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Tech Grill: Episode 2, The NoPhone

Jason and Scott discuss the future of the portable Wi-Fi hotspot. How can it be improved?

Note: This conversation took place over the last few days as Jason and I discussed the possibilities for a more advanced form of a portable hotspot device.

Jason Perlow: The Verizon HTC Thunderbolt is a solid phone but it chews up battery like crazy and it will never run Ice Cream Sandwich fast enough. I don't want to get stuck on Gingerbread.  If it has to eat battery I want a gigantic Seidio on it and I want the dual core specs.

Scott Raymond: I think I can easily hold out for 3rd gen 4g with my phone. It's not super fast, but it is still fast, great for tethering, and is a solid, reliable phone.

Jason Perlow: Because I'm gonna get stuck with it for 2 years.

Scott Raymond: That's the lousy part. Stuck with a device for 2 years because unsubsidized phones are ridiculously expensive.

Jason Perlow: Truthfully there has to be a better way. I mean what I really want is a very small device that is essentially a LTE Mifi with a big battery pack, that I can use for any tablet device.

Scott Raymond: The Europeans buy any phone they want, and typically use pay as you go.

Scott Raymond: Well, you could get a dumb phone and a Mifi.

Jason Perlow: That's a possibility. Then I could just get a iPod Touch or some equivalent mini tablet and drag that with me in addition to a dumb phone. But that's impractical.

Scott Raymond: Yeah, if we always have a tablet, a low-end phone with hotspot access might be all we need.

Jason Perlow: If they can miniaturize the Mifi to where we can just clip it on our belts or something I'd carry around a client device the size of a PlayBook or an HTC Flyer.

Scott Raymond: Or a Dell Streak 5?

Jason Perlow: Basically you need a Mifi that can take 12 hours of charge or more. And actually, not a true Mifi. I'd want something with Bluetooth that had dynamic connections to the device with a secured paired Bluetooth connection to anything you are walking around with.

Scott Raymond: Dunno of one that does that, but you could get those USB emergency chargers. Used mine on the flight back from Europe and it kept me in phone juice until we got home.

Jason Perlow: You could probably put a 2800mah lithium on a Mifi, strip it down to bare bones and get it to half the size of a smartphone.

Scott Raymond: The Duracell one is compact, works great, and can recharge from a laptop USB if necessary, and is 1150mah.

Jason Perlow: Then I could live with a dumb phone or a iPod with Skype on it 'cause I'm sick of having to activate a new plan with each device.

Scott Raymond: Oh, and my Xoom lasted the entire trip back from Europe without needing a charge. I used it for at least 11 hours and had 30% left.

Jason Perlow: If I get sick of the device I want to replace it. Throwing 300-400 out the window for the device is not my problem, It's Verizon or whatever carrier I end up having to use.

[Next: Building a Better Personal Area Network for the 4G World]»

Jason Perlow: 1150mah would be fine if it wasn't attached to a display, since the display eats most of the phone juice. But LTE is very hungry. What you want Is a Mifi that stays on 3g unless you absolutely need the speed. Seriously, they could get the thing to half the size of a smartphone.

Scott Raymond: Yeah, put a toggle switch on it. 2/3g or 4g

Scott Raymond: But that's what's good about a smartphone; you can tell it what network speed to use.

Jason Perlow: Could probably wrap it around your wrist and have it double as a watch. Then you always have it.

Scott Raymond: Nah, no need. Stick it in a pocket.

Jason Perlow: The Wrist-Fi?

Scott Raymond: I don't wear a watch anymore. I use my phone.

Jason Perlow: Pocket-Fi. It's a cool idea.

Scott Raymond: Pretty much.

Jason Perlow: Make it sorta stone shaped, Smooth and USB chargeable.

Scott Raymond: There were key chain BT GPS devices as I recall. Same principle.

Jason Perlow: The "NetStone?"

Scott Raymond: Nice key chain.

Jason Perlow: Get an induction plate for it. Right, put your keys on it, drop your keys on top of the plate when you get home. That's not a bad idea at all. Drop a 32GB storage chip in it and allow your device to get to it wirelessly. Hell just put a microSD on it.

Scott Raymond: Portable blade runner? :)

Scott Raymond: MicroSD hosting is an extra, and isn't really necessary.

Jason Perlow: Well it's a question of how small can we make this.

Jason Perlow: It's an interesting article idea. I mean, if you are under the assumption that everything is VOIP, You'll have to pay for Skype or Google voice credits. But I mean, that's not a lot. 50 bucks a year should get you all your voice calls. It's the data that kills you.

Scott Raymond: True. The mifi provides a wifi connection. Interesting side note, using it with T-Mobile lets you make wifi phone calls

Jason Perlow: And have a powerful enough Wi-Fi signal to handle personal data comms.

Scott Raymond: I can call over Wi-Fi on my T-Mobile phone.

Jason Perlow: How small can we make it and how big a charge can it take? I think it has to get you through a very long business day.

Scott Raymond: Well, battery determines size. Figure out how many hours you need.

Jason Perlow: Right but doesn't have to be a constant active Wi-Fi connection or LTE connection. Basically, you would need an app on your tablet that controls it and to dynamically manage the connection.

Scott Raymond: Could be set to shift to standby mode, and receive a BT signal to wake up.

Jason Perlow: If you managed it intelligently, I bet you could get a whole day out of say, 1500mah. Right, you could use BlueTooth 3 to wake up the phone or act as the data connection if the device didn't use Wi-Fi.

Scott Raymond: My wife's MiFi is 2 hours, and in a hotel room she keeps it plugged into a USB block.

Jason Perlow: 1300/1500 mah is what a typical dumb phone has. Maybe 900mah, on something like a Moto Razr.

Scott Raymond: OK, so perhaps we should stick with that.

Jason Perlow: I think 1500 is doable. 1300 I think is what is in your G2, which is pretty standard.

Scott Raymond: Standard 3g mifi is 4 hours, 40 hours standby, 1150mah battery

Jason Perlow: See, with a microcontroller on the key chain or whatever we call this new mifi thing, It could check gmail, to see if you have new messages. Could prioritize traffic as needed. Basically you're talking about an intelligent mifi, with a very low power microcontroller.

Scott Raymond: That creates a power drain. Better to let your devices do that.

Jason Perlow: Well it has to have some intelligence.

Scott Raymond: I think we just need a more efficient mifi type unit.

Jason Perlow: Yeah, but small.

Scott Raymond: Right.

Jason Perlow: Pocket size, easily chargeable. Via induction or USB.

Scott Raymond: Adding more complexity to it drains battery. Make it really simple, and give a switch for data speed mode. Shift to 2g/3g for longer life.

Jason Perlow: Yeah default should be 3g. Unless the app says "gimme more bandwidth"

Scott Raymond: Well, only if you want to turn the thing into a cell phone. Kind of defeats the purpose.

Jason Perlow: I mean for default email checking, it should NEVER shift into 4G. For something like, twitter, always 3G.

Scott Raymond: The mifi device is about a half inch thick and the size of a credit card. That's pretty small already.

Jason Perlow: Basically, you have an app in Android or iOS where you set the caps and default behavior for each app.

Jason Perlow: So Gmail/Twitter you might set to 3G. Youtube would be set to 4G, but with caps on bandwidth you could set so you don't get whacked with massive overages because the data plans are going to be tiered. Browser you could set to whatever.

Scott Raymond: That works. A traffic shaper.

Jason Perlow: Exactly, a shaper.

Scott Raymond: See, if the phone has wifi, but doesn't need to be a smartphone, it could use the mifi device too. Provided the carrier does wifi calling like AT&T and T-Mobile.

Scott Raymond: This thing should be available from the carriers like a portable microcell. AT&T makes them for areas where coverage is bad. Some firewalls, like Sonicwall, however, don't work with them. A portable combo wifi/microcell. Now that's a nifty idea. Then you could definitely use it as a central device for phones, tablets, laptops, etc. Wouldn't have to be key chain-sized. Pocketable would still fit within the framework, and would provide more room for a bigger battery.

Scott Raymond: The only problem I see would be cooking your **** with the portable cell tower your pocket.

[Next: Adding Intelligence and Protocol Management to Smartphone and Tablet OSes]»

Jason Perlow: Should it be a pure 3G/4G modem with wifi, or should it have a phone on it? A phone chip? So that when it is BT/Wifi connected to a device, the remote device can use an app to make regular 3G calls as opposed to pure VOIP? Or will that increase the complexity too much?

Scott Raymond: It does have a cellular chipset. Or it can't connect to the network. Skip BT. More battery drain, and unnecessary. I think we should stick to the portable microcell format. So that cell phones can connect to it as a cell tower instead of as a VOIP wifi AP. Thing is, I don't know of any devices where you could have a microcell device, and connect to it via wifi and be able to make calls as if it was a cellular tether.

Jason Perlow: I thought the whole point of this was to have a unified data modem for al your devices?

Scott Raymond: You have to have an actual cell phone meant for your cell carrier to connect your phone to it.

Scott Raymond: That's the idea. Basically you have that in a mifi device, but it has a lot of room for improvement. A microcell currently uses a wired Ethernet connection to the internet and provides cell tower service for your carrier where the signal is weak. You're suggesting using a mifi for phone calls. Right now, AT&T and T-Mobile both have wifi calling in phones that support it. My G2 does, for example. A portable hotspot is only useful to me if the carrier has coverage where my smartphone does not.

Jason Perlow: Well, it is my assumption that as 4G is rolled out by Verizon and AT&T there is only VOIP, as LTE is an end to end IP technology. As is Sprint's WiMAX.

Scott Raymond: So I see what you mean. In our scenario, we would need an associated app that would tap into the cellular portion of the device and let you use it to make calls.

Jason Perlow: Right, if you had to roam to 3g, for example when 4G service wasn't available.

Scott Raymond: It would have to be cross-platform.

Jason Perlow: Yes, clearly.

Scott Raymond: Not VOIP, but actual cellular calling.

Jason Perlow: Yes. You'd need that, since 3G VOIP is tough to implement and quality is horrible. My assumption is that for pure data, we would use the 3G or 4G data connection.

Scott Raymond: OK, I can see that, and would be a lot more feasible than a portable cell tower.

Jason Perlow: But if you paid for a "voice" plan you'd want to make voice calls. Now, you can do that via VOIP, but you need to have the minimum bandwidth needed to capture something like a 16-bit 8khz or 16khz PCM stream. Maybe better for higher fidelity. But then you are paying Google or Skype credits to use your IP network you're paying data fees on already.

Scott Raymond: Phone calls should use EDGE or just GSM. Save battery life.

Jason Perlow: Right. We want this thing to work all day.

Scott Raymond: Right. So the battery would make it a bit bulky. But if you do it right, the thing would be mostly battery anyway. No screen to control.

Jason Perlow: Right, no screen.

Scott Raymond: Plug it into a USB port to configure it. Or even a web interface after making a wifi connection.

Jason Perlow: Maybe a small black LCD indicator for status data, such as pairing codes, etc.

Scott Raymond: Right. Battery monitor.

Jason Perlow: Yeah, USB or Wi-Fi config is a possibility.

Scott Raymond: I'm thinking a device like this could easily fit into a case the size of an existing phone like mine. You could have a big, flat 3000mah battery running it.

Jason Perlow: Yeah.

Scott Raymond: But this device wouldn't be a stand alone unit. You can't pair a BT earpiece with it and be able to make calls. You need a separate device. Tablet, handheld, laptop, whatever.

Jason Perlow: Yes, It's a reverse headset. You pair devices to it to provide data services which have the the UI for making phone calls.

Scott Raymond: Sure. Wifi hotspot as-is. Add software and turn your device into a phone. As I recall, Windows 7 has some interesting Bluetooth controls over smartphones when you pair them with Windows.

Jason Perlow: The biggest part of this I think is the client software that would run on Android or iOS to manage bandwidth/protocols.

Scott Raymond: So you can make and receive calls directly through your computer. It's not concept, it exists. This just takes it a step farther into consumer device.

Jason Perlow: Basically, that gets controlled in the device. Maybe via a light web UI. HTML5, so any client could control the traffic shaping.

Scott Raymond: No idea what Verizon uses in the mifi. It's probably custom firmware. Doesn't need to be a whole OS.

Jason Perlow: Well, the way I envision it. you register your device with the 4G tethering gadget via your MAC address, and then it asks you what protocols you use on it, Google Talk/Skype/Web/etc. Then it sets a behavior profile.

Scott Raymond: Something like this could easily be integrated into Android and IOS.

Jason Perlow: Yes, via some web API.

Scott Raymond: I mean I core OS.

Jason Perlow: Well, the data device has to shape the traffic. You could put the UI in the core OS, but the actual shaping is occurring on the data device.

Scott Raymond: Right.

Scott Raymond: Basic QoS on the MiFi device. Much like a home router.

Jason Perlow: Basically, just like your router does, yeah.

Jason Perlow: The thing is, people have to get used to carrying these things with them. So they should be able to go in a pocket, clipped to a belt, shoved into a pocketbook, etc

Scott Raymond: Well, if they have a tablet, it can go into the same bag.

Jason Perlow: Yes.

Scott Raymond: Size of a smartphone, it fits in a pocket.

Jason Perlow: Should be induction chargeable. Biggest issue will be remembering to charge it each day.

Scott Raymond: Form factor should not be an issue. It's not that much bigger than a portable wifi hotspot, and people carry those with no problem.

Jason Perlow: So if it has a spot where it "lives" at home or in the office, all the better.

Jason Perlow: I think it needs a USB charge connector and a flip out AC prong In addition to induction for the home base.

Scott Raymond: Induction charging. Something else to go onto the desktop charging pad in Blade Runner. :)

Scott Raymond: No flip out prong. That adds more bulk. Give it a USB port, charge off of any USB power block or laptop. I have an emergency phone backup charger that comes with a setup like that, it's great.

Jason Perlow: Ok. Micro or full?  Micro I would think because that's standardized.

Scott Raymond: Either. I would say micro so you need only one cable when you travel. My emergency charger uses a mini, so does my external drive. There are still devices being made with the older connector. This should at least get with the times.

Jason Perlow: Yep.

Jason Perlow: So what are we calling this thing. I like NoPhone.

Scott Raymond: NoPhone is fine.

Jason Perlow: It's a Personal Area Network device but I like the idea of giving it a brand name.

Scott Raymond: NoPhone. Because with the right software, you don't need a phone.