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How far can SmartPhones go ?

During the last two years smartphones have developed at an incredible pace. The future seems to point to even better performance with more muscle underneath the covers. Many point out that the smartphone today is in fact a small computer.

I remember back in my college days that one of the key things taught to me was that computer design is really about an interplay of 3 resources. The CPU, the memory and the I/O bandwidth. Depending on which of these are constrained, the design and architecture of computers can change. For example, the classic CISC vs RISC debate, was in many ways triggered by the fact that the CISC model was designed for an age when memory was expensive compared to CPU processing power and so minimizing memory was important. Hence the complex instruction sets. RISC came into vogue, when it was realized that due to cheaper memories, it made sense to use more memory to keep simpler instructions, so that the CPUs could run faster. As the network technology has improved we have swung from dumb terminals to smart standalone PCs networked together, and now we seem to be swinging back to semi-dumb terminals as cloud computing becomes more popular.

In the end, it is always critical that the three legs balance themselves. Any one leg going out too far ahead by itself would not be useful.  The other legs had to be adjusted in some way.

These days, I’m thinking there was an important fourth leg that was missed (either by my professors or maybe because I nodded off  🙂 ) and that is the user interface. The move to graphical user interfaces in the 90s showed this. If we had stuck with DOS like interfaces I’m not sure how much more of the CPU, memory, network I/O bandwidth increases that came in the 1990s we would have needed. But thanks to Microsoft Windows and X-Windows this increased in leaps and bounds. (Of course some might argue this was not for the better.)

So it is not a three legged stool but now  a four legged chair.

More recently, I think the mobile phone has I think brought the user interface again to the forefront in this discussion. Before the current generation of smartphones, even though the technology was there, there were no paradigm shifting smartphones. Yes, blackberry and the nokia N series etc. did exist but they did not grab the public mindshare until the iPhone came onto the scene. Apple’s contribution to this in many ways was to show how critical user interface design was – in some ways I would say they were the ones to bring about a quantum leap in user interface design for the masses. (Note that Apple’s iPhone never had the most powerful CPUs nor most memory, and it didn’t even have 3G in the first generation.)

The interesting thing today, is that all of the four legs seem to be improving at a rapid rate in the mobile phone.  The CPUs are going to 1GHz and multi-core architectures, memory is always getting cheaper, bandwidth is increasing with 3G, 4G and improvements to Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies such as Bluetooth. But it seems of these four legs – the one that we are not able to as fast as the others is the fourth one.

We are stuck with a screen size that can not be too large, otherwise we could not carry it around. This in turns hampers how we can interact with the phone. Not only in our ability to use input, but also in many cases our ability to consume data on a small screen is limited compared with, for example, the much larger desktop or TV screen. The keypad is always going to be somewhat uncomfortable though one can become used to it. The touch interface has been a huge improvement. But how far can it go now given our pudgy fingers ? Voice interfaces have improved greatly. Maybe that can bring a further increase ?  Will we need to rely on more futuristic user interface devices such as projectors, or “smart” glasses with heads up displays ?

Another direction things can go in is shown by Google Goggles. The user interface can potentially be made more intelligent by offloading more of the processing to the cloud. In many cases that may be the best because for somethings such as image recognition you need access to huge databases and supercomputer like processing power. Note this sort of approach relies not only on increased CPU in the phones but also greatly improved network I/O bandwidth.

What do you think ?

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Wi-Fi on Smartphones, iPad and your Dataplans – Part 1

Update : A follow-on post to this has been added.

One of the trends that has emerged in the last year has been the increase of wi-fi capable smartphones.  In the US market, originally most of the major mobile operators blocked wi-fi functionality. Only recently has this changed. And this has changed in a big way – operators are now saying they will have wi-fi functionality on most smartphones going forward.  They have even announced plans to allow access to Wi-Fi hotspot networks.

What is driving this ? Simply put it is the explosion in mobile data usage and the strain it is causing cellular operator networks. ATT is the poster child of these problems and they have been the most aggressive in rolling out wi-fi as a solution for their cellular data capacity crunch. They have rolled out free wi-fi access to customers at multiple popular sites such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and the Barnes & Noble bookstores.

The thing that amazes me is that this took so long.  There are probably multiple reasons for this.

  1. Some operators (and vendors) were concerned that adding Wi-Fi to the smartphones made the handsets too expensive.
  2. There just wasn’t much of a need for it as there was no cellular data capacity crunch. (i.e. no iPhones or Droids to strain the networks)
  3. In other cases, operators were afraid that it would result in lower usage of their cellular data plans.

I can’t say much about the first and second reasons except that it is now obviously an issue and adding network capacity may be more prohibitive. But if it was the third, I think this is a case where the situation is a bit more complex than such simple reasoning.

Assuming today’s predominant post-paid billing models, encouraging the use of Wi-Fi on smartphones for operators would have been a classic case of applying the “breakage” model.  Examples of businesses relying on this model include Netflix and the gift card industry. For example in the gift card industry, everyone buys these cards for a certain fee, but not everyone use up the whole card. The ones who don’t use up the whole card’s value are in effect leaving money to the gift card company!

The link with Wi-Fi enabled smartphones is that operators are can be viewed as operating under the breakage model. The smarthphone users pay a certain monthly fee for cellular data usage. They also get Wi-Fi capable phones, so the users will have the ability to use celllular and Wi-Fi data connections. But if the operator makes it easy for them to use Wi-Fi then they will use it as in many cases it will be faster. But these mobile users, will still be paying the cellular operator their normal monthly fees for their data plans.   (Note, this assumes most such users keep their cellular data even if they have Wi-Fi functionality on their phones and also that the cost of making Wi-Fi available in hot spots is not that expensive for operators.) This is exactly like gift cards !

So you would think that operators should have done this a long time ago ? Actually it has only become really important recently with the huge increase in mobile data usage brought about by the introduction of the “super” smartphones such as the iPhone. ATT’s cellular network has been under such strain that it has actively pursued the offloading of mobile data to Wi-Fi networks. The fact that due to the “breakage” model they are employing their bottom line is healthier is an added benefit.

Now the iPad is interesting, in that its recently announced data plan is different from this model. In fact, it is the among the first ones in the USA where the user can choose to use Wi-Fi most of the time and then just turn on their 3G cellular data connection only when they need it. So in some ways it is the first test of a case where “breakage” may not apply to cellular data usage when Wi-Fi is available. Only when people would really use 3G would they pay for it. So for operators this becomes a problem – they are only get paid for real data usage. One has to wonder how well the economics would work if this were widely adopted across all phones. Doubtless not too well.

Another wrinkle in this boat – is that going forward how would tiered usage pricing work in such cases ? Because that would have potentially similar effects to the iPad case – you can view the iPad as an extreme case of the the tiered dta pricing model but where the tiers are binary, you either have it or don’t. There would have to be some use of the “breakage” model at some level to make it profitable for the operator – i.e. it may be the lowest tier users, who will be asked to pay for a flat $15 dataplan even if they use no data.

How open or closed is the iPad?

The iPad and iPhone is a closed system. And a lot of people have criticized this, compared with Android etc. But one especially ironic comparison has been the comparisons with the “openness” of the Apple II and philosophy of Steve Wozniak, the other founder of Apple. For example, the original Apple II not only allowed any hardware to be developed and plugged in, but the hardware schematics were included with the product to allow anyone to start tinkering with it.

While at a one level this is certainly true – I think at a more fundamental level is misses the point. In the 1980s’ knowing the hardware was essential because in order for your Apple II to live with other things or to add features / functions to it – you needed to add hardware in someway. To connect to a printer, to connect to a FDD /HDD etc. but now the situation is much different. Today, you have many of connecting to the outside world from the iPad – wi-fi, bluetooth, and if need be USB (once the connectors become available). So to connect / control etc. with something else, you really just need to write the software.

A case in point – is the app that was just introduced to connect an iPhone’s camera to the iPad to get over the limitations of the fact that the current 1st generation iPad does not contain a camera. While not exactly the most elegant solution (which obviously would have been an integrated one) – this shows how today with software you can solve many problems, or shall I say achieve the many of the goals of the “openness” of the Apple II days that could only be achieved by making your own hardware and software together.

Now, of course there is one important aspect of “openness” that is different. Today, you have Apple as the gatekeeper of this ecosystem. Many people will be unhappy with that of course. But you can still put on your own apps onto your iPad/iPhone. Which is what hackers did with the old Apple II anyway. The constraint really only came into play if you wanted to send it out into the world. Which I admit is a limitation and for some hackers a serious limitation.
But from the everyday consumer perspective – I think the iPad / iPhone is as open as it needs to be (well maybe 90% as I still don’t have multi-tasking 🙂 ).

Verizon, ATT, Skype – is ATT setting itself up for another fall ?

A lot of people have been excited by the announcement by Verizon Wireless  will allow Skype .

One interesting thing to note is that this will not be “true” VoIP over 3G.  They will be using a variant of the technology where the mobile user’s call is sent over verizon’s wireless cellular network but then gets put on Skype’s VoIP network once it is inside verizon’s core network. The UK operator 3 already does something similar based on technology from the company iSkoot.  Basically the 3G data connection is only used for “always on” connectivity to enable Skype’s presence and IM capabilities. Note, this will work fine over even their lower speed data networks such as the areas where they only have 2G (aka 1xRTT) coverage.  Verizon will use their robust cellular voice radio network (at least until it hits the Skype box in their core) for the actual voice. So what Verizon is doing is very smart.  You use data for the key parts that make the service valuable (the “always on” presence information) and use their voice network where it will shine (the robust voice network). And as it will be on Verizon’s voice network, you can be sure that the coverage will be outstanding and the calls will be good quality.  So this is not really true VoIP, but a good way of reusing existing technology for maximum effect. (But it also means that there is still no solution for Voice over LTE – which is something Verizon needs to solve in the future. More on that in a future blog post.)

In comparison – ATT will also allow real VoIP over 3G with the Skype app for the iPhone.  But this is slightly different from Verizon’s play, in fact it is a potentially dangerous bet. Skype knows there are challenges there (as noted in various blogs)  so they are taking their time and trying to make it as solid as possible.  But in the end – when it does come out, I suspect it will not be able to get over the fact that VoIP over 3G (whether ATT or Verizon) will not cut it for now. That is just the reality of today’s network roll out.  So while Skype may try to optimize – it will not be able to over come the inherent limitations of current 3G networks, which were built in many cases to maximize throughput over delay, and also do not ensure smooth seamless handover between base stations.

Do you see a replay of today’s commercials about whose network is more robust ?

But there is one thing the Skype app for ATT will have that is way better than the Verizon offering – at least in theory. And that is the fact that the iPhone Skype application will support HD audio and also be usable over WiFi. In case you have not heard – HD audio is like HDTV except for it is for voice. The voice quality is much better than traditional cellular voice calls. Plus the fact that it can be used over WiFi is also potentially a boon for people traveling in foreign countries or within easy reach of WiFi.

Finally AFAIK there is no reason why ATT can not role out the same type of solution.

Hello world and What will I blog about ?

Well, I will be blogging on any number of technical areas that I get interested. It will be rather random but will cover any number of topics from

  • telecommunications
  • internet
  • technology related economics & business
  • and anything else that captures my fancy

Hopefully, it will be worth coming back to and reading more…

I’ll keep my private life musings on a different blog …