 2007

Includes: GOOG, NOK
by: Dean Bubley

Here are my top ten wireless predictions for the coming year:

1) Increased focus on manufacturers selling multiple "diverged" devices to users.

Imagine you are the CFO of Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Motorola (MOT) or a similar company. What would you rather sell to your customers: a single, very complex product which risks a long time-to-market and significant integration problems - or two or three lower-priced, simpler devices which, if they're well-designed, should still have decent margins?

2) A lot of noise about VoIP over 3G.

Both "official" carrier-centric versions like VoIP over EV-DO Rev A and "unofficial" versions using handset software clients which exploit flat rate data channels, SIP capability and clever codecs will be in the spotlight. An interesting dynamic may evolve here, as it looks like the CDMA world is far in advance in this area from carrier viewpoints, while even the cleverest startup's handset client in the UMTS world won't get around the limitations of 3G coverage or limited uplink capacity before the rollout of HSUPA.

3) Emergence of corporate-focused MVNOs

OK, I've been expecting this for 3 years, but maybe 2007 is when it really happens . . . I get the sense that "proper" enterprise mobility needs a mix of skill sets possessed by few mobile operators unless they are integrated as part of a major national fixed/mobile player. This includes ability to mix basic mobile voice products with mobile data devices, back-end server and application integration, indoor coverage solutions and, absolutely critically, PBX integration (i.e. NOT just dogmatic and totally unrealistic "replacement" with mobile IP Centrex).

4) Continued uptake of various dual-mode services & handsets, but they won't change the world

I posted last week about UMA/non-UMA developments & my predictions. Overall, it's still very much a niche game - I'm willing to bet there won't be any "iconic" global-mass market consumer handsets emerging that include WiFi. Outside the US, the true sign of maturity of a handset technology is its appearance in prepay-centric phones and service plans.

5) Spectrum lobbying noise, regulation momentum and lawsuits ratchet up several notches.

2.5GHz licenses, "spectrum neutrality," refarming 900MHz GSM for UMTS, more low-power GSM licenses, analog TV switch-offs, mobile TV spectrum auctions, ITU World Radio Conference . . . it's going to be a busy year for the lawyers.

6) IMS confounds both its critics and its evangelists, but needs to improve integration ASAP.

No, it won't disappear completely or implode under its own weight. No, it won't be used for more than a tiny fraction of operator services worldwide by the end of the year. Yes, there are still huge gaps in both standards and solution availability. But a few major mobile operators - particularly those in dirigiste markets that develop/specify their own handset software in detail - will launch proprietary almost-IMS. Others will use "small" - almost trial - IMS adjuncts to offer VoIP and other services to non-core devices like PC's. Fixed use of NGNs will increase substantially, although they generally won't be "full IMS", either.

The key lesson for IMS advocates to learn during 2007 will be integration - come down from your ivory towers & learn how to blend IMS with non-IMS - the real Internet, enterprise networks, SDP's, music & TV platforms and so forth. If the IMS community doesn't wholeheartedly embrace these areas of integration, in both the network and on devices, it will stagnate in 2008 and die in 2009. Isolation and "purity" is doom.

7) Navigation becomes rather more important on mobiles. Mobile search doesn't.

Although it will take some time, I do see handset-based navigation capabilities becoming more prevalent. Phones will start to ship with built-in GPS in small numbers, and unlike WiFi dual-mode or 3G, this will be seen as "cool." Generally, cool stuff in phones is not the service-oriented stuff - think cameras for local storage, MP3 players with memory cards and snazzy externals. I have my doubts about operator-centric location-based services (except E-911 in the U.S., and a handful in Asia), as the exponential curve on memory and processing is much faster than over-the-air transmission. You could get a detailed map of any country in Europe on less than 0.5GB of flash memory, just downloading updates or alerts when necessary. And it might have been my most controversial post this year, but I still expect that most "Mobile Search" companies will be selling their new 2007 collections principally for the Emperor's wardrobe.

8) The City WiFi bubble bursts

I've been amazed this year by the number of local authorities willing to spend yours & my hard-earned taxes on subsidizing WiFi on lamp-posts, or at least permitting other operators' rights-of-way to do it themselves. In my view, it's a completely over-hyped proposition that doesn't merit its "me too!" bandwagon status or breathless "Digital City" marketing. It's only usable for a handful of boring outdoor-only local services like CCTV cameras and connecting traffic wardens' handhelds. The killer: it won't work reliably indoors. It's like 3G but even worse. Next up on the list for over-funded local authorities to burn our money . . . Municipal Fibre.

9) Flat-rate data becomes the norm, with browsing the killer app, driven by high-res screens

I'm still waiting for my trial X-Series phone from 3, but I've been increasingly impressed with browsing experience recently. While cheap data tariffs are one critical driver, another has been largely overlooked - increasing screen resolution. The standard for mid-to-high end phones is now QVGA (320x240 pixels). This will increase, either with Nokia's weird 416x352 (or something like that) or more standardized full VGA (640x480). I'm a firm believer that there is no "Mobile Web," and that most people would much prefer a mobile broadband ISP experience, accessing the one, real, Internet. And of course, that means their favorite web brands & downloadable add-on client software too. The signs are already there at the end of 2006, but 2007 will be the year the mobile industry stops fantasizing about beating Google and Yahoo and Skype, and instead just gets on with optimizing their performance for their customers. Long live the Smart Pipe strategy . . .

10) No, No, No, No, No

OK, this post is already long enough, so I don't have time to detail my reasons for all of these, but I'm sure they'll crop up on the blog in coming months. Mobile IM won't replace SMS (sorry VoIP fans . . . ). Laptops with built-in HSDPA won't sell much (and even where they do, the cellular bit won't be activated by most owners). WiMAX will get a few more major operator advocates, but still won't be seen as a threat to "normal cellular." Mobile TV won't make much headway. Web 2.0 stuff like social networking really won't be a big deal in mobile outside Japan, Korea & maybe the US, unless carriers work out a way to give decent Internet access & capable devices to prepay users.

Oh, and maybe Apple's Phone-i (hey, Linksys got the iPhone brand . . . won't play music at all, but will be "just a phone." See point 1.