Wireless needs a new way forward

4G's a jolly good fellow — and so say none of us

The generation game is over for mobile communications. After the unexpected costs and disappointing results of the 3G revolution, there's no desperation to commit to the next round. Apart from some diehard marketing executives, 4G is on nobody's lips — and, according to Ofcom's head of research William Webb, there are no generational changes due for the next 10 to 20 years.

Such a period of unusual calm is welcome, he says: "It is very hard to write applications when the underlying technology base is forever changing." That's true up to a point, but only if there's been the network equivalent of Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction — with more being revealed than is strictly necessary.

If we look at the wired world, one of the conspicuous successes has been the decoupling of application from the network. Your browser will work over dial-up, DSL, cable, satellite, even 3G, and it won't care. Even if you've stuck to one access method for years, the underlying technology in the network behind it will have been rebuilt many times: it makes no difference.

This isn't true for the mobile world, where the underlying technology is tied to the upper layers in expensive, unwholesome and unnecessary ways. That's what needs to change. With IMS coming to maturity faster than predicted, the opportunity is there to once again make wireless decent. There also needs to be much more commitment to inter-service roaming — not the fake "fixed mobile convergence" that has been foisted on the community in place of proper integration. You can tell that's the wrong stuff because it reduces choice rather than enhancing it.

When we can take the hardware platform of our choice and run the application of our choice, moving from home to car to office without knowing or caring where the connection's coming from, then we'll have the sort of convergence that means something. That will be our next generation.

So while Webb is correct that there'll be no single life-changing new wireless technology in the next 20 years that compares with GSM or 3G, there shouldn't need to be. Get the interface right for the consumer, and the industry will find it can introduce new ideas as and when it likes. And that is the true name of the game.