Mobile computing in 2006 -- A look back

Craig Mathias looks at last year's key developments in mobile computing and wireless communications.

It's really hard to single out the key events in fields as big as mobile computing and wireless communications, no matter what the time frame under consideration. I speak at a lot of conferences, and I'm often asked to send in my slides two months or so in advance of the event. I always have to let the organizers know that rapidly changing areas of technology don't allow for such a luxury and that slides produced so far in advance will be obsolete, at least in places, if deadlines like these are imposed. The beauty of publishing on the Web, of course, is that this probability is pretty small.

Besides, we're going to look at the really big, key developments in mobile computing and communications of 2006. And the biggest of all, of course, is the rise of truly mobile broadband communications. During 2006, all of the major cellular operators, with the exception of T-Mobile, enhanced the footprints of their 3G services. T-Mobile, in another big story, obtained access to significant chunks of newly auctioned spectrum, and they'll be busy throughout 2007 building out their UMTS network. No matter who the carrier, though, mobile broadband is going to become a reality in a big way. In an announcement just a few days ago, the backers of EV-DO Rev C renamed this technology Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) and noted throughput numbers as high as 280 Mbps! This, even to me, is amazing. I remember back in 1993 and 1994 when we were using two-way wide-area systems that could barely support 4.8 Kbps (although they were marketed as 19.2 Kbps -- some things never change!). Now we're talking about wireless-LAN-class speeds, and there still appears to be no limit to what we mere mortals are willing to pay for such service. Research projects reporting throughput as high as 1 Gbps and even 2.4 Gbps have been conducted. Today, practical speeds as high as 700-900 Kbps are regularly obtained, and the progress will continue.

The next jumping-off point in throughput, in fact, will be the result of another huge story this year, and that's Sprint's decision to deploy WiMAX in the U.S. I expect WiMAX to offer 2-4 Mbps when it's launched in Chicago and Washington, D.C., late next year. And I expect the price to be about half what we pay today – perhaps as low as $30-40 per month. The pending availability of WiMAX in the U.S. is nevertheless providing significant stimulation to the competition, so price/performance is going to improve even if prices do not drop that rapidly. In any event, 2006 will be remembered as the definitive year for mobile broadband, with the announcement of mobile WiMAX a positively groundbreaking development.

Finally, 2006 saw the rise of Windows Mobile as the preferred operating environment for mobile devices. OK, I'm out on a limb just a little bit here, and I'm not even all that big a fan of Windows Mobile. I've never, in fact, been all that crazy about Microsoft products, which I find … um … complex. And Windows Mobile sales were certainly below expectations this year. But with Palm shipping Windows Mobile products and with so many others now available, it's only a matter of time before enterprise IT jumps on the Windows Mobile Bandwagon. For traditional mobile devices, with local storage and processing, Windows Mobile is now very clearly the winner.

But before even I get too excited here, there's another alternative to Windows Mobile that's even more interesting in the long term, and I'll have more on that in my next column.

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 [email protected]

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