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Coming soon: Firmware update over the air

The days of cellphone owners visiting a shop to upgrade their firmware may be numbered, if a new Open Mobile Alliance standard takes off.
Written by Aaron Tan, Contributor

SINGAPORE--The Open Mobile Alliance (OMA) has announced a new industry standard that allows mobile operators to update cellphone firmware over-the-air.

According to OMA chairman Jari Alvinen, the new Firmware Update Management Object (Fumo) version 1.0 will now undergo further interoperability testing across cellular devices and networks before it becomes an official standard. With close to 400 members including Alcatel, Nokia, Motorola and Microsoft, the OMA promotes standard ways for cellphones to exchange data.

Alvinen said: "Devices are getting more complex. From device vendor and operator perspectives, there is an increasing need to update devices over- the-air." In over-the-air (OTA) transmission, data or applications are exchanged wirelessly and can also be encrypted for added security.

"Today, when you want a firmware update, you have to walk into a shop to get your cellphone 'flashed' with the new software," he said. The new Fumo standard, however, will allow a mobile operator to provide its subscribers with cellphone update services directly through its network--a job that has traditionally been undertaken by handset makers.

More importantly, the new standard will allow cellphone operators to include specific firmware updates demanded by new mobile data services--a key driver to stem falling average revenues per user (ARPU). The specification also allows cellphone networks to be used in identifying devices that require a specific upgrade, before initiating a firmware update OTA, Alvinen said.

Jason Lim, a marketing communications executive from a Singapore-based healthcare services provider, welcomed the ability to get frequent firmware updates OTA.

The avid cellphone enthusiast said: "I'm always on the lookout for firmware updates to fix the bugs in my handsets. A firmware upgrade service delivered over-the-air certainly beats having to travel down to a handset service center."

Since its inception in 2002, the OMA has published 47 specifications relating to a wide variety of cellphone services including mobile e-mail, digital rights management (DRM) and push-to-talk over cellular.

Although OMA standards are largely aimed at standardizing cellular services, Alvinen said the organization began as a network-independent standards body. This means OMA standards can easily be applied to any wireless network, including 3G and WiMax, he said.

"We made a good decision back then," Alvinen said. "The world is rapidly converging and the network is getting transparent to users who care more about the services they're getting."

While the OMA was established to promote the use of standardized mobile services, travelers still do not get universal access to cellular networks and accompanying applications on a global scale. This is due to varying cellular network technologies adopted across countries and geographies.

"We're not working on the networking layer but the day when networks become seamless, we will be ready," Alvinen said, noting that one single application can then be delivered across networks running on different technologies.

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