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Mobile trends: The big stories of 2007

Mobile trends and news are wrapped up in Craig Mathias' latest column.

What, December already? No matter. It's been another amazing year for wireless and mobile, and we've reached that time when a little reflection is in order. It's almost impossible to narrow down all that has passed to just a few events with far-reaching impacts worthy of your continued attention, but here is my best effort at accomplishing just that -- the four biggest wireless and mobile stories of 2007.

  • The iPhone
    The year kicked off with the announcement of what would come to represent a clear break with cellular handsets of the past. Sure, we had smartphones and feature phones, but the announcement of the Apple iPhone marked the beginning of the next leap forward -- a phone with the potential to replace the notebook computer for many of us.

    OK, we're not there yet, but the combination of a desktop-class OS, a desktop-class browser (well, almost), and a very slick, easy-to-use graphical interface puts most of the pieces together. Overlooking a minor irritation -- no memory card slot -- and one major one -- no removable battery -- the iPhone has already been broadly influential. Just have a look at Verizon's Voyager or the upcoming Android products, and you'll see that "cell phone" won't begin to describe the next generation of personal communicators.

    Apple's announcement that it would support local applications and that iTunes would eventually become a distribution channel for enterprise information completes the picture. Congratulations to Apple for leadership extending well beyond their already richly deserved reputation in computers.

  • WiMAX
    It was a year of ups and downs for WiMAX, unfortunately ending on a down note. WiMAX, at least mobile WiMAX, is the first of the fourth-generation (4G) wireless technologies, which promise essential equivalence with wireline services. But WiMAX, despite a broad industry presence, a great trade association (the WiMAX Forum), the completion of the IEEE 802.16e-2005 standard upon which it is based, and more buzz than a beehive (how I long for summer this time of year), has come up against the reality of costs, the amount of time it takes for technology products to stabilize and mature, and the competitive nature of the marketplace.

    The cellular guys -- particularly in the form of the 3GPP's LTE (Long Term Evolution) project, which Verizon Wireless just adopted as its next strategic direction -- are catching up. It appears that WiMAX is going to be more at home in emerging economies (see Cisco's big WiMAX direction) than in the industrialized world. But we'll still see some WiMAX here in the U.S. in 2008, and I think we'll be impressed with the performance and maybe even the price.

  • 4G
    Speaking of WiMAX, overall 4G progress won't be all that dramatic in 2008. But it is time for 4G to go into your planning, and I expect broad availability over the next three years or so. At last, multi-megabit, all-IP service with vastly improved price/performance over today's broadband wireless data offerings might be available.

    But it's important to note here that Wi-Fi, particularly in the form of 802.11n, is also a 4G technology when deployed in public spaces. Expect further progress in the convergence of Wi-Fi with wide-area broadband; two radios really are better than one. But also expect progress on femtocells, moving formerly outdoor networks indoors, especially in the residence. The business strategy the carriers will be pursuing as the voice market saturates is to lock in customers with both new hardware and new product and pricing offerings.

  • Open access and network neutrality
    This, in fact, is the biggest wireless and mobile story of the year, with very far-reaching importance to all of us. The FCC is mandating open access -- being able to use any subscriber unit that meets the required technical specifications of a given network -- in some of the blocks of 700 MHz spectrum to be auctioned in January. And Verizon Wireless, which just a few short months ago violently opposed the concept, is suddenly adopting openness as a key strategic direction.

    AT&T quickly followed, with open access available now. Google announced its open Android platform, designed to allow easy application porting to what promises to be a broad range of mobile devices. And Verizon Wireless has also promised network neutrality, supporting any application on its network. Wow! 2008 is going to be an exciting year for mobile with what I'm sure will be great new products and services aimed at essentially every market.

I've never been more excited about wireless mobile at any time in the more than 16 years that I've been working in the field. But let me compose myself here. As an analyst, it's my job to try to piece together numerous seemingly unrelated elements into a forecast of what's going to happen in the future, and that's how we'll wrap up the year. Next time, my fearless forecasts of a few more big issues and opportunities for 2008.

Craig Mathias
About the author: Craig Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass., specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. The firm works with manufacturers, enterprises, carriers, government, and the financial community on all aspects of wireless and mobile. He can be reached at craig@farpointgroup.com.

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