Innovations: the top dozen

E&T picks the most successful innovations in wireless technology.

Innovations: the top dozen

Best of the last decade

iPhone

If there were to be an award issued today for the most innovative wireless product, the iPhone would probably win hands-down. Its novel touch-based screen, clever user interface and sleek design have marked it out as revolutionary. No less innovative is the business model that Apple has adopted, with a share of the airtime revenue being paid to Apple in return for exclusivity on a single network in each country. And yet many would say that the iPhone is far from an innovation. From a wireless point of view it is well behind the advanced phones from manufacturers like Nokia, lacking 3G support. Other aspects of its capabilities such as memory, short-range wireless functionality and battery life are no better than average.

Wi-Fi

After the iPhone, Wi-Fi would probably be heralded by many as the biggest innovation in wireless in recent years.Wi-Fi provides an innovative service to allow laptops to wirelessly connect in a wide range of locations and homes to distribute broadband. It is seen as innovative because it is used widely both by professionals and increasingly consumers - devices such as the iTouch include Wi-Fi as standard and because it enables new ways of working and obtaining information. Just like the iPhone, Wi-Fi was based on well-known technology; the innovation arose in developing a low-cost standard that became widely embedded in devices and inexpensive for consumers to acquire. It was also helped by a 'gold rush' to acquire key public hot-spot sites, funded by the telecoms boom of the late 1990s and by Intel who invested substantially and took the risk of embedding Wi-Fi into their laptop chipsets. Key ingredients were a single global standard, access to the same licence-exempt spectrum around the world enabling economies of scale and a willingness by investors and large companies to take a major risk. Interestingly, to date, few of those who took the risks have benefited. None of the hot-spot networks are particularly profitable and competition has kept profitability low for most manufacturers.

BlueTooth

Alongside Wi-Fi, some might mention Bluetooth. There are many parallels - this is another innovative use of short-range wireless, primarily allowing the use of cordless headsets. Many other applications are possible but few have gained momentum to date. Again, the technology was relatively well known; the innovation came from the concept of a short-range standard for low data rate device-to-device connectivity. Just as with Wi-Fi, a global standard and licence-exempt allocation was needed to enable its success. As with Wi-Fi it took the support of some large organisations - in this case Nokia and Ericsson gave it substantial backing, embedding BlueTooth in handsets long before there was a market need for it.

BlackBerry

Fewer might mention it, but in terms of value and revenue the BlackBerry probably exceeds both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Perhaps the BlackBerry is not seen as innovative because there is not really any sleek new technology. The devices are becoming more stylish but are still far from fashion accessories. Indeed, there is not much that is new technologically. The BlackBerry made use of existing wireless communication networks, much assisted by the arrival of packet transmission (GPRS). Its innovation was in its ease of use, primarily achieved through the integration of a server into the corporate IT system. Unlike other efforts to achieve wireless email the BlackBerry worked simply and effectively both for the corporate IT teams and for the end users. Broadly, the innovation became possible because of the ubiquity and packet data capabilities of cellular networks, but it was the vision of maker RIM that caused it to happen.

Wireless Internet

More generally, the delivery of wireless Internet has occurred due to the improvement in cellular networks and the increasing ability of browsers in handheld devices to make sense of complex webpages. The value of this concept was clear to many but launched too soon as 'WAP'. Without the browsers, wireless channels and understanding of reformatting Web pages it soon became clear that "WAP is crap" and the innovation failed. It was quietly relaunched later when the building blocks were in place, and is used increasingly.

GPS

Another innovation that has helped many, but which is often forgotten in the wireless camp, is the provision of GPS location information. This has led to many innovations, perhaps the most widespread of which is satellite navigation systems. For this, we have the US military to thank, although the deployment also needed a global spectrum allocation. GPS applications are still emerging including location-based applications on devices such as cellphones as GPS chipsets become lower cost and have lower power consumption. As the difficulties in launching the European version of GPS have shown, this is not a service that it is easy to make a commercial case for. Without military need and a generous willingness to make the system available for commercial use it is hard to envisage location-based systems having been one of the innovations of the last decade.

Digital TV

Finally worth a mention is Digital TV. This was perhaps one of the few technically-led innovations. By employing digital compression and advanced modulation many more channels could be broadcast in the same spectrum and a degree of interactivity provided. This was also aided by falling silicon costs making the digital circuitry needed less expensive. Appropriate Government intervention and spectrum policy was then needed to assist the transition from analogue to digital which is still taking place now in the UK. Interestingly, digital TV did not get off to a promising start in the UK, with the ITV-based payview system failing commercially. It was only after its rescue by the BBC and others and relaunch as FreeView that it took off - funded as much by the licence fee as commercial revenue. And just to show that digitising an analogue service is not a guaranteed success, we are seeing concerns raised over the future of digital radio, or DAB, as some broadcasters withdraw from the platform. 

Video telephony

The first of our possible innovations for the next decade might be video telephony. This would be an innovation (or a service whose time has finally come) built on top of 3G networks. It is one of the applications envisaged for 3G when it was designed. Its adoption would occur due to an ever increasing penetration of devices able to deliver video telephony such as more phones with camera in them. The global standards and the technology is in place, what is needed is a BlackBerry-style promotion from a few selected players (perhaps Apple?) and low-cost tariffs from cellular or Wi-Fi operators that persuades consumers to give video telephony a go.

Mobile TV

Somewhat similar to video telephony is mobile TV. This too is a service that has been possible for some time - video clips have been delivered over 3G networks for over five years and BT launched a mobile TV service called Movio which was eventually shut down due to lack of subscribers. Mobile TV has two major problems. The first is a fragmented world of competing standards and a lack of harmonised spectrum around the world. This is preventing economies of scale and delaying investment by operators and manufacturers who are awaiting the "winner". The second is a lack of clarity in the business model. Will subscribers pay for the service? Can it be advertiser funded? How many channels are needed? Should they be the same as terrestrial channels or bespoke, for mobile devices? Will users prefer to download video podcasts rather than watch live broadcast? Expect the standards battles to play out and spectrum allocation to become clearer as spectrum is liberated by digital switchover. Then we might see a range of commercial offering tested in the market.

Mobile payments

A service that has recently been revived is mobile payments. This is the use of the mobile device to make small scale payments such as underground tickets or newspapers. As is so often the case, the technology is readily available - systems such as near-field communications using licence-exempt spectrum are already used for contactless cards such as the Oyster system used in London transport. The problem is the classic chicken-and-egg - it requires a large number of retailers to deploy terminals in their shops, which they are disinclined to do until there are handsets able to access them, but users are not interested in buying features in handsets which they cannot immediately use. This has many similarities to Bluetooth, which is also useless if there are no other devices to talk to, and the solutions will be the same - device manufacturers embedding the technology despite there being no immediate user demand and then eventually retail outlets recognising that there are handsets available that can access the service. It appears that Nokia, among others, is prepared to do this and so we might expect to see mobile payments emerge over the next few years.

Convergence

Convergence, or the use of a single wireless device for all environments, is another of those ideas that has been around for at least a decade. The concept is to use the same device in the home, office and outdoors. The device would work over existing wireless networks such as cellular and Wi-Fi. As with mobile TV, BT has also tried this one - twice, in fact. It launched a GSM-DECT solution in the mid 1990s aimed at businesses that failed for a variety of reasons including lack of handset choice. More recently it launched Fusion, a service for the home, based around GSM-BlueTooth and then adapted to GSM-Wi-Fi. This also appears to have failed and has been withdrawn. The problem here is not in the technology but the business model. Generally, one operator benefits from calls made outside of the home (the cellular operator), another for calls in the home (the fixed line provider) and often a third for calls in the office. So no one entity has a strong incentive to provide the perfect offering. Homes have different requirements for phones than individuals (for example most people want their home number always available in case they need to be contacted for a family emergency but not their mobile) as do businesses. With many phones now including cellular and Wi-Fi standards the handset problems are largely solved but the commercial issues remain.

Home automation

An application that dates back to the 1960s - if not earlier - is home automation with wireless control. This is the ability to control applications like heating and security systems within the home using a mobile device. Broadly, these have failed in the past because the consumer has not seen enough value in them but with Wi-Fi networks increasingly deployed in homes and Wi-Fi chipsets becoming cheaper, the cost of wireless enabling applications is falling. Already, Wi-Fi central heating controllers, security camera and even digital pianos are widely available. With global standards in place this seems an area ripe for innovation.

More innovation

Honourable mentions must go to widespread sensor networks, wireless recharging of devices and widespread RFID tagging.

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