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Sunday, May 08, 2005

ICE: The Telecom / Technology story PART II

In the last articles we had examined how some of the issues with Communication revolution are resolved. Now, will it be possible for the communication revolution to hit us as hard as had been predicted? Again I do not have the answers.

Yet, when I observe the ICE space evolving in the Indian context, I see a clear dichotomy of evolution. Service Providers are seeing great business models in the application segment. Hence they are pushing applications to the consumers. Some of the very basic applications have been a hit. “TV on the mobile” has not really taken off but downloading ring tones has been a money spinner. Consumers are accepting some and rejecting many applications. The service providers and instrument manufacturers are eager to understand what the next money spinner could be.

I believe the key to the success of new applications rests with the device. Let us look at the device in more detail.

A device is a piece of equipment we use to access the bandwidth. These devices are tools for processing information, communicating tools or entertainment platforms.

Components of the device
Any component can be disaggregated into:

  • Processor
  • Memory / Storage
  • Human Interface
  • Identification
  • Power unit
  • Network Interface


A significant development is happening from each of the devices getting a piece of silicon in them. Things from alarm clocks to washing machines to cars to televisions everything has become “smart”.

If you look closely, you will realize that in devices where there was enough space and supply of power people have thought of putting a processor. Nanotechnology is making these chips smaller and faster and cooler (lower heat generation). This is assisting the development.

Applications can be developed for devices that have a general purpose processor with an operating system. The Application based business model will imply that environment will favour these devices. In fact, many of the applications that currently use special purpose processors (Fuel timing chips in cars) will start using this business model. But just wait before you start dreaming about the kind of possibilities.

Memory / Storage
As with the processor chips, memory chips are getting smaller. Sure, but there is a difference. Let me bring your attention to the different business models. They demonstrate the evolution discreetly.

Your Mobile Service voicemail, which is a form of storage of information, resides on the network, but your SMS messages need to be stored on your device. Have you thought why?

Well the simple answer is that Voicemail was bulkier than SMS and memory in the device was scarce so smaller size application moved to the device first. So does this mean that eventually when we have “a lot” of memory all the data will sit on our mobile phones? I guess not.

The key question one needs to ask is what happens when the bandwidth access speed becomes so fast that we can access most of the application on the fly. To answer this, look at the email. Email for most cases is stored on central servers.

What I am stating is that there are various models, the email model wherein data stays on the server, applications stay on the mobile. There is SMS model, where in the data stays with the person and the application goes to the server.

Where what is stored is decided by the bandwidth available at your disposal. Consequently, as the bandwidth increases, we might shift towards fetch as you need models.

Moving further…
The components that I am discussing below are a little far fetched. I am not sure if they will happen as there are some economic / strategic / competitive reasons for suggestions not happening. If you know any reason what are the reasons these would not happen please write to me.

I will however, continue with the series of components of the devices. The next being the human interface.

Human Interface
Human Interface is something wherein we are able to interact with the device. This is also an area where least development has taken place. The reason is just that collectively we take a lot of time to learn the new ways to interface with machines. In one sense “driving a car” is an interfacing function and so is interacting with a computer.

But beyond the weirdness, if you simply concentrate on computer – human interface, you will find discrepancies. For example, computer screen is now our primary media, yet we type documents in A4 format. Does that make the documents more readable?
Mobile phone manufacturers are telling us that we should watch television on the mobile phone screen. No one asked me am I comfortable watching it.

There are some developments worth noticing. People have put television screens in cars, behind aircraft seats and possibly wherever they could. Also the projection technology is improving substantially.

What can drastically alter the interface aspect is the internetworking of all these interface technologies. Like your laptop keyboard can be used for your mobile. And your television can show the photo you just received on your computer. We get the hint with the new software that comes with the cell phones these days that allow you to peek at the Cell phone contents thorough your computer.

So it means that we will use what ever screen we have in close proximity to us. The software that will allow for this versatility will have to hit the market. But there is a strong case for such internetworking to happen.

Sounds weird doesn’t it? But there is no reason it should not happen. And though it has already started sounding magical there is more.

Identifiers are those parts of devices that enable the network to know your identity. The SIM card in the mobile phone is one such identifier. On the computer there is a login-password mechanism that is used as an identifier.

As is well known the identifiers are key to security! (PUN intended) In fact a lack of developments in convenient scanners has limited the growth of the online transactions. It is primarily why Bill Gates is tracking security closely. That is why he is such a visionary.

There are two / three elements in the security environment. One is scanning the user input and second is transporting it across the bandwidth securely.

Public Key Infrastructure promises to deliver this very functionality. Coupled with a hand held reliable finger-print scanner, this will transform the way we conduct business. I think we need to watch for a day when hand held scanners can be connected with or embedded in a cell phone.

There will be a substantial discontinuity in terms of electronic transactions when that happens.

Yeas of course there is still more.

Every device needs power. Mobile devices carry their power pack along with them, rest of them are plugged to the wall because of power.

Improvements in battery technology have allowed us to have longer battery life out of a smaller battery. It has allowed us to have lot of applications running on our mobile devices.

Battery has played a critical role in the number of applications the mobile device can take. The better the battery the more applications you can load on it.

Charging technology has also improved. Apple has made some progress in this area by making the iPod charge while we play the songs from it.

Yet, have you noticed that the device manufacturers do not have a standard battery packs. Each device comes with its own charger and its own socket. We cannot use a Nokia charger with Samsung Phone, or we cannot use a cell phone charger for a laptop. If these devices have interchangeable power plugs, it will mean a lot more convenience for the consumer.

When we will see a movement in that direction is God’s guess.

We have seen how the different components of the devices can change and unleash a new wave of applications. At the outset some of the thoughts may seen outrageous, but it is not that far fetched.

For example, the power units of computers are standardized across motherboards so it is not unrealistic to expect that we can have a standard for power plugs in mobile phones. These are changes that have happened and will happen sooner or later.

The way forward
In the next article I will examine what are the different kinds of functionalities that can be added into mobile phones as an example. I will propose a hypothesis that there is a convergence in devices as well in terms of components. I will also give you examples where components are added to the device to create better value and also examples where components are sold separately to create value.

Please let me know what you think on this. Your feedback is critical and will enlighten me. And do check back again to read about the new devices and the future of ICE.