How tech should break into our lives

I've been writing about the technology landscape for a long time and more so observing the wireless sector, in particular, as I used to work in that line more than 10 years ago.One of the most fascinating things about the wireless space is that it's constantly evolving.

I've been writing about the technology landscape for a long time and more so observing the wireless sector, in particular, as I used to work in that line more than 10 years ago.

One of the most fascinating things about the wireless space is that it's constantly evolving. In the yesteryears, I dealt with GSM--or loosely known as digital voice communications as opposed to analog, which was predominant in the 1990s.

There were no SMS (can you imagine that) or mobile Internet access, and data transmissions were only as fast as 9.6Kbps! There was no such thing as the prepaid mobile, no ringtone or wallpaper downloads, no music downloads, no pretty much anything you can get today.

Then came GPRS, EDGE and finally 3G. After that, it was HSDPA (high speed downlink packet access and now HSPA+. And just before the dust settles on the acronym war, there is WiMax and the latest, LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. And I bet you, before we can get used to LTE, there will be other fancy acronyms bandied about.

What I'm basically saying is that I've seen the evolution from 2G to 3G and am now seeing 4G, or fourth generation digital wireless standards unveiling before the world.

But what exactly is 4G?

Simply put, fourth generation is supposedly the next-generation wireless standard that touts advanced transmission speeds of up to 100Mbps. It's also supposed to be based on an all end-to-end IP (Internet Protocol) infrastructure, which is akin to what the IT world has already been using for a long time.

But here's the poser: 4G standards are still being debated and have not been ratified by the industry.

So what's all the fuss about?

In my humble opinion, the battleground for any wireless standard is often not so much in the background or what is known as the core network but on the front-end, also known as the last-mile access. In this case, it's the wireless airwaves used to carry the bits and bytes.

That is why I believe there is so much hype surrounding the kind of wireless access, which is exacerbated by the many acronyms that exist to describe the technology

In a report I filed last week, pundits and players are still divided as to whether WiMax or LTE, which are slated to be considered as 4G technology, is going to dominate the next wireless standard in Malaysia.

Both sides of the divide--WiMax and LTE--have their point of view, depending on which philosophies they hold.

In my years subsequent to my time in the wireless world, I was also caught up with the promise of the mobile Internet, which I had began writing about since 2002.

For about years, I wrote and covered many conferences and events that touted the benefits of 3G and mobile Internet, how near it was on the horizon, and how it would change the lives of ordinary people.

But much as I wrote about it, the breakthrough for 3G didn't come until five years later when in 2007, service providers, handset makers and application providers got their act together.

And by that time, the two major Malaysian 3G operators had already launched their 3G networks for two years. If my math is right, the gestation period for 3G to reach its prominence was between four and five years.

In short, hype preceded reality.

If some of lessons I learnt in the past were anything to go by, the same is expected to happen in the battle between WiMax and LTE.

Firstly, technology, no matter how much vendors and service providers tout, is going to take time to settle down. In one sense, I can see that some amount of hype is necessary to drum up support and publicity of it.

However, I believe the hype has also to be managed and not just blasted at consumers with promises of "wireless nirwana" as it were. The reality is that there will be teething problems and challenges to iron out to make the network work before it settles down.

Second, a wireless technology is only one part of the equation as there needs to be handsets and customer premise equipment (CPE) that are able to take advantage of the technology.

Until the likes of the Apple iPhone and other smartphones that came into the market appeared, 3G didn't really fly because there were no phones then that could exploit 3G to the max.

This is one of the reasons I believe WiMax players are still struggling as the ecosystem for CPE is not as wide as that for 3G. Perhaps the game will change when Intel comes up with built-in WiMax chipsets, but that is yet to be seen.

Third, there also needs to be the right applications for people to capitalize on before new wireless technology can really take off. In this respect, most if not all service providers are merely providing basic Internet access and applications to users, and none have come up with a compelling enough application for people to need the kind of bandwidth 4G provides.

Observing the landscape over the years, what people want is value that technology brings into their lives and not technology per se. In the mid-90s, it was clearly digital voice, SMS, security against fraud and international roaming. More recently, it's ubiquitous mobile Internet access, video access, downloadable applications and social networking.

Whatever the need, it's centered on communication.

So the race to 4G shouldn't be about which technology will ultimately dominate but rather should be about connecting people through various modes of communication.

That, to me, is the illusive killer application the world is looking for--enhancing lives and creating a connected world instead of being merely quixotic about the hype of a technology.