Electronic Design
Five Things You Need To Know About Smart Phones

Five Things You Need To Know About Smart Phones

Smart phones are the hottest consumer electronics product these days. Some projections say that half the cell-phone users in the U.S. will have smart phones before the end of this year. Others say that the smart phone is the new PC.

If you’re not already on this bandwagon, it may be time to climb aboard. If you track the cell phone industry, these five key smart-phone topics are probably familiar to you. If not, read on to learn about some of the core issues of the day.

1. “4G” Is Not 4G

Smart phones rely on 3G and so-called 4G networks. But although AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile and others call their most recent network upgrades 4G, they are not. AT&T and T-Mobile have fast HSPA network upgrades; Verizon has Long-Term Evolution (LTE); and Sprint and Clearwire use WiMAX networks. These upgrades have provided major improvements to the 3G systems’ handling of the smart-phone data glut.

But according to both the International Telecommunications Union and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, based on the ITU/3GPP definitions, they are still just 3G. Real 4G, i.e., IMT Advanced, includes LTE Advanced and the WiMAX 802.16m version—and won’t be here for a while. But don’t let that keep you from getting a smart phone. Data downloads are pretty fast these days and getting better.

2. AT&T And T-Mobile May Merge

A short while back, AT&T offered $39 billion to buy T-Mobile, a move that would combine the second and fourth largest cellular carriers. Such a merger would place Verizon (currently number one) as the only similar-sized competitor in the number two spot and Sprint in a distant third place.

Some call this move unfair, anticompetitive, or even monopolistic. Sprint and some other smaller carriers like Leap and MetroPCS are fighting the merger. Others say that it is a positive consolidation.

Since both AT&T and T-Mobile use the same GSM/WCDMA/LTE technology, the combination will expand the network to cover much more of the country and make it more reliable in both rural areas and big cities. This is a step toward meeting the increased connectivity requirements of the National Broadband Plan initiative.

&T is implying that the deal will be concluded by March 2012. Whatever the outcome, it is probably good for smart phones.

3. Cell Phones “May” Cause Cancer

This old scare is back again. A recent report from the World Health Organization indicates that excessive use of a cell phone “may” cause brain cancer. But this suggestion is not new. First circulated over a decade ago, it has yet to be conclusively proven.

To get cancer, one would presumably have to be on the phone continuously for years (and from what I have seen, if it were true, some consumers should already be there by now). Moderation, as usual, is the answer.

A far more relevant concern, and a proven killer, is texting—or even just talking on a handheld device—while driving. If you are concerned about the risk, use a Bluetooth hands-free headset at all times, not just when you drive.

Other ways to reduce the risk is to limit your indoor or in-car usage to mitigate the higher power that the cell phone adjusts to in these situations. Speakerphone operation is another way to reduce the risk. And most of all, keep kids away from cell phones as long as possible, as some studies indicate that such radiation is more harmful to younger people. Given all that, a recent survey indicates that less than 10% of the population thinks this is a problem and most likely will not take any direct action. We shall see.

4. LightSquared

This startup is building a nationwide broadband wireless network that includes a huge geosynchronous satellite. Rather than competing with the traditional carriers, LightSquared will offer wholesale-only LTE services (1.525 GHz) to other companies that wish to establish a wireless network or services. The goal is to help ensure that everyone in the U.S. can get broadband connectivity as mandated by the FCC’s National Broadband Plan.

LightSquared is well on its way to building its network, but a recent snag has slowed things down. Because the basestations transmit on an L-band frequency close to the GPS satellites (1.575 GHz), some of them can interfere with GPS navigation.

The problem can be partially solved by using more selective filters on the basestations. Better filters on GPS receivers would help, too. LightSquared has access to an alternate segment of spectrum, further removed from the GPS frequencies, that may also solve the problem. The FCC will let LightSquared proceed when a solution is implemented.

One possibility is a rescue by Sprint Nextel and Clearwire. These carriers may soon implement LTE and drop their WiMAX technology now in operation. Using the wholesale services of LightSquared is an option, and Sprint has spectrum that could solve the problem. The discussion continues.

5. Smart-Phone OSs Proliferate

How many operating systems (OSs) do we have now? Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, RIM’s BlackBerry OS, Nokia’s Symbian, hp’s new WebOS, and of course Microsoft’s recently updated Windows Mobile 7 OS. Android, available on a variety phones at multiple price points, is in the lead; iOS, available only on Apple iPhones, is a close second. Symbian used to be the top OS worldwide but is slipping as Nokia loses the smart-phone battle.

In fact, Nokia, the world’s largest cell-phone manufacturer by unit volume, recently decided to phase out Symbian and shift to the Microsoft OS. That move halts Nokia’s collaboration with Intel and others on development of the MeeGo OS. (MeeGo is used in Nokia’s new N9 smart phone, but its life will be short.)

The shift to Microsoft is designed to speed the introduction of new smart-phone models in an effort to stem Nokia’s market share decline. We shall see. Nokia has some cool smart phones now, but they are expensive and none of the U.S. carriers offer them. Maybe a Microsoft version will help.

The Hot Market

Anyway, smart phones are on fire. New “4G” models appear almost daily, and we are beginning to see more LTE phones. Apple iPhones and Android phones predominate, but BlackBerry is still a player. And there are great models from HTC, Motorola, Samsung, hp, and LG.

With basic texting on the decline, carriers and others are pushing harder for smart phones and more data services to replace the low overhead income it has delivered over the years. And don’t forget, the apps for smart phones are driving sales in some cases. Where else can you get such clever and useful software? Yes, tablets—but you can’t beat the smart phone for a do-everything communication device at a lower price (albeit with a smaller screen).

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