The Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA) met last week (September 27-29) in San Francisco to discuss the state of the industry and figure out what is next. This is the big meeting held twice a year for the cell phone carriers, manufacturers, and others that serve this huge industry. I should have gone this year but I didn’t because of other conflicts. It is one of the more interesting meetings of its type as it sets the tone and direction for this enormous industry.
Sometimes, however, I wonder if they should not invite the customers they serve. I suppose all those who do attend are customers as well as industry participants, but their sense of things is clearly warped by all the technological and competitive pressures that the rest of us never see. I tend to believe they are inventing stuff that most of us don’t want. But isn’t that the way of electronics? We invent new products and services just because the technology allows us to do so. The mode of business is to come up with some new product and throw it out there to see what works. If that fails, invent something else until we find what people will buy—which is not necessarily what people want or need. Anyway, it is business as usual. Don’t you love it?
The cell phone is a truly a magnificent device. A wireless wonder. As a ham operator in my teens many decades ago, I couldn’t even imagine such a product. Now, the cell phone for most of us is not a luxury. It is part of our life style. You pick it up along with your wallet or purse and car keys when you leave the house. It is addictive and hard to do without. Cell phone carriers perform a key service to all cell phone slaves. But that’s not enough. They want us to buy even more. Most carriers already offer data services like text messaging or short-message service (SMS), multimedia service, and Internet access. Many new phones have built-in cameras. Yet, the number of people who actually use these services is a small percentage of the current U.S. cell phone subscriber population of 196 million. Be truthful now, do you use your cell phone camera for anything other than taking pictures of yourself?
My wife and I recently got new cell phones from Cingular. We avoided the built-in cameras as we couldn’t figure out what we really needed them for. Anyway, we already have two digital cameras. Both of our new Nokia phones have short-message service (SMS) capability and Internet access via GPRS. We signed up to try out the SMS, and it works fine, but you must get used to the awkward method of keying in the alphabet via a numeric key pad. It is unnatural and aggravating. We didn’t use it at all and cancelled the service. It is much more pleasant to just call and say “Hi, hon. Be home soon.”
The big question that the carriers and handset manufacturers really want answered is just what features and services will you buy? Somewhere along the way the carriers forgot that we bought the service simply to have a mobile phone. We like to talk on the phone, and we don’t necessarily want to do much other than that. But because the chip companies and handset companies have amazing engineering capability today, the cell phone can do so much more. With more power-efficient RF, baseband, and processor chips, plus better batteries and sophisticated power management chips and software, the handset manufacturers can now give you video, audio, and games. Do you want that? I don’t. I wouldn’t even think of watching TV on my one-inch screen, color or not. You have got to be kidding. As for audio, maybe an embedded MP3 player is not a bad idea. I like to listen to music now and then, but frankly I am not opposed to the idea of carrying a separate iPod or other MP3 player. Motorola will soon find out with its new ROKR cell phone that has 100-song iTunes capability in it.
As for games, forget it. While kids and young adults will buy these, the mainstream adult subscriber will not. In Asia, yes, but not here. We are all mostly too busy to play around. And if you do have time to do this, maybe you should get a job or a life. Besides, who has the extra monthly bucks to buy all these marginally useful services when gasoline is $3 a gallon? Get real.
Then there is Internet access and e-mail. I do want that, but not on a cell phone. Blackberrys work great and I have almost succumbed to their attraction several times. I always pull back because of the cost. If I really want to do serious Internet access and e-mail on the go, I do it via a Wi-Fi hot spot on a laptop. Some cell phone carriers have a plug-in card for most laptops that will provide e-mail and Internet access via a cell tower nearby. I like the big screen and storage capacity of a laptop. I certainly don’t want to mess around with a screen too small to read and little memory. Yes, I know, we will soon have small hard drives in our cell phones. But I don’t want one. I’d rather have the longer battery life of a cell phone without a hard drive.
I decided to make a wish list of features I would like on a cell phone. It does not seem to be what the handset manufacturers are making and what the carriers are planning. Both seem hellbent on delivering video to us whether we want it or not. Verizon has its VCast TV service and Sprint has MobiTV. Cingular’s (SBC) service will be RealNetworks Online TV. RealNetworks will also supply games through its Real Arcade service. It may seem cool to have TV on your cell phone. But if you have ever watched video on a 1-inch color screen jerking at a 10 to 15 frame-per-second (fps) rate, you have to ask, why am I paying for this? With faster data rates provided by EV-DO CDMA2000 and EDGE on GSM/GPRS networks, the carriers can get us to the 30 fps we need for a smooth delivery. But I refuse to carry a magnifying glass with me so I can see it. Also, it will run my battery down and then I won’t be able to make that critical phone call. Ridiculous…
Anyway, here is my wish list of features I would actually pay for.
1. Extend the existing service to uncovered areas. If you have ever looked at a coverage map of the U.S., you realize just how much area is not served by cell phones. Surprising, right? Of course to the carriers, this is just boring. Moreover, why spend money on areas that are not as well populated as the metro areas where they make all their bucks? However, all I have to do is drive 30 miles out of town and… bam… No service. If I stay along the Interstate or other main state highways I am all right, but when I drive out on a back road, I total black out. Yet, this is just the kind of area where folks would like to have coverage in case they have an emergency. Will OnStar and similar services work in the boonies? The answer is no. The solution is a satellite phone from Globecom or Iridium, both of which proved their worth during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But we are talking big bucks for one of those.
2. Make coverage more reliable. Most of us still complain about dropped calls. I know there are ways to make connections more reliable, but again this is just boring and not something you can charge extra for. No wonder we don’t get this. Yet with an investment in more towers, smart antenna systems, and other innovations, we could have really reliable coverage.
3. GPS. One thing I would pay extra for in a phone is a GPS receiver. Some phones already have a GPS receiver built in to meet the E911 requirement. But I want the GPS package with screen, maps, and the whole deal. I’m a guy and I hate to ask for directions. I need this.
4. FM radio. Several phones now offer a built-in FM radio. Single-chip FM receivers are now made by several companies and are dirt cheap. This makes sense to me as it would provide music from local stations for the few times I might want to listen and it would serve as a way to get weather and emergency broadcasts locally. Building in an NOAA weather receiver in the 162-MHz range would also be easy. What would be even better is an AM radio. I’m not kidding. When I want weather, news, or traffic info, I go to the AM radio first. How hard could it be? You could implement an AM radio entirely in DSP, except for the headphone amplifier. Build it in.
A future possibility is digital radio on the AM and FM bands called HD Radio. It is here now, but few use it. Receivers are just becoming available. Satellite radio from Sirius and XM has been around a while and the first handheld receivers have just become available. One or more of those services may be popular in a cell phone. How about a built-in CB radio or a Family Radio Service (FRS) transceiver? Both are still widely used and dirt cheap.
As for video, MP3 music, Internet access, games, and all the rest, forget it. Besides, I can’t do all that stuff while I am driving. No hard drives, push-to-talk, Bluetooth headsets, cameras, SMS, or any of that other data stuff. It kinda makes you wonder if we really need the faster UMTS with HSDPA 3G data services that at last seem to be showing up. Believe me, you’re going to get it anyway. I still do the e-mail and Internet access on a connected laptop. And I certainly don’t need to have a handset with built in VoIP via a Wi-Fi hot spot or even a WiMAX tower. I want to stay in touch, but I am not paranoid enough to want overlapping coverage unless I am in some critical work.
I suppose not wanting any of this stuff makes me some kind of technological pariah in the eyes of the carriers and handset manufacturers. No, I am not that, and I support anything that makes more money for anyone in the electronics or telecom businesses. As a consumer, though, all I really want is to talk reliably on the phone. None of that other stuff makes much sense to me. It is just more high-tech consumer multi-option overkill, clutter, noise, and confusion. Like comedian Dennis Miller says, “That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.” Surveys show that I am not alone in my opinion here. If the companies can make money on such low-volume products and services, more power to them. What do you think?
Long live wireless.
You can e-mail Lou Frenzel at [email protected].