3GSM Preview: On with the show

The world's largest mobile conference is getting bigger. ZDNet UK lifts the lid on the technologies that deserve your attention this year

With around 40,000 attendees expected, this year's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona is set to be the biggest in the show's history. Keynote speakers will include Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer, who will doubtless be pushing his company's strategy of attempting to secure a foothold in just about every area of the tech industry. Other notable heavyweights include Orange chief executive Sanjiv Ahuja, Nokia president Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, T-Mobile chief executive officer Rene Obermann and Peter Erskine, chairman and chief executive of O2.

But although the show may be growing in size and impact, it is difficult to identify one clear theme that will dominate the event. The various hardware makers, software vendors and operators in attendance are under increasing pressure to find the next big innovation that will inject back some of momentum the industry enjoyed at the turn of the millennium. Various technologies and themes are being touted as the next big revenue driver — such as mobile TV, convergence, HSDPA, music downloads — but it is not clear which, if any, will emerge as a "killer app" to rival voice.

According to Chris Lewis, enterprise practice leader for analysts Ovum, the endgame for those assessing the emerging range of technologies from a show such as 3GSM is to focus on how their communications networks can be simplified, while not being put off by the various competing standards and technologies.

"If you're a forward-looking IT manager then you should be looking at a single platform that is IP-based which allows you to carry whatever applications you want at the right quality of service, and with management control, and let's you extend that across multiple sites and even to your partners and clients," he explains.

ZDNet UK will be providing the latest coverage of the major announcements from 3GSM — via the 3GSM Toolkit.

When fixed and mobile converge

The concept of being able to have one handset that roams seamlessly from a mobile network to a fixed line network depending on whether it's being used in or out of an office or home is an attractive one. Although it seems such a natural evolution, the industry and consumers alike have been slow to move towards this one-stop-shop approach. Only recently, with the emergence of products such as BT's Fusion, has the idea begun to achieve mainstream acceptance. Pricing remains a serious hurdle with consumers unsure as to what they should be paying for such flexibility. Further confusion is added — as in the case of BT's Fusion product — when the fixed-line calls are being made over an IP-based broadband network which should be even cheaper than the traditional telephony network. Consumer group Which? claimed that Fusion cost too much, given that its fixed-line calls are made over a broadband connection.

Ovum's Lewis claims that the tensions at work around convergence boil down to the stand-off between the players in each camp. "A lot of this will be based around either retaining the minutes on the mobile network or dragging the minutes back onto the fixed network. If you're an IT manager, then pulling minutes back onto the fixed network through your own PBX will have enormous cost savings."

But according to Lewis, mobile operators aren't going to let the fixed providers have it all their own way and will try to encourage customers to make all their calls over the mobile network. "In order to do...

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...that they are going to have to offer a mobile PBX platform, a mobile VPN , and some decent cost savings to encourage customers to do it," he explains.

More on this issue from across ZDNet UK:
BT offers small firms mobile convergence
BT's Fusion product is now available for small firms but questions remain about its value and performance

Telcos ready to spend on converged networks
As telcos scramble to offer new services to make up for diminishing revenues, converged networks are finally getting some investment

Fixed-mobile convergence 'around the corner'
Users and operators will soon be able to think about applications and services, not access technologies, says Frost and Sullivan

Smartphone + PDA = ?

Quirky new form-factors are another tactic employed by mobile manufacturers to differentiate themselves in an increasingly commoditised market. However where once the Zeitgeist was tuned into smaller and smaller handsets, the reverse now appears to be true, thanks to the rise of the smartphone. Devices that incorporate sophisticated capabilities such as video, email and Internet browsing will comprise 9.3 percent of all mobile phones sold in 2009, compared to 3.7 percent in 2004, according to Jupiter Research. But although it is relatively easy to say that smartphones are going to become increasingly popular, trying to identify what will constitute such a device in three years time isn't quite so clear.

Martin Garner, director of wireless intelligence at analysts Ovum, claims his organisation has done a lot of research into the evolution of smartphones and PDAs and concluded that there is an awful lot of innovation to come. "Both are quite good categories but there is something else missing between the smartphone and the PDA. I think if someone cracks the connected PDA and can really do a very good job of it — and I suspect that we are not that far from it — I have a feeling that there are a lot of people who would carry one of those and a simple phone, rather than a laptop."

Garner claims that Nokia came close to such a hybrid device with its 9210 Communicator and its 770 Tablet, but hasn't cracked it yet: "I think that it is a very important area but no one has got the form-factor quite right yet," he says. "The HP iPAQ is nearly there but has no keyboard and Sony Ericsson squashed the screen on its P990 and took away one of the best features," he adds.

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Super 3G and beyond

Super 3G, or HSDPA, is an enhancement to today's 3G networks that offers the promise of much faster connectivity of up to 15Mbps — although the best achieved in practical trials so far is 3.6Mbps. NEC and NTT DoCoMo are both expected to...

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... bring prototype HSDPA handsets to the show. Nortel has said it will demonstrate HSDPA alongside other high-speed wireless technologies, and Sony Ericsson will be showing HSDPA data cards in action. "HSPA was kind of there last year in terms of a couple of demos but I think this time round it will be a case of, 'It's here, it's real, it's commercial, here are the products,'" says Ovum's Garner.

Operators have also been focusing their efforts on putting the mobile broadband technology into laptops. Dell recently signed a deal with Vodafone to include internal HSDPA modems, while Lenovo also revealed it had similar plans to include the technology in its hardware.

However HSDPA has its limits. Because it was designed as a broadcast medium it has a much faster downlink than uplink capability. This means that mobile workers looking to upload information may not find the technology flexible enough. HSUPA increases the amount of data a base station can handle to around 4Mbps, under ideal conditions. "Whoever came up with the idea of asymmetric connections missed quite a big aspect of what is needed. Enterprises will probably need HSUPA consumers probably less so but maybe not," says Garner.

More on this issue from across ZDNet:
Super 3G handsets on the way
It's not just laptops that are going to have integrated HSDPA

Dell to deliver Super 3G with Vodafone
Dell is the first major systems vendor to back Super 3G in Europe as it signs a deal with Vodafone to offer HSDPA as an integrated option on some notebooks

Nortel pushes Super 3G to new heights
Tests in France have shown that HSDPA can run at speeds up to 3.6Mbps, and that's only the start, says Nortel

Pushing email beyond the RIM

For business customers, the rise of the BlackBerry has probably been the single biggest innovation in mobility since the mobile phone itself. Being able to access email as easily as SMS messages seems such as obvious and necessary application but was almost completely missed by much of the industry which allowed a relatively small Canadian firm called Research in Motion (RIM) to steal a substantial lead. But things have not all gone RIM's way; recently it has become mired in a patent dispute with NTP which could culminate in the email provider's entire US service being shut down.

Whatever the result in the RIM case, so-called push email — literally pushing email out from an server to a mobile device — will continue to be an important development with players such as Symbian, Nokia/ Intellisync and Microsoft all keen to steal back some of RIM's lead. According to analyst...

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...Datamonitor, 50 percent of European enterprises deployed mobile email solutions in 2005, compared to just 39 percent in 2004.

More on this issue from across ZDNet:
RIM's patent spat opening up market
The BlackBerry maker's willingness to 'play chicken with customers' mission critical infrastructure' is invigorating rival's push into the mobile email market

Symbian makes mobile email 'simple'
The smartphone software maker will give its seal of approval to email providers that play nicely

Does the BlackBerry have enough juice to survive?
Being prosecuted for patent infringement may be the most pressing problem facing mobile email company RIM but issues with its fundamental business model may prove more serious in the long term

Tuning in to Mobile TV

TV over mobile has been seized on by many of the large operators and hardware makers as a potential white knight riding to their rescue. There were some announcements around this emerging technology at last year's show but this year it is bound to attract even more attention. Broadcasters including the BBC, MTV, Big Brother creator Endemol and news network ITN are all set to make announcements in the run-up to or during the show. "The provision of TV to mobile, and available content, is a key issue in the convergence of telecoms, media and entertainment and content distribution debate," says Bill Gajada, chief marketing officer for the GSM Association — the organisation behind 3GSM.

For its part, ITN has announced several recent deals around mobile and online content with players including Google, video search company Blinkx and MSN. "The mobile communications industry is an increasingly important distribution channel for content providers such as ITN. Operators need to recognise the vital part that serious information now plays in developing content for the mobile market — and to see that, as a platform, it must be more than the 3G of girls, games and gambling," said Nicholas Wheeler, managing director of ITN's multimedia operations.

But while content providers and the mobile industry may be convinced that providing access to TV clips on the move is important, only time will tell if consumers share their enthusiasm.

More on this issue from across ZDNet UK:
Mobile TV's picture still fuzzy
3GSM: Operators are keen to promote mobile TV — just as soon as they sort out the whats, whens, wheres, hows and why bothers

IPWireless launches 3G mobile TV technology
With questions of bandwidth, cost and spectrum availability, TV on mobiles raises a lot of issues. IPWireless says 3G standards are the answer.

Mobile TV moving into the mainstream
Chipsets allowing TV signals to be received on mobile phones while bypassing expensive data rates are being launched in the US by Philips.