A hot debate is taking place in the wireless industry today. It is based on one question: Will mobile-handset technology follow the PC and evolve into a commodity market? According to the argument that supports this evolution, the increased standardization of handset components and technology is needed to guarantee users a constant experience. For wireless developers, user experience has become a significant consideration. After all, emotion—not functionality—plays an increasingly important role in the handset industry. As a result of this anticipated commoditization, major handset vendors are employing new methods to differentiate their products. Such practices might include time-to-market, brand, and alternative design and manufacturing strategies.
A time-to-market advantage is crucial in a mature handset space with slow absolute growth. It is key to capturing sales from competitors that have not yet launched. Vendors coming to market later will face less demand for similar products. As technology becomes less critical through the process of commoditization—and design even more so—fashion trends will play a more important role than knowledge of the "latest and greatest" wireless chip set.
Beyond being quick to market and fashion conscious, wireless-device companies are incorporating a number of innovative approaches as part of their business plan. For example, they are using contract manufacturers that produce proprietary products for OEM customers. Many of these contractors are experienced in high-volume, low-cost manufacturing. Wireless-device companies also are relying upon original device manufacturers (ODMs). Essentially, ODMs are contract manufacturers with product-design capabilities.
In addition, companies are leveraging alliances and collaborations to gain entry into new markets. Such measures can enable product development or help a company obtain key technology. Device companies also are compressing the product-development cycle. A typical timeline for the development and manufacture of a new handset is about 18 months. The use of standardized, modular components and outsourced production can reduce this timeline to around six months.
Realizing a wireless design from scratch is costly and time consuming. In addition, it may only be successful if carried out by an experienced RF design team. Wireless implementers are now looking to reduce risk and cost. They want to streamline product development through outsourcing, joint ventures, acquisitions, or—at the minimum—some form of a plug-and-play solution.
The timelines for the development of handset software and RF hardware are easily reduced through the use of pre-packaged OEM solutions, such as the WISMO wireless module from Wavecom. This type of module is a compact, standardized device containing the software, radio-frequency hardware, intellectual property, and other technology needed to enable wireless communications. By integrating and packaging such engines in the form of standard modules, these solutions eliminate the cellular/PCS subsystem design tasks. The result is substantially reduced development time and cost.
Plug-and-play wireless modules also cut component complexity. To bring value to the design process, the module providers focus their energy on the core wireless technology. They allow the handset developers to differentiate their products as most appropriate.
The wireless-device value chain, like the move toward commoditization, continues to evolve as the industry undergoes significant change. At the same time, specific relationships in the value chain are compelled to add value as a means of delivering increased revenue or efficiency. The growing popularity of outsourcing strategies for wireless assembly has turned contract manufacturers into important industry participants. In the case of ODMs, this even includes design.
By developing a critical sense of time to market, each participant plays a crucial role in supplying value to the end customer. Participants also enable a more efficient, time- and cost-sensitive process for product development and introduction. This is exactly what's happening today. Wireless manufacturing is being divided into two camps. The first group believes that in-house, chip-level design allows manufacturers to maximize control and minimize risk (i.e., Nokia and Samsung). Then there are those who believe that the use of standardized wireless modules enables OEMs to focus on core competencies. In the latter camp are the companies looking to exploit economies of scale and output flexibility, such as TCL and Handspring.
If viewed as a component, the standardized wireless module provides state-of-the-art voice and data capabilities in a compact, all-in-one package. It offers a simple means of addressing the tenuous balance between size, power consumption, performance, ease of integration, and cost. Such balance is needed to successfully bring a profitable wireless device to market. Before long, a modular approach may prove indispensable to the evolution of the wireless industry.