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Understanding mobile convergence

Mobile convergence is simply the implementation of mobile handsets and similar devices that incorporate more than one radio, with the ability to hand off a connection between these otherwise incompatible physical layers. The objective is to converge upper-layer voice, data and media communications capabilities into a single logical set of services available in essentially the same form on, say, Wi-Fi and cellular networks, with no user intervention and no difference in functionality.

The term convergence is perhaps as misused as any in high tech, but it's important nonetheless. The implication here is that previously disparate or complementary technologies, systems, products or applications merge under a single technological or even marketing umbrella and form a concept with broader appeal and the promise of greater user benefits.

Everyone remembers the Great Digital Convergence of the 1990s, when digital media became the norm -- and did so despite the wide variety of file formats and associated artifacts that survive to this day. Networks converged to IP, although debate remains over the value and future role of IPv6. But I want to use the term here to refer to the implementation of mobile handsets and similar devices that incorporate more than one radio, with the ability to hand off a connection between these otherwise incompatible physical layers. The objective is to converge upper-layer voice, data and media communications capabilities into a single logical set of services available in essentially the same form on, say, Wi-Fi and cellular networks, with no user intervention and no difference in functionality.

I'm going to argue, in fact, that cellular (either the GSM or CDMA branches, extending to WiMAX and other 4G technologies) plus Wi-Fi form a complete set of wireless capabilities for business and consumer applications and are all that will be required to implement essentially all future consumer- and enterprise-grade wireless products and services. The technologies required to perform the handoff between these two radios exist today, and standards are also under development. Products are available from a number of suppliers, in the form of equipment that an enterprise can install and manage, and as services from a number of carriers around the globe. I'm further going to argue that the carriers will ultimately become the most important proponents of convergence because their expensive licensed spectrum will prove inadequate to serve the rapidly increasing demand for mobile broadband connectivity. Wi-Fi is the perfect adjunct, especially in high-demand urban areas, and users won't have to know a thing about what's going on beyond the mobile application they're using.

But I must note here that the term convergence is probably on the way out, to be replaced by an even larger and more-encompassing concept -- mobile unified communications. The big players here, such as Avaya and Cisco, already have mobile UC offerings via partnerships with DiVitas and Agito, respectively, as well as their own strong unified messaging product offerings. Unified messaging is a very broad term, but I use it to refer to all personal and business communications (IM, SMS, fax, voice, video and more) being integrated into a single logical service, with some conversion of messaging formats and the ability to support a wide variety of both fixed and mobile clients -- in other words, whatever is handy and convenient for the user. And if wireless and mobile are not about convenience, then what's the point? Convergence/mobile UC is thus at the very core of mobility and integral to its value -- and, in fact, to its definition going forward.

I would therefore argue (I'm not always this argumentative!) that convergence/mobile UC is clearly in your future -- no matter your industry, profession or occupation -- and it needs to be at the very heart of your mobility strategy. And, to prepare, think about (I mean require) dual-mode (cellular plus Wi-Fi) handsets when making future purchases. And this isn't just about the iPhone: Numerous dual-mode handsets are on the market, from all of the major carriers. As for the rest of your mobile UC solution -- well, it's early, and the vendors and carriers are furiously innovating away, so expect a fluid landscape. But with undeniable benefits in productivity, convenience and cost, the dual-radio solution will come to dominate mobility over the next few years.

Craig Mathias
 

About the author: Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, Mass. The company works with manufacturers, network operators, enterprises, and the financial community in technology assessment and analysis, strategy development, product specification and design, product marketing, program management, education and training, and the integration of emerging technologies into new and existing business operations, across a broad range of markets and applications. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies and has published numerous technical and overview articles on a variety of topics. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows, and he is currently a member of the advisory boards for the Interop (Las Vegas and New York) and Mobile Internet World conferences. Craig is also the program chair for the Mobile Business Expo (MBX) conferences. He serves as a monthly columnist for SearchMobileComputing.com andComputerworld.com and is an ardent blogger ("Nearpoints") for networkworld.com. He holds a Sc.B. degree in applied mathematics/computer science from Brown University.

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