The 'next big thing' in mobility

Take your pick: Broadband everywhere, social networking, mobile commerce and more

If there's one thing industry analysts and pundits love to do, it's predict the "next big thing" (NBT). For the past 10 years, such predictions have been particularly common -- and dicey -- in the mobile and wireless world.

"Looking back, I've made my share of mistakes," laughed Neil Strother, a mobile devices market analyst at The NPD Group Inc., a research firm. "It can be humbling."

Market and industry analysis firms are paid to predict the future so their clients, typically technology vendors and investors, can make well-informed business decisions. Pundits predict the future because, well, that's what pundits do. Just before the Internet bubble burst early in the century, the Web was full of NBT predictions from analysts and pundits. In hindsight, it's easy to see how accurate those predictions were.

"Nothing was as big as we thought, and lots of things didn't happen as fast as we thought," said Derek Kerton, principal at Kerton Group, a telecommunications consulting firm.

So what were those predictions, and how accurate were they? And what do industry experts now predict will be NBTs in the mobile and wireless field?

The past is prologue

Looking back, most of the NBTs predicted around the turn of the century either have come true or are still in the process of becoming so. Typically, however, the current reality doesn't resemble what was being touted back then. Here's a rundown of the most visible NBTs from six or seven years ago and what has happened to them.

3G

Fast, third-generation cellular data service, known as 3G, became the NBT in the late '90s. It was touted as superfast and ubiquitous.

"In '98, 3G was going to be here the next year, and it was the same in '99, 2000 and 2001," Kerton said. "But it took a lot longer to come, and now that it's here, it's not DSL plugged into a phone like people predicted back then. It's important and good, but at least in North America, it was five years late and somewhat underdelivered."

In particular, 3G started to spread in the U.S. in 2005 and was widely available in 2006. Now, cellular operators are upgrading to the next generation of 3G, such as HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) and EV-DO (Evolution Data Optimized) Revision A. And Sprint Nextel Corp. says it will build what it is calling 4G, a nationwide mobile WiMax network intended for preliminary launch in two markets later this year. Sprint claims that its new network will provide faster and cheaper access than 3G.

Smart phones

Nokia Corp. introduced a smart phone in the mid-'90s that was affectionately known as "the Brick" because of its large size. Around the turn of the century, smart phones, which can handle voice, data and personal information, were expected to grow in popularity at the same rapid rate as 3G.

"I predicted some healthy growth," Strother said. "But it's been a lot slower than we all predicted, although today they're starting to do OK."

In particular, Strother said that smart phones accounted for about 4.4% of all mobile phone sales in the fourth quarter of 2006. "That isn't much, but it was way, way up from the first of the year," he said.

And with smart phone prices coming down and 3G services becoming widespread, if still expensive, Strother expects smart-phone sales to continue to ramp up quickly.

Location-based services

Location-based services (LBS) refers to providing services via mobile devices that revolve around tracking your location. Around the turn of the century, the most commonly discussed LBS application referred to a variation of mobile e-commerce (m-commerce) in which, say, when you walked past a pizza parlor, your phone would ring, and a discount coupon for a large pepperoni pie would appear on your phone's display.

"It was pretty clunky and never took off," Strother said. "Who wants to be spammed on their phones? But I still think it holds promise, although it won't be [the original vision]."

"Everybody hated the idea, but it kept getting talked about, " Kerton said. "It might be part of LBS some day, but it will be a very small part."

Mobile banking

Mobile banking was touted as a can't-miss mobile application. It missed. And while some say its time is still coming, a lot of skepticism remains.

"The big issue is security," said Jagdish Rebello, director and principal analyst at iSuppli Corp., a market research firm. "Can they guarantee the security of transactions? That won't happen in the next two or three years."

Looking ahead

If the analysts and pundits had been right, all those old NBTs would be commonplace realities now. So what are the new NBTs? In fact, some of them are variations of the old NBTs. Here's what the analysts have to say.

Broadband ubiquity

3G was said to herald ubiquitous access or the ability to log on from anywhere. Well, it wasn't that simple, Rebello noted. True wireless ubiquity has not yet arrived, but it is getting closer.

"It really has to be seamless ubiquity," Rebello said. "Broadband wireless connectivity any place, any time. It's the Holy Grail, combining LANs, WANs, PANs [personal-area networks] and everything else." The "everything else" includes seamlessly converging wireless with wireline technologies, Rebello said.

In this vision, if you are talking on the cellular network, for instance, the phone will seamlessly switch to voice-over-IP on the wireless LAN without your knowledge when you walk into your office. However, two things must happen first, Rebello said.

First, technology such as IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) or Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) must be embedded in devices and networks to enable seamless handoffs between networks. Second, multiple radios, such as those supporting Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, will have to be combined in a way that's small enough to be put into mobile devices. Both of those requirements are starting to happen, Rebello said.

"Users will start to see the first vestiges [of seamless broadband ubiquity] in 2008 or 2009," he said.

Mobile media

Mobile media gets one thumbs-up and one thumbs-down from the analysts. The upward-facing digit is for mobile music. That's because listening to music is a logical thing to do while people are mobile and many already use dedicated mobile music devices, such as iPods. Plus, there's the looming shadow of Apple Computer Inc.'s iPhone, which is scheduled for release in June.

"IPhone looks great, and we'll see a lot more models of music phones," Kerton said.

"Music and phones are a good mix," agreed Strother. "The Sony Ericsson Walkman phones already are selling real well in Europe."

The thumbs-down is for mobile TV, which cellular operators are hailing as an NBT. However, the analysts agreed that, while mobile TV will become common, it won't be a huge success.

"Mobile TV is almost last year's next big thing," Strother said. "This is one of those overhyped things that will fizzle at first because it will be priced too high. But once it's free or cheap, people will use it in spurts, and it eventually will be an interesting part of the mobile phone business. There are a lot of us who would pay for it occasionally."

Location-based services and m-commerce (redux)

It was a bad idea to try to push coupons to mobile phones, but location-based services still have a bright future, Kerton said.

"The value of LBS is that it will be integrated into other applications," he said. "Users don't think, 'Where am I?' first; they think 'movie' first or, 'I'm hungry.' They can search for a pizza place and LBS puts location into the answer."

Strother agreed, saying a variation of the old attempts to push coupons to mobile phones may yet become popular.

"Searching and location and marketing are a match made in heaven," said NPD's Strother. "If you search and you get a coupon for something you are going to buy anyway, that would be very welcome. I don't want to be spammed on my phone, but if you're in purchase mode anyway, who would turn it down?"

But will mobile banking finally succeed? Kerton is dubious.

"Does anybody want it?" he asked. "It just doesn't align itself in a mobile context. With banking, if people can wait, they'll do [banking] on their PC."

Search and discovery

Kerton is bullish about mobile search and discovery capabilities, which will beef up how we use our phones.

"One reason mobile data revenues have tapered off a bit in the last year is that a lot of people don't know what their phone can do and don't want to dig through ridiculous menus," Kerton said. Discovery is a way to search for what you want and have the search results relevant to your personal usage of your phone, he said.

"If you search, say, for Britney Spears, you'd get phone-targeted results like Britney Spears screen savers and ring tones or a 20-second video clip, with standard Google Web results beneath that. If you search for a bank, the top result will be the nearest ATM. It has to be smart for users and reduce clicks."

Custom user interface

A related capability, according to Kerton, is a custom user interface for mobile devices.

"First, you'll identify a certain preference," he said. "If you like Wall Street, you'll get a Wall Street user interface. It could mean a quick stock look-up box in the bottom part of the window or hyperlinks to research. And maybe your wallpaper will be the Nasdaq chart for the day. The point is that the applications and services you want are no longer buried. If you have that, you'll use your phone more, and the carrier will sell more data plans, and they'll have more satisfied customers."

Mobile social networking

Social networking is huge for desktop users, but can it be equally huge for mobile users? Rebello of iSuppli thinks the answer is yes.

"Youth today basically have models like MySpace and YouTube," he said. "The ability to share what you want with a wide audience seems to appeal to the younger generation. It gives them a feeling of identity. So that seems to be a huge possibility for mobile users."

Strother is not so sure.

"It possibly could be big with some younger segments," he said. "My kids are teenagers, and they live on their phones, but I"m skeptical. Can you take MySpace and turn it into a mobile experience in a big way? It's generational, and I wonder if it's a trend or a passing fad."

David Haskin is a contributing editor specializing in mobile and wireless issues.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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