StratVantage – The News – 01/23/02

 Choosing a Cell Phone

Alert SNS Reader Roger Hamm wants to know what to do about PDA/cell phone convergence. Is it time to make the jump, or does it make sense to wait until new services such as GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) become available?

With the average cell phone user getting a new phone every two years or so, it’s likely that anything you buy today will be replaced soon enough anyway, so there’s little risk in buying a phone today, at least for the cheaper ones. With the PDA-integrated phones costing north of $300, however, the decision becomes a little harder.

The only reason to wait to buy a normal phone would be to see if AT&T Wireless (now independent of its famous parent) gets its act together with GPRS. From a pilot in Seattle a little more than six months ago, the company has added eight markets and plans to serve about 40 percent of current customers with GPRS by the end of the year, and serve all its markets by the end of 2002. So they’re making progress.

So what’s so cool about GPRS? Well, first of all, data rates are faster than the 2G (Second Generation) digital wireless system you undoubtedly have today. With a normal phone, data access is pretty limited, about 9.6Kbps or roughly five to six times slower than a 56Kbps modem. With GPRS, you could use up to four 9.6Kbps timeslots, yielding throughput of about up to 38.4Kbps, which is comparable to the speed you get when uploading using a 56Kbps modem. You’ll see vendors claiming much faster access. In the real world, however, it’s unlikely you’ll ever get all four available slots, so your mileage may vary. In fact, you could be sharing timeslots with other users, since GPRS doesn’t require a dedicated slot, but rather acts more like a normal IP network and sends traffic when it can. These limitations notwithstanding, you at least have a shot at faster throughput.

Of course, the question is, what will you do with that throughput. On the dinky little screens available on most phones, I’d say not much. I’ve got Internet access on my phone and couldn’t be less interested in slogging through dozens of screens to look up a movie time, for example.

Undaunted by the real challenges of the crippled cell phone user interface, AT&T promotes these advantages for GPRS:

  • Wireless access to information and e-mail. AT&T wants you to believe that mobile workers can have access to corporate applications, email, and intranets or the Web. Of course, you can do that today, just not easily.
  • Voice calling on the world-standard GSM network. The GSM standard is in use in over 150 countries around the world. Unfortunately, not every GSM system uses the same radio bandwidth, so this advantage is softened.
  • Constant connectivity. Unlike the kludgy Web access available on current phones, which require you to stop talking and initiate a data connection first, GPRS offers instant access to the data network. Once in data mode, you are ready to send or receive data in real time since there’s no dial-up required to connect to the network. The company falls short of claiming you can talk on the phone and surf the Web at the same time.
  • Pay only for the data you use. This “advantage” could turn into a disadvantage. Palm started its Palm VII wireless service with a similar scheme, although AT&T users only pay for the amount of transmitted data rather than network connect time. AT&T is bundling 400 voice minutes with a megabyte of download for $50. However, users don’t like variable cost Web access, so we’ll just see how long this business model lasts.
  • Powerful, easy-to-use devices. The AT&T Wireless GSM/GPRS network supports a variety of devices, including phones and GSM/GPRS PC Card modems, for use with a Pocket PC or a laptop computer.
  • Long battery life. Characteristics of the AT&T Wireless GSM/GPRS network provide for more efficient battery use.
  • Secure and reliable transmissions. The AT&T network provides encryption and authentication for enhanced voice and data transmission security, and packet data technology for reliable transmissions. We’ll just see how secure it is.
  • Get customers to pay for 3G network upgrade. This benefits AT&T mostly, of course. By doing the GPRS upgrade, AT&T will incur most of the expense of offering advanced 3G wireless services and get revenue in the process. “We’ve got to install switches, new antennas and software,” AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi says. “As we move to deploying EDGE [Enhanced Data rates for Global Evolution, a rather grandiose name for the next level of technology], that’s a software upgrade.” The final evolution to UMTS (Universal Mobile Telephone System), or full 3G technology, will involve software and minor hardware upgrades. Unfortunately, UMTS is only one of at least three technologies competing to be the 3G standard worldwide.

AT&T is not the only wireless player to have GPRS capability, although they were the first.

Cingular Wireless has started migrating its network to EDGE technology that supports speeds as high as 384Kbps. Sounds great, but their first step is to install GSM and GRPS technology on top of its TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) and analog networks, just like AT&T. Cingular has already employed GPRS in some markets, including Seattle and Las Vegas, the Carolinas, eastern Tennessee and coastal Georgia.

Voicestream, the US’s largest GSM network, said its new GPRS-based iStream network operates at 40 Kbps, and is available nationwide. They are charging $5 per month for a megabyte. Currently, the service only works with the MotorolaP280 and T193 wireless phones.

Sprint plans on skipping directly to true 3G services, offering speeds of up to 144 kbps, and nationwide. It remains to be seen if this is the smart move or not.

So is it worthwhile to wait until GPRS is available? Hard to say. The PDA/cell phone converged devices are already available for current wireless networks (of course, not including the one I use, AT&T). They’ll have larger screens and make it somewhat less annoying to use the Internet. Many of the currently available combo units even feature the Palm operating system.

If you don’t want to wait, Sprint has the Kyocera phone, and I’ve talked to several people who have it and love it. It’s fatter than a phone and skinnier than a Palm V. The screen is approximately two-thirds the size of the Palm V, but it beats trying to fit a Palm and a phone in your pants pocket. Another alternative is theSamsung phone (reported in a previous SNS) which is Palm-based with a color screen, but which is a little pricey ($499).

Sprint also has an add-on module for the Handspring PDA that turns it into a phone (reported in a previous SNS). I’ve heard good things about it, but don’t know anyone who has it.

Verizon offers the cool Motorola V200, which is a pager on steroids. This is an example of the engineers not understanding their true role in life. About a year ago Motorola announced that they’d have a converged phone by 2003 or 2004. I thought, what the heck? Their lunch will be all eaten by then. Well nobody told the pager guys it was hard to do. So they just slapped a phone into their text pager, and voila! Convergence.

Verizon also offers the Kyocera phone.

Voicestream’s network coverage is improving, but still lags the others. They offer the Motorola V100, similar to the V200.

Cingular offers a cool Motorola phone, but their coverage is not nationwide, although they claim more than 21.2 million customers in 38 states, and 42 of the top 50 markets nationwide, covering more than 93 percent of the urban business population located in 492 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) and non-MSAs with a total population of 200 million people. They sound a tad defensive, don’t they? And they’re not in Minneapolis, so what does that tell you?

BTW, Cingular has by far the worst Web site of the bunch. Wringing any significant information out of it is an achievement.

Several regional wireless players also have cool phones. For example, Qwest offers the Kyocera phone. Qwest’s coverage is quite limited, however, and does not include Illinois, for example.

And we can’t forget our favorite software monopoly. Microsoft is pushing its SmartPhone technology, but I’m not aware of any major phone maker who is planning on releasing it in a phone.

So the answer to Roger’s question is: If you’re willing to plunk down $400 to $500 on a converged device that might be obsolete as early as the end of this year, go for it. For my money, I’d get a Handspring with the plug in module. It’s a bulkier, more expensive package, and the antenna could poke holes in your pants, but at least you’ve got a shot at selling the module on eBay once it becomes obsolete.

Briefly Noted

  • Shameless Self-Promotion Dept.: StratVantage has launched a new service, CTOMentor™, designed to allow Chief Technology Officers and other technical leaders to get rid of the Guilt Stack, that pile of magazines you’ll get around to reading someday.CTOMentor is a subscription advisory service tailored to customers’ industry and personal information needs. Four times a year CTOMentor provides a four-hour briefing for subscribers and their staffs on the most important emerging technology trends that could affect their businesses. As part of the service, subscribers also get a weekly email newsletter, Just the Right Stuff™, containing links to the Top 10 Must Read articles needed to stay current. These and other CTOMentor services will let you Your Inbox™.

    As part of its launch, CTOMentor is offering a two-part white paper on peer-to-peer technology: Peer-to-Peer Computing and Business Networks: More Than Meets the Ear. Part 1, What is P2P?, is available for free on the CTOMentor Web site. Part 2, How Are Businesses Using P2P?, is available for $50.
    CTOMentor

  • All Things Must Pass: Microsoft has announced that it is ending support for Windows 95. The operating system has entered the “Non-Supported” phase of Microsoft’s product lifecycle. This means only online support is offered, and good luck getting any bugs fixed. Expect other software vendors to follow suit and drop support for Win95 versions, like Black Ice Defender did recently. Win95 was the last Microsoft OS that ran decently on 486 machines, so it’s time to either donate those machines to a good cause or load Linux on them. The following OSes are either non-supported or scheduled to be:

    MS DOS x.xx (December 31, 2001)
    Windows 3.xx (December 31, 2001)
    Windows 95 (November 30, 2001)
    Windows NT 3.5x (December 31, 2001)
    Windows 98/98 SE (June 30, 2003)
    Windows NT 4.xx (June 30, 2003)

    Microsoft

  • Let Me Roll You: Alert SNS Reader David Dabbs sent along an article about Rolltronics Corporation and Iowa Thin Film Technologies, who recently demonstrated the first working silicon transistors made using a new “roll-to-roll” manufacturing technique. In this process, a continuous sheet of flexible polymer is unrolled from one spool, covered with silicon circuit designs, and collected on another spool. Such cheap, thin electronics could be incorporated into radio-frequency ID tags, (see the Auto-ID entry in theTrendSpot), digital X-ray detector panels, biometric sensors and flat screen displays.
    Technology Review

 

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