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2004 Digest: Mobile Technologies and Communications

End of the year is round the corner, and this time is well known for its digests. Let's start our summary by checking how much the number of mobile users changed – if you remember, it was a mobile phone that was listed among the most unloved and still the most useful inventions of mankind. According to EMC Cellular Database, there were about 1.29 billion mobile users by the beginning of 2004. By its end – over 1.6 billions. That is each fourth inhabitant of the Earth uses cellular communications. In some countries the number of cellular users long exceeded the number of telephone subscribers. In such countries you don't even have to have a regular phone. As a result of introduction of cellular communications, in some countries (in Great Britain in particular) they decided that phone booths are inexpedient and so their number will be reduced. This tendency is harmonious with the overall "digitization" of the society, which results in the substitution of mail, telegraph, and line telephony by Internet and cellular communication. That's why it's not surprising that some countries (for example South East Asia, where the population is dense and the area is small) report that they close post and telegraph offices because they are not needed any more.

XXI Century Technologies for 25% of Population

The XX century technologies are being replaced by XXI century ones. And one should say that our country is certainly not leading this technology march but it's not in the progress tail either. Speaking of cellular communications, Russia has over 40 million users – it corresponds to approximately 28.5% of the population, which is more than in China, for example, where cellular communications are used by almost 25% of the population, but less than in Western European countries, where the cellular index is about 40%.

Speaking of the technological aspect within the well-known opposition of GSM versus CDMA, the GSM standard is an unconditional leader here. Over 1.18 billion mobile users out of 1.6 billion use GSM. (Information for October 2004). Even in the USA, where CDMA has been dominant for a long time, the number of GSM users, though still less than 50% of the total number of cellular users, has doubled this year (if you also take into account South American and Caribbean countries) and is still growing. So very soon the number of GSM users will outgrow those of CDMA in this country as well. The only region where CDMA technologies are dominant is South East Asia.

We cannot say the reasons for sure. One can surely name two main factors: TECHNICAL – up to recently CDMA users couldn't accept and make calls out of home network without registering their handsets, while GSM users could easily speak of worldwide automatic routing. But this problem was solved by the introduction of R-UIM cards. And ECONOMIC – GSM phones are a tad cheaper than CDMA handsets, though if you take into account the call prices, the things aren't that certain. But still, the strongest influence on the development of GSM technologies was exerted by the political situation, especially as the second of the mentioned aspects (economic) is getting less relevant with time. Political – meaning the market competition in the form of government lobbies in several countries as well as licensing policies: while the rights for the CDMA technologies belong to the single company – natural monopolist QUALCOMM, GSM Association did not make the golden calf of its technology and that's why the GSM standard was soon widely spread.

In conclusion of this part of the review I want to note that both this year and the previous one were very successful for the cellular communication industry, but this success will hardly repeat itself in 2005. The supply volume of mobile phones will most likely grow in the coming year, but it will be less than 10%, which reflects (1) the negative situation in the semiconductor industry on the whole and (2) the situation with the replacement wave of old models across Europe and North America gradually coming to naught. The only hope is the developing markets: of Eastern Europe, which is inexorably moving to saturation; and of South East Asia, where the tastiest morsel, China, did not come up to vendors' expectations. Though the manufacturers are also looking towards the Indian market, the growth rate of the Indian economy will not provide high consumer demand. Instead, great expectations are entertained of South America, and Brazil in the first place, as well as of the countries in North Africa and Republic of South Africa.

Fast growth rates of the cellular users base, caused mostly by the tremendous market development in these countries and the specific character of their economy, underlied the wide spread of the GSM standard, which is currently more available in the developing countries than CDMA. However, if the growth rate of the cellular communication market slows down in the following couple of years, the GSM standard will most likely start to give ground to 3G technologies. It was actually predicted by analysts the year before and is now confirmed by growth rates of UMTS, W-CDMA (these two standards are twins, which are actually different only by their frequency ranges), CDMA 2000 1x EV-DO/EV-DV networks – their number is small so far but it's growing fast. Another curious fact is the interest in the growing CDMA 2000 1x in 450 MHz frequency range. The reason why the 450 MHz frequency range is interesting to cellular operators is that many countries already have first generation analog networks (NMT-450) and now, with the appearance of CDMA 2000 1x equipment for this frequency range, there emerged an opportunity to upgrade the network and migrate the users from the first generation technologies to the third generation. And we haven't heard of the chinese project, TD-SCDMA, which should have settled in the 450 MHz frequency range, for a long time already. Instead, there multiply rumours about the fourth generation technologies (4G), and these rumours are getting further away from the current performance characteristics. For example, the latest project, NTT DoCoMo, approaches science fiction – the company claims that it features 1 Gbit/sec throughput.

Technologies: hundreds of pixels for displays and millions for cameras

So much for the extent of standards and technologies. Let's talk about handset "innards". By the start of the year the ideal phone looked like this: 128x128 displays for middle end models and clamshell phones, 176x208 displays for smart phones, not less than 65536 colors, built-in VGA camera, 40-chord polyphony, JAVA 2ME (or BREW in case of CDMA handsets), WAP 2.0. The first consequence of the development of display technologies is that most new models come with TFT displays and clamshells come with external OLED displays, though the shelves are heavy with phones with CSTN displays. The second consequence is that the display resolution has grown considerably – 128x128 color displays can be found in low end models, clamshells often feature 128x160 and 96x64, while 176x208 stopped being a prerogative of smart phones and now appears in middle end phones. Mobile phones based on Windows Mobile Phone Edition have broken into the market on a mass scale, which resulted in the appearance of many models with 240x320 displays. It has even become a standard for multimedia CDMA phones (not smart phones). Symbian-based phones are noticeably outscored in this respect – Nokia promises to release smart phones supporting 352x416 (CIF+) only in the coming year. The only model, which can compete with solutions based on Windows Mobile in its display resolution, is the 7710 with its 640x480 touch screen supporting 65536 colors.

Nokia's built-in cameras and display gammas are also outscored – Samsung offers several models supporting 262144 colors, Siemens launched its first 70-series model in autumn.

Built-in cameras are another story – one should note that the integration of digital cameras has made several steps forward. By the end of the year we can already speak of mainstream phones with built-in 1.3-megapixel cameras, while some phones for video conferencing are equipped with two cameras, with low and high resolution correspondingly. But the resolution of 1.3 million pixels is not a limit, which is demonstrated by Samsung. The company has made a start by launching the SPH-S2300 model with a 3-megapixel camera and 3-x optical zoom (see the photo above), which was followed by the announcement of a phone with 5-megapixel sensor (see the photo below). The Taiwanese manufacturer, BenQ, member of the club of manufacturers producing phones supporting 262144 colors, broke the optical zoom record by presenting a phone with 5-x optical zoom. But the pixel number record is still not cracked, though Carl Zeiss threatens to integrate as much as 10 million pixels in the nearest couple of years. Will the tiny lens in phones provide decent quality for these many-megapixel images – that's not a trivial question to answer. Besides only Samsung knows now what to do with such large image files, having promised to equip its phones with 2 Gb memory cards.

I also want to note that by the end of the year it has become fashionable to equip phones with 64-chord polyphony, built-in radio receivers. There slowly appear models with built-in TV sets, and cellular operators are serious in their plans to start digital TV broadcasting. You often come across almost sterling xHTML-browsers instead of WAP 2.0 ("almost sterling" – because though most pages are quite readable, some pages are still too tough for mobile phones, e.g. MacroMedia Flash). Multimedia phones often come with built-in graphics processors, which allow to play 3D games. And the gaming industry is pleased to reclaim this market, rehabituating itself to forgotten 120x160 or 240x320 resolutions and not forgetting about copyrights and software distribution control.

There established a tendency to integrate various biometric sensors into mobile phones – pedometers and pulsemeters are left in the past, the presently advancing sensors take finger prints (the photo above – Pantech Gl100) and measure blood sugar. Interestingly, for the purpose of mobile commerce, which is mostly unclaimed because of imperfect "electronic wallets", mobile phones will be integrated with smart-card technologies, not least near-field communications (NFC). A special interest in NFC is demonstrated by Nokia and Philips as well as by Samsung.

Samsung has been rewarded in full for its zeal in promoting new technologies by considerably increased phone sales, due to which the company moved from the third place in the world rating to the second, having pushed down Motorola. At the start of the year Nokia had to review its strategy – its market share dropped from over 33% to 28%. The company had to take emergency measures – unprecedented (for Nokia) price-cutting (prices for some models were dropped by 25%) and to pay more attention to low and middle end segments. As a result, already by the end of summer Nokia managed to recover some of the lost positions. However, the scar from the poor start of the year remained – as we have already mentioned, the company is outscored by competitors in some technical parameters of the mainstream phones. As it became known in autumn, Nokia also decided not to equip its future models with IR-ports – partly in order to reduce prime costs, partly in order to accelerate migration to Bluetooth, which allows higher throughput at lesser power consumption. This way or another, by the end of the year the six leading vendors are rated like this (the data for the start of the fourth quarter):

As we have already mentioned Bluetooth, we cannot skip wireless technologies of the 802.11 family. In order to reduce dimensions, built-in modules in cellular phones often have reduced feature sets – for example, when working in the 802.11b standard such modules support 2.4 Mbit/sec throughput instead of 11 Mbit/sec. But still it's too early to speak about real integration of wireless networking into mobile phones, and we'll probably have to wait for Wi-Fi to become a mainstream solution for a very long time. But VoIP (Voice-over-IP) has come to help cellular communications: operators decided to pay special attention to notebook users working in wireless networks with the help of adapters supporting Wi-Fi and data transfer in cellular networks (3G – CDMA2000 1x, FOMA, 2.5G – GPRS) and give them an opportunity to switch automatically to VoIP-calls from GPRS, for example, and vice versa. Motorola was the first to announce its intent to release such a phone, but it was forestalled by NTT DoCoMo with its N900iL:

– the phone that allows regular and VoIP-calls in a native 3G-network FOMA and Wi-Fi. NTT DoCoMo also signed an agreement with "MTS", according to which the i-mode service will be available in Russia in the coming year. With the same purpose, by the way, the company launched another phone supporting i-mode server access from FOMA and GSM/GPRS 800/900/1800/1900 MHz networks.

And finally the last tendency we want to mention in this digest is miniaturization. If the first cellular phone created in 1950s was installed in a car, then in 1980s there were created phones with impressive dimensions and weight, but they could still be carried with you. Today a phone weighing over 100 g is an anachronism, but many vendors acknowledge that miniaturization is not always good. When a phone possesses dimensions of a deck of cards, not every one, even small people, manage to press the right keys at a first attempt, to say nothing of gargantuan people and those with shaky fingers. That's why the new concept from Nokia implemented in the 7280 is very curious – this phone has no keypad at all, that is it's actually equipped with basic keys to record voice commands and switch it on/off.

It's also an incorporation of an emergent tendency – just remember phones in the form of a powder-box or an MP3 player. Last year there were a few phones integrated into watches. But a phone without a traditional keypad has been presented by Nokia for the first time. Who knows, maybe the company will give up displays in a year as well and will use a getting popular Text-to-Speech technology. In this case the entire phone would be fitted in a hands-free set. Well, let's live and see...

[ To be continued... ]

Sergei Lourie(archont@ixbt.com)

January 13, 2005

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