3GSM gets IT together

Convergence isn't just a marketing term in a PowerPoint presentation any more. It's changing the industry, and nobody can afford to be left behind

The big news from 3GSM isn't mobile TV, HSDPA, new handsets, content deals or alliances. It's good old-fashioned convergence. Not the "you'll be able to send voice over the Internet" style convergence which has darkened fifty percent of all networking company press releases for the past ten years, but the real thing. Technologies that merely touched at the edges before are coming together like raindrops on glass and the true benefits of convergence are starting to appear. Not only does it cut costs and add simplicity, but it kick-starts entirely new ways to use technology — the most important driver in the industry.

Take Bluetooth. After a long and very uncertain start in life, marked mostly by high costs, incompatibilities and complexities, the standard has become a desirable tick-box item on mobile handsets primarily for headset use. Companies like CSR (Cambridge Silicon Radio, as was) have developed low-cost, high-performance, successful single-chip Bluetooth devices that have helped this process.

Now, however, CSR is moving Bluetooth ever closer to old enemy Wi-Fi. It used to be difficult to use both in the same device at once; they share the same frequency band and tend to jam each other. By a string of modifications to the way both systems work — without violating the standards — CSR has got the two co-operating to the point that the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi chips can sit side-by-side on the same circuit board while sharing the same antenna. The result will be mobile phones and PDAs that can move seamlessly between hotspots and cellular systems while working at full speed with Bluetooth headsets and data links — and that cost less to develop and build.

CSR will soon merge both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi onto a single very low power chip, at which point the number of handsets with both features will blossom. That will create a real market for smart VoIP systems for mobile handsets. Likewise, CSR will, as competitor Broadcom already has, merge Bluetooth with an FM radio receiver on the same chip. That's primarily because most phones with one feature also has the other, so converging them has obvious design and cost benefits — but when you add FM's radio data capabilities with systems like RDS you've created another channel to move information from a service provider to the consumer. That too will use IP, and that's no coincidence.

IMS — the IP Multimedia Subsystem — is the biggest engine of convergence going, or it will be, when the current revision is finished. It's the basis for the cross-network messaging initiative announced on Monday by the GSM Association...

...and does pretty much what you'd expect. It provides an IP-based system that can move any content between any terminals connected to the network: the trick is to make all the mobile and fixed systems part of that network. Technically, that's hard. Politically, it's harder

IMS brings with it all the bogeymen that have frightened established operators for the past ten years. It knows about open standards; it does VoIP; it breaks down all the walls between systems. It converges everything, aggressively. But it also delivers a market of a billion users today, two billion soon, six billion in the end, and it's the only idea that can.

IM itself, that simple little user-to-user application that everyone uses and nobody pays for, is going to be the first manifestation of this new world. It's been painful for the operators to make that step, because they know that they have to charge a lot less for an IM message than they do for SMS and that this will cannibalise the SMS revenues. That's OK, though: bit for bit, SMS is one of the most ludicrously overpriced data transmission services in the known universe. It couldn't continue.

But with IM comes more convergence. You're chatting to a friend, and want to send a picture you've taken. With MMS, that's an impossibly long and complicated task: with IMS, it's a single click. Similarly, push-to-talk just doesn't work unless you've got a way of managing your contacts and knowing when they're available: IM does this, and push to talk becomes just another single click. The operators have looked at what IM has already done on the desktop and seen not a freeloading leech on their voice revenues, but an engine of revenue that lets them create new services as fast as they can think them up.

It barely needs saying that convergence, like the Big Bang in reverse, leads to just one conclusion. Those Bluetooth chips with FM or Wi-Fi are using IP as their content carrier. Mobile TV phones, whatever their acronyms, use IP as their content carrier If you want to string any of these devices together, you can. The only things that can stop you are artificial barriers such as thoughtlessly deployed DRM, proprietary protocols, closed systems and the like, and those will lead their creators to less, not more, chances to make money.

Fourteen of the world's top mobile phone operators and every last handset maker has said that convergence on open standards is the future: those who wish to stand aside are demonstrating bravery that could be mistaken for foolishness. Everything that rises must converge: everything else is just left behind.