Cell phone software: Too much too soon?

Mobile phone manufacturers, in their rush to sell "steroid-injected phones", are neglecting potentially troubling problems - especially in the realm of software
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor on

Of all the features on the Kyocera Smartphone released last month in the United States, one stood out: a "reboot" button.

Although the smallest thing on the phone, the button is a large sign of the inherent problems that will befall the cellular industry as it crams increasingly sophisticated technology into its products. The reboot button is typically associated with PCs and other computing machinery, a sort of last-resort ejector seat used when complicated software crashes.

Unfortunately, fixing a phone's service isn't as easy as hitting a button. Save for just a handful of people savvy enough to know the difference between CDMA and TDMA, customers are at the mercy of the carrier when things go wrong with a handset. Then there are the myriad software languages used in creating and sending the data -- a labyrinthe so complex that a single email from one phone to another can travel any of 10,000 paths at any time, some analysts suggest.

"The three-fingered, "Ctrl-Alt-Delete" solution used to be a joke in the industry," says Michael O'Brien, chief executive of GoAhead Software, which among other things offers diagnostic services for telephone networks. "I don't think people have even started to address the problem. People haven't even thought about the disease."

In this time when even industry stalwarts Motorola and Nokia are seeing cell phone sales plummet, handset makers are feeling more pressure than ever to find ways to generate revenue and shake out of the telecom slump. One answer seems to be to sell mobile phones packed with new features, such as Internet access and other interactive services.

But some in the phone industry worry that these companies, in their rush to sell these steroid-injected phones, are neglecting potentially troubling problems -- especially in the relatively unfamiliar realm of software. Already, some services have been offered prematurely, resulting in glitches and even recalls.

Nokia, for example, recently disclosed a software problem that could affect its plans to launch next-generation technology, called "3G". A repair is planned, but the embarrassing episode has raised questions about the software acumen of wireless phone companies and the long-feared problems regarding multiple communications standards, both US and international.

The spectre of phones becoming overloaded and crashing has loomed particularly large after some handsets using Java technology did just that in Japan last year, resulting in a recall. Phone makers are learning why software, unlike hardware, is subject to a seemingly endless series of fixes, security patches and euphemistic product "upgrades" often issued to do both.

Some software developers think the day will come when phones will need information technology managers, the kind of support staff necessary to maintain large PC networks for employees and customers.

"It would be difficult for a consumer to reprogram his or her phone themselves without the necessary specialised cables and software," cell phone software developer Hugh Blemmings writes in an email.

A casual conversation with another software developer shows why.

Peter Hofmann's "ten-minute fix" needs a technical dictionary to understand. He explains that to update your cell phone in Europe, where the standard called GSM is king, phones have a subscriber identity module (SIM), which is used to identify the subscriber to his or her calling network and to encrypt the call's data. Applications that run on the SIM can be updated by the carrier.

The issues are as important as they are seemingly indecipherable. Despite current economic hardships, growth rates of cellular handset sales and wireless Net access are still expected to rise significantly in the coming years.

Nokia said it expects 1 billion people to use cell phones by next year. WR Hambrecht predicts that wireless Internet use will grow from fewer than 1 million subscribers today to more than 10.5 million at the end of next year in the United States alone. Taking a broader view, total worldwide spending on wireless technology and services is expected to rise from $77.5bn in 2000 to $134bn in 2004, according to the Telecommunications Industry Association.

Yet a downturn in telecom is taking its toll. Ericsson Friday announced dismal earnings and said it plans to lay off 12,000 employees. Bellwether Nokia also cut forecasts.

Against this precarious industry backdrop, the phone makers themselves are clearly more worried about lifting slumping handset sales than acting upon the concerns of an industry about phone service that hasn't yet been released.

"There will definitely be some design issues as handsets become more complex," Jupiter Research analyst Seamus McAteer said. "With aggregate growth in the wireless sector slowing and competition heating up, we may well see the slightly premature launch of new services that haven't been adequately tested in the field."

That could spell certain disaster in today's massively complex networks.

Carriers share some networks, or pass off customer coverage to each other. Pieces of a carrier's network, made up of towers and bay stations, are located across the globe. Inside just one of these bay stations is an entire world of computing, with up to 50 applications, four different central processing units and millions of pieces of software.

"We do lots of testing on these phones, we go through all the combinations," said Nokia spokesman Kevin Nowak. "They are pretty crash-resistant. You can never discount the possibility, but outside of computers, very few electronic products crash."

Except for two weeks ago, of course. That's when Nokia admitted that some of the phones they made for the American market wouldn't work on high-speed networks to be launched later this year. The fix? It plans to give US providers Sprint and Verizon a software patch for the problem to load into their own networks.

Verizon had its own proposed solution to the Nokia glitch: don't sell Nokia phones to its customers -- though no decision has been made on that option.

Ericsson took another route and recalled the phones. The company said on Tuesday that it had no other recourse but to withdraw from the market its first shipment of its new GPRS mobile phones because of a flawed factory installation.

Starting in May, Japanese telephone service provider NTT DoCoMo is expected to launch the world's first service offering customers the next generation of phones capable not only of making telephone calls, but receiving and sending emails, patching into a company's computer network or cruising the Internet, all at speeds once only thought possible for personal computers.

But nothing is coming easy. NTT DoCoMo acknowledges it's having difficulties sending the videos and other so-called "rich media" files through the network. It's also worried about running out of the radio waves needed to run the service in five years and has applied to the Japanese government for more.

None of this comes as a shock to Nitin Shan, now general manager and executive vice president at ArrayComm. He was one of Lucent Laboratories' first engineers to experiment with the phones of the future in 1995.

When Shah began working with cell phones in 1995, most were only capable of making telephone calls. The second-generation, or 2G, phones started arriving in 1996 and 1997. They are capable of both making telephone calls and receiving bits of data, like emails, or a Web page. Third-generation phones, expected to reach Japan in May and the Americas by year's end, are supposed to receive both voice calls and data, but at speeds matching what personal computers connected to the Internet operate at.

At least that's the industry's thinking. Reality has been much different.

Telephone companies have latched onto "3G" in the hopes of finding new ways to make money. European telephone companies have spent more than $100 billion on building these high-speed networks and buying the licenses to operate them. American carriers have spent about the same.

The huge expenditures have caught the attention of banks, which are now making it more expensive for telephone companies to get the needed loans to finish the build-outs. Wall Street is also taking notice and investors have been pummeling the entire sector.

With so much riding on these networks, Shah said it's surprising that there isn't much new about them. In fact, most carriers used their existing networks, which were only capable of sending voice calls to and from users, and added hardware to it that lets it handle the streaming videos, e-mails with attachments and other pieces of complicated data that comes with the promise of 3G.

The result, Shah says, is a "lot of legacy", that may force the same carriers hoping to reap billions of dollars in new revenue to scale back next-generation service, or else charge consumers an unattractively high price for it.

"The more that goes out there, the more the networks get congested," he said. "The question is whether you can deliver [information in] a cost-effective way."

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