Building a Better Handset

by Neale Martin published November 06, 2006 in Telephony Telephony

Mobile wireless broadband networks are enabling a nearly infinite number of applications to work on handsets. Video, music downloads, high-speed Internet access and telemetry services can be delivered almost anywhere. The question, of course, is do customers actually want all of this delivered to the tiny screens on their phones? The answer is far more complicated than yes or no.

As has been pointed out in this column on numerous occasions, markets always develop by segments. There are groups of people currently downloading music, watching TV, even downloading movies to their mobile handsets. Smartphones are being used to download and edit spreadsheets and documents. However, these markets are nascent. Although this market will continue to grow, these applications will not become mainstream until the handsets are revolutionized.

This is a very simple point, but one that seems to elude service providers. The average screen size for a cell phone is less than 2-by-2 inches — good enough to play “Tetris” while waiting for a plane, but inadequate for making sense of a large spreadsheet. Mobile broadband to handsets will fulfill only a narrow set of needs such as killing time and checking weather.

Unfortunately, the costs for these modest gains are high. Because the form factor of the devices has not changed dramatically, service providers simply cram more stuff into them. The resulting complexity reduces the likelihood that users will be able to find the applications they might actually use habitually. And subscribers have shown scant interest in increasing their communications spending on applications that can add $10 to $70 to their monthly bill.

Though I think the current incarnation of network and devices promise less-than-stellar growth, I believe, ultimately, mobile broadband will usher in a revolutionary transformation of the communications landscape. Think of how Google and Wikipedia have created an expectation that any piece of information, no matter how esoteric, should be immediately accessible. Broadband wireless takes that expectation and puts it on steroids. In the not-too-distant future, we will expect (demand) this access to be ubiquitous.

This is why the handsets must be revolutionized. We want the world delivered to us, but not in a package that makes us squint. A handful of devices provide a vision of what is to come. Sony's PSP and MYLO have great screens and well-thought-out interfaces, but their access is limited to Wi-Fi. Tablet computers have the functionality and great screens, but are too heavy, too hot and not small enough. The ultra-portable PCs are closer to the right form factor, but their interfaces are lacking, and keyboard simulations are non-intuitive.

The device that will ultimately succeed will provide a screen that will present text, graphics and video with equal alacrity. The interface will have to be innovative, including a touch screen and some form of alphanumeric input mechanism that may or may not have a QWERTY foundation. The device will be light and have sufficient battery life to go for a day on one charge. The phone portion will be delivered via a wireless headset.

The underlying network that provides access can be open or proprietary, but the device must work in all major markets and extend to the most remote suburb. The interface must become standard.

And the killer applications will be text. This device will ultimately save local newspapers by delivering local as well as global content along with restaurant reviews and car dealership ads. Being able to click for reservations, more information or to talk with customer representative on a mobile device will become more than an expectation — it will become a requirement.