Mobile technology

Size may matter, but it’s the technology at the network
level that’s really important when it comes to mobile phones, says Davey Winder

Regular readers of this column will by now have realised that I travel a
fair amount in the course of my working life. In common with your executive
workforce, I need to be able to make and receive phone calls, as well as deal
with my e-mail, while I am away. Mobile phones are nothing new, but their
physical form is changing fast, as is the way that we use them. Recent research
by market analysts Ovum suggested that by the end of 2000, six million people
had accessed the Internet using a mobile phone. Look a little further forward
to the start of 2005, and the estimated figure rises to an incredible 484
million.

But back to the point, I recently travelled all the way to Santa Margherita,
just outside Portofino in Italy, simply to look at a new mobile phone. The
occasion was the official launch of a handset manufacturer, Sendo, whose mobile
phones exemplify the way the mobile market place is changing. The first Sendo
handset, the diminutive D800, due to hit the market any time now, is the
lightest in the world at just 68g. Yet it manages to pack a 14.4kbps data/fax
modem, IrDA interface, high-resolution 96×64 ice blue backlit display and an
alarm clock-come-scheduler into its tiny frame.

Impressive stuff, but not as impressive as the company’s next handset, which
should follow a month or so after the D800, namely the S200. This takes the
concept of custom covers a step further by being modular. The core of the phone
is a thin plastic wafer containing the keypad membrane and the important
electrical bits, but the body of the unit can be anything you want. Which means
any colour, and any shape – brand identity by mobile phone, but also a unit
that is less likely to be misplaced.

But while phone handsets themselves are becoming smaller, lighter and more
feature-packed, the really exciting changes that will revolutionise the way we
all think about mobile communications are happening at the network level. You
will probably recall all the news stories last year about the billions of
pounds raised by the UK "auction" of 3G licences to mobile operators,
yet you may not have realised the significance for your workforce in the years
to come. 3G stands for "3rd generation" mobile telephone technology;
we are currently at the 2nd generation stage. The networks were designed for voice
calls not data, which explains why your staff have to put up with the
appallingly slow 9.6kbps transfer rates when they need to do the data thing.
Anyone who has attempted to surf even the cut-down web using a WAP phone will
know how frustrating it can be; those who have tried the real thing using their
mobile as a modem deserve a medal for patience.

Coming soon, in fact, already here in very small number, are the 2.5G
technologies. GPRS (general packet radio service) is the technical name, and
the important bit is that it is data-friendly and can, on a suitably equipped
network and phone, shift data much faster than existing phones. BT has already
launched such a service, running at 28.8kbps. Orange has adopted a slightly
different technology for its 2.5G service, namely HSCSD (high-speed circuit
switched data), which runs at the same speed but is tweaked to be particularly
good at video applications, such as video conferencing by mobile. Expect to see
more such services being promoted during the course of 2001.

3G services, however, will have to wait a little longer, until 2002 and most
probably beyond, but will be worth the wait. They will combine transfer speeds
at least as fast as a desktop modem, and potentially much faster indeed, with
an "always-on" service similar to that of your office Internet
connection. The key term to listen out for is UMTS (universal mobile
telecommunications system), which refers to all the different technologies that
will make up the 3G networks eventually.

Once these new, faster, always-on services arrive in our pockets it will
mean the start of truly mobile Internet access. So, if you have been tempted to
upgrade your executives with WAP-enabled mobile phones, don’t. WAP could well
be a "dead-in-the-water" technology almost before it starts. Hang
fire for a year or two, then reap the benefits of real access to the Internet
on the move.

Sendo D800 and S200, price TBA. More details from www.sendo.com

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