Wi-Fi popular now in smartphones, set to boom

Users of phones with Wi-Fi say they like their device twice as much as those without it

LAS VEGAS -- Wi-Fi, already heavily used in mobile devices such as the iPhone according to new research, is coming to a smartphone or cell phone near you.

"Wi-Fi is like chocolate," Edgar Figueroa, executive director of the Wi-Fi Alliance, told Computerworld before the start of International CTIA Wireless here. "Three-fourths of the people who have Wi-Fi on their phone use it, and half of the iPhone traffic is going through Wi-Fi, according to ABI."

ABI Research, which conducted the study, said that all the major smartphone makers were planning to include Wi-Fi in their phones, with many carriers supporting the standard because it was able to handle large files for movies and songs.

While 44% of smartphones currently have Wi-Fi, that number will increase to 90% by 2014, ABI said. Separately, ABI predicted that the number of Wi-Fi-enabled traditional mobile phones shipped would reach 141 million in 2009, and soar to 520 million by 2014.

"The surprising thing in the survey is that Wi-Fi ends up being a growth driver for the smartphone," Figueroa said, noting that users of phones with Wi-Fi say they like their phone twice as much as those who have phones without Wi-Fi.

Figueroa said carriers tend to agree that Wi-Fi is complementary to other networks, including 3G and 4G cellular. In all, about 600 million devices that incorporate Wi-Fi have shipped globally, he said.

He said the Wi-Fi Alliance has talked to 12 major carriers globally that have included Wi-Fi in their plans alongside other networks. AT&T and T-Mobile in the U.S. have recognized its value as well, he noted, with AT&T allowing its subscribers to use free Wi-Fi hot spots inside of Starbucks, while T-Mobile has set up its service to help users find Wi-Fi to make free calls.

Launched today, Skype for iPhone allows iPhone owners to use the popular VoIP service, but only over Wi-Fi, protecting AT&T's revenue for calls made over its cellular network.

Because Wi-Fi is not proprietary and is based on IP, it is easy to use, which has aided adoption, Figueroa said. Its theoretical throughput is 500Mbit/sec., although many users are gratified to get over 100Mbit/sec.

Among a number of technology advancements with Wi-Fi is something called "device to device," which would allow a Wi-Fi-enabled device to connect directly to another device without the need for a router in the middle of the network pathway, Figueroa said.

For example, a user could send a picture from a Wi-Fi-ready handset to a TV display or projector with no router, or from a laptop to a local printer. Members of the alliance are targeting the unveiling of that technology next year, perhaps under a different name, he said.

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