3G: We're off to see the future! Pt II

What will be the dominant standard? The jury's still out

An interesting insight into what will become possible in Q1 2001 was offered by Ericsson when it announced its R520 handset in June. Ironically the main reason the R520 isn't commercially available yet is that this handset will also offer Bluetooth compatibility. Bluetooth is a radio frequency (RF) successor to infra-red and will be used mainly as a serial cable replacement technology. So a Bluetooth handset will talk to a portable PC via Bluetooth, dispensing with the need for cables.

Sadly the Bluetooth specs are still being finalised so nobody has released products yet as they fear potential incompatibilities. The R520 WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phone will support both GPRS and HSCSD. Why both? Ericsson argues that while GPRS is great for downloading your emails as a background task -- when you need to perform fast file transfers, HSCSD is best.

A future improvement to GPRS is, of course, Edge which was initially trumpeted as being three times faster than GPRS -- giving a theoretical top speed of 384 Kbit/s. But GPRS only manages 50 Kbit/s, so realistically Edge will probably be closer to 150 Kbit/s. More significantly, perhaps, is the fact that Edge will work with American style TDMA networks as well as with GSM.

That leaves us with the dark horse... i-mode, the darling of Japan's dominant cellular network operator, NTT DoCoMo. Crucially, i-mode provides an 'always-on' connection which operates at 9.6 Kbit/s. This has given DoCoMo a headstart in developing IP based mobile applications to compete against GPRS.

With over ten million users in Japan alone, i-mode is a tremendous success. It competes against WAP too, because i-mode uses a compact version of HTML (cHTML) whereas WAP uses a separate markup language in the form of WML (Wireless Markup Language).

Although WAP is routinely criticised, it is destined to become a de facto standard, simply because so many people use it. Most analysts predict that somewhere between 2003 and 2005 there will be more Internet enabled mobile phones globally than Internet enabled PCs. Nevertheless there are numerous suggestions that DoCoMo will bring i-mode to Europe (through Dutch operator, KPN) and North America (through SBC). In Britain, Logica has given the technology support by developing an i-mode server application.

Naturally there's fierce competition when it comes to designing 3G devices, which split neatly into two categories: smartphones and PDAs. A smartphone is typified by the Nokia 9110 Communicator which is a clamshell handset that combines mobile phone and pocket computer. The alternative is best demonstrated by the Palm VII which has a built-in wireless data capability (currently US only).

The battle lies in the operating systems that run these devices. Symbian is pushing its Epoc operating system and believes it will grab around 80 percent of the market. Chief rivals are the Palm operating system and Microsoft's Pocket PC. The dark horse this time is Linux -- especially now that IBM has demonstrated it running in a watch!

On the browser side, the fight will be between WAP and Microsoft's (operating system independent) Mobile Internet Explorer. Like Sony's CMD-Z5, most 3G devices will probably run both. Nobody can currently predict exactly what 3G devices will look like.

In terms of size, Samsung, for example, has shown that a cellular handset can be built into a [CDMAOne] watch. Others, such as Orange, firmly believe that video handsets will become de rigueur.

More likely the popular 3G devices will be a compromise with data enthusiasts owning both a 3G handset and an advanced PDA/portable PC, using Bluetooth to share and synchronise the data between handset, portable PC and desktop Internet terminal.

Go back to Pt I/ Technical adventures

Find out about competing 3G standards.

What will 3G mean for business?

Who could be the big players of the future in 3G? 3G startups.

What do you think? Tell the Mailroom. And read what others have said.