|Taming the Wild, Wireless Web
Gene Wang is the CEO and Chairman of Bitfone Corporation the pioneer in over-the-air (OTA) firmware update technology for mobile phones. He has more than 21 years of experience in building businesses from the ground up. Prior to Bitfone, Gene served as CEO of three start-up companies. He founded Photo Access and, Computer Motion. Gene’s experience also includes serving as Executive Vice-President at Symantec Prior to Symantec, Gene was Vice-President and general manager at Borland, where he helped popularise the C++ programming language. Early in his career, Gene was Vice-President of marketing at Gold Hill Computers. Gene earned his Bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley and attended Harvard Business School.
Data access, multimedia services, and innovative, more powerful, phones are major drivers of mobile telephony growth. However, the more sophisticated the handset, the more likely it is to contain software bugs, and the sooner it is likely to become outdated. Now, Firmware Over The Air can upgrade phones, setting the stage for “dynamic phones”. With these phones, software can be configured at point-of-sale, or after, to customise the mobile user’s experience.
Much in the same way that the World Wide Web has changed the landscape for daily communications, the mobile phone has dramatically shifted how and when we interact, stay informed and entertain ourselves today. In a short period of time, the mobile phone has made the transition from a business luxury for “road warriors” and become an everyday necessity for millions of consumers in all walks of life. According to the Gartner Group, worldwide mobile handset sales totalled 520 million in 2003, a 20 per cent increase from 2002. Gartner predicts that handset shipments will grow to 580 million in 2004. Although wireless penetration is growing even in mature markets such as Europe and North America, the bulk of future growth will come from countries such as China and India where wire-line and PC penetration are low. In fact, one of the main reasons why NTT DoCoMo’s i-mode service was such a hit is because, when it debuted, few Japanese had PCs or Internet access. Likewise, in China and India, wireless offers a compelling, affordable way to make calls and get Internet access. The growth outlook is good even in countries where between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of the population already have wireless phones. One major growth driver is the development of high-speed packet-data networks with peak data rates of 2.4 Mbps (Megabits per second) and average throughput of 500 Kbps (kilobits per second), even when the user is moving. These next-generation technologies are often referred to as “2.5G” or “3G” because they are the next steps after first-generation (1G) technologies such as analogue, and second-generation (2G) or “digital” technologies such as GSM (Global System for Mobile communications). Today, GSM is the most widely used wireless technology, with 665 networks in more than 179 countries, but many of the larger wireless operators are rolling out, or preparing to roll out, 3G networks before the end of 2004. A second major growth driver is multimedia services, which are already popular with users regardless of whether they’re using current- or next-generation networks. A prime example is picture messaging, also called MMS, for multimedia messaging service. In 2003, camera phone sales outpaced digital camera sales. In South Korea, camera phones cost between $336 and $509 – about one-third of the average monthly household income. There, one-fifth of the subscribers have upgraded to camera phones, according to a July 2003 Reuters article. This is not just an Asian phenomenon: 40 per cent of phones sold by Europe’s Vodafone include a camera. UK carrier O2 is testing a video service, which includes clips of news and entertainment. T-Mobile USA offers a video-messaging service and users with a Nokia 3650 can record and send clips up to 10 seconds long. Another multimedia service that’s a hit with wireless users is audio – particularly ring tones. In 2003, the UK ring tone market alone generated nearly $112 million in revenue, according to the Mobile Data Association. The research firm Strategy Analytics forecasts over the next five years that the ring tone market will grow to $4 billion in 2008. In fact, consumers see value in all types of application downloads. A growing percentage of data-generated revenue is coming from the wireless gaming market. According to the Handango Yardstick, in the fourth quarter 2003, each wireless user downloaded an average of 2.13 applications, compared to 2.06 applications in the third quarter. According to Ovum, global revenues generated by mobile information and entertainment services will grow four-fold in the next five years, from $16.7 billion in 2003 to $77.8 billion in 2007. A third major growth driver of the wireless market is the rapid development of innovative, more powerful phones. Many of today’s “smartphones” – devices that provide Web browsing and organiser functions in addition to voice – have the processing power that laptops had in the late ‘90s, so they’re capable of handling sophisticated multimedia content. For example, the Hitachi G1000 features a 400 MHz (Megahertz) Intel XScale Processor, 32 Mb of memory and a 65,000-color liquid crystal display (LCD). Some high-end mobile devices have 128 Mb of memory; and SanDisk, a flash memory producer, recently announced the availability of a 4 GB (Gigabyte) flash memory chip for mobile phones and digital cameras. Despite the amazing power packed into a tiny handset, or the rapidly expanding availability of high-speed networks, the mobile experience is only as good as the software that controls the phone. The more sophisticated the handset, the more likely it is to contain software bugs. Some recent examples include: NTT DoCoMo sold 40,000 1.3 mega pixel camera phones on its first day – but then had to halt sales after discovering a software bug. Days after it began selling the Nokia 7210, T-Mobile halted sales after customers began reporting several problems, including software crashes and radios locking up. Slow responsiveness and other bugs plague Orange SPV, which uses the Microsoft Smartphone OS. In 40 per cent of handset problems, the culprit is a software defect, and most commonly one that resides within the core software layer, or firmware, of the mobile phone. To fix these defects, a carrier generally has two options: provide a replacement phone to each of the affected customers, or ask them to bring their phones to the carrier’s closest store for service. Both options are hassles for the customer and expensive for the carrier. Imagine where the PC market would be today if users had to cart their computer to a service centre every time they wanted to add an application or update their antivirus list. That sounds absurd, but that’s essentially what today’s mobile phone users are expected to do. A better alternative is to upgrade the firmware over the air (FOTA). For example, when a user calls the carrier’s help desk to report a handset problem, the customer service agent can “push” a software update package, over the air, to the handset and resolve the problem. FOTA updates can be sent to a single user or thousands of users. Self-service web portals can also be set up to allow users to browse and “pull” their own updates on demand. For carriers, customer service costs can be reduced to a few minutes of airtime rather than hours of personnel time and logistics costs. Manufacturers also save money by reducing warranty costs and avoiding expensive and embarrassing device recalls. Wireless carriers have remotely updated devices for years, but these updates were limited to activating new phones or sending updated “neighbour lists” that tell the phone which cell sites to search for. Until recently, wirelessly updating the firmware of the phone, also known as reflashing the memory of the phone, had never been an option due to many technical barriers, such as limited network bandwidth and available memory on the handset, and stringent requirements for security and fault-tolerance. These barriers have now been overcome, and the first commercial deployments of FOTA were seen in Japan and South Korea in 2003. Many carriers see a strong business case for their customer service centre to use FOTA to fix bugs and ensure that their subscribers can access the latest and greatest applications. Outdated or defective software places a tremendous burden on the carrier’s customer support organisation, which can run to upward of 10,000 representatives for many of the larger carriers. Although extensive, these organisations aren’t prepared to offer the technical help desk support that today’s sophisticated mobile devices are beginning to require. FOTA also sets the stage for “dynamic phones”, where the complete software configuration can be defined at the point of sale, or even after the sale, to provide a customised mobile user experience. Wireless operators are beginning to capitalise on the customisation trend by offering themed packages around popular sporting events like the World Cup, or popular television programmes such as “Pop Idol”. They also are striking deals with entertainment companies to offer mobile phones tied to movie premieres. For example, Cingular Wireless launched a marketing campaign based on Sony Pictures’ Spider Man film. The campaign offered users a Sony Ericsson device with a limited edition Spider Man faceplate, ring tones and games. Verizon has also launched mobile games coinciding with the release of films The Lord of the Rings and X-Men 2. With FOTA update capability, carriers can extend these promotions to a broader potential market of existing phones in the field. FOTA also offers advantages for mobile commerce. Mobile phones are already being used to purchase soft drinks from vending machines in Europe. The mobile phone is now evolving into a point of sale terminal itself, so security will become increasingly vital. For example, many vending machines in Japan use a Bluetooth wireless connection to add a snack or soda to your monthly phone bill, yet Bluetooth has security holes. In February of 2004, CommsDesign magazine reported “serious flaws in the authentication and data-transfer mechanisms of Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, leaving them wide open to hackers.” A FOTA update would allow the manufacturer (or carrier) to replace the Bluetooth components on the phone, eliminating the security hole as part of a remote firmware reflash. With FOTA, a device that’s two or three years old has the flexibility to upgrade its software so that the user can take advantage of the latest applications. Software defects can be repaired while the phone is still in the user’s hands, and phones can be transformed into personalised communications and commerce devices that will liberate users and exploit the power of 3G networks. FOTA provides a flexible and cost-effective way for carriers to tame the wild, wireless web.