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Tech innovators: Mobile app progress requires smarter wireless

First off, thanks to Larry, Sam and Andrew for letting me sneak in a Between the Lines post or two this week while I'm in Boston attending the annual EmTech@MIT conference put on by Technology Review at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Written by Heather Clancy, Contributor

First off, thanks to Larry, Sam and Andrew for letting me sneak in a Between the Lines post or two this week while I'm in Boston attending the annual EmTech@MIT conference put on by Technology Review at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Given the continued ramp-up in mobile tech adoption -- IDC figures that 75 percent of workers in North America will be classified as mobile by 2013 -- it didn't surprise me that a big focus of the innovation chatter here this morning centered on mobile and wireless technology. I'm still waiting on a keynote presentation by Sprint CEO Dan Hesse, but wanted to dash off some themes that have emerged already.

Is it me or will the next cool gadget be your own personal wireless base station? During this morning's panel, "The Future of Mobile" (hosted by Technology Review senior editor Evan Schwartz), the panelists were asked to name their favorite mobile gadgets as a sort of warm-up exercise. Three out of the four showed off their personal wireless base stations, which essentially guarantee them wireless access anywhere. No swearing a dropped connection or worrying about remembering that 20-character password that someone has just handed you. Not surprisingly, given this start, a thread that continued running through the session was the lack of coverage reliability that current broadband wireless services offer.

Wireless network evolution needs to stress adaptability of the network Another thread worth mentioning is the fact that the panelists believe networks are lagging the innovation happening on the devices themselves. That is, even if you CAN do something with your smartphone or your toothbrush or your "smart" pill bottle, your carrier might not be able to handle that application or connection yet. Some carriers ARE apparently accommodating mobile app innovation by supplementing their cell sites with smaller base stations that support some of the newer features or that might offload certain applications in order to help with the universal "dropped call" complaint.

Vanu Bose, president and CEO of Vanu, which makes solar-powered GSM base stations for situations where there isn't a wired backhaul, says network adaptability is the key to continued mobile innovation. "The smart network is one that can adapt and bring in new devices quickly," he says. In case you are wondering, yes, Vanu Bose is related to THAT Bose: His electrical engineer father was the founder of the Bose audio company.

Alice White, vice president of Bell Labs, discusses this concept slightly differently. In her mind, carriers should be looking at placing policies in their networks to handle things like congestion or an application that might require more bandwidth. This is something that she describes as "Net Fairness," meaning that there shouldn't be a performance penalty just because you're using an app that might hog more bandwidth.

Universal connectivity is nothing without better batteries Right now, I am huddled by an electrical outlet so that I can be on the MIT WiFi network AND take notes on my computer. So I can file faster blog entries. Several people are giving me dirty looks because I got here first. Do I need to amplify further?

Finally, 4 considerations for mobile application development For those of you who are charged with thinking through the focus of your company's mobile application development projects, wanted to share some comments from Jonathan Segel, executive director of the CTO Group at Alcatel-Lucent, who made a separate keynote presentation during the conference.

To put his insight into context, consider that Segel started off his time at the podium demonstrating a mobile game on a smartphone that merges a virtual reality interface with real-world elements. The game, Growl Patrol, challenges the player to "find" a lost dog or bird, navigating only by audio cues that tell you if you're getting closer or farther away from your target. You control your location in the game by walking around (so if you see your kids wandering around aimlessly on the front looking at their mobile phone in the future, don't freak out). So, anyway, the game takes advantage of both the increasingly improved graphics that our mobile phones are capable of producing, the massive amounts of data storage now offered, as well location awareness.

OK, you're asking, that's a game, what's the point?" Well, here you go. In the future, Segel suggests, some of the elements that make Growl Prowl work will find their way into business-to-business applications (notably healthcare or guided navigation applications) optimized for 4G networks. The things to concentrate for development are:

  1. Context awareness - So, as you move around geographically with your environment, that information -- both the speed you are traveling and your location -- is communicated into the network.
  2. Ubiquitous data connectivity - With millions of devices connecting, you'll need to hunt for things that optimize and use data services for smooth and continuous performance. In some cases, Segel notes, smaller data cells are being installed in dense urban areas to help offload intense data traffic.
  3. Optimal distribution of roles between the device and the network - Meaning, your device might be able to take on some of the processing load, allowing the network to do its thing which should be, really, making sure you have a reliable and secure connection.
  4. Application and traffic-aware networking - This could be considered sort of anti-net neutrality, but it's the idea that just as you worry about prioritizing applications on your corporate network, there are certain situations where the network needs to understand the application you're using and prioritize bandwidth accordingly.

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