a week in wireless


It’s hip to be square

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When the Informer was a schoolboy the humble Rubik’s Cube was all the rage. There would be many a playground standoff, which inevitably dragged through one lunch hour and into the next, driven by hormone-fuelled bravado about who could solve the puzzle in the fastest time. Now the Informer hasn’t picked up one of those cubes in many years, but he clearly recalls solved puzzles sitting in pride of place on many a mantelpiece (although who knows what disassembling of the device went on behind closed doors?) after many hours of manipulation. But apparently the Rubik’s Cube can now be solved in 12.5 seconds. By a phone.

An HTC Nexus One, powered by Android 2.1 running on a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor along with 500MB of system RAM, has been demonstrated solving the 3x3x3 puzzle in just 12.5 seconds using “arms” built out of a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit.

The demonstration took place at this week’s ARM developer conference in Silicon Valley, with ARM principal engineer David Gilday showing off his 18 months of work on the system. He actually ported the application from an original bit of Java MIDP 2.0 software running on a Nokia N95. Clearly, when the new robots come along the old ones are replaced, and that’s the story all over for Nokia this week.

According to the latest figures from analyst house Gartner, Android took a significant chunk out of Symbian’s market share during the third quarter of 2010 and steamed ahead of the iPhone and BlackBerry platforms in the smartphone space.

What with devices getting cheaper and more powerful, the definition of a smartphone can be a little vague, but nevertheless, Gartner said that the third quarter of 2010 produced record sales of more than 81 million devices based on open operating systems. Android accounted for 25.5 per cent of worldwide smartphone sales, making it the number two OS behind Symbian and particularly dominant in North America. This was up from an Android market share of 3.5 per cent in the third quarter of 2009, while Symbian slipped from 44.6 per cent in 2009 to 36.6 per cent. Apple’s iOS also dropped from 17.1 per cent to 16.7 per cent and RIM’s BlackBerry OS shrank from 20.7 per cent to 14.8 per cent.

Google is maintaining a fast pace of OS updates. Each version brings new features and polish to Android, and the level of innovation is a major differentiator,” Roberta Cozza, principal research analyst at Gartner.

Total worldwide mobile phone sales to end users totalled 417 million units in the third quarter of 2010, a 35 per cent increase from the third quarter of 2009, with smartphones accounting for 19.3 per cent of overall mobile phone sales. Although the top three worldwide mobile device manufacturers Nokia, Samsung and LG remained the same – albeit with reduced market share – the third quarter saw Apple rise into the top five manufacturers, surpassing RIM for fourth place.

But perhaps all is not lost for Symbian. As the Symbian SEE show kicked off in Amsterdam this week, all the rumours were proved true: the Symbian Foundation will transition into another entity and the operating system itself will finally be absorbed by Nokia. Hurrah!

In the wake of mass abandonment of the platform by the OEMs, leaving Nokia as its sole supporter, and amid strong rumour of financial troubles, the Symbian Foundation will take on the role of a “legal entity responsible for licensing software and other intellectual property, such as the Symbian trademark.” Well all of that wacky branding has to live somewhere doesn’t it? But of course, licensing that trademark requires a lot less manpower, so widespread job cuts are expected.

According to Tim Holbrow, executive director of the Symbian Foundation: “There has been a seismic change in the mobile market but also more generally in the economy, which has led to a change in focus for some of our funding board members. The result of this is that the current governance structure for the Symbian platform – the Foundation – is no longer appropriate.” This moves has paved the way for Nokia to finally accept the inevitable and commit to making the future development of the Symbian platform its own responsibility while “continuing to make the OS available to the ecosystem via an alternative direct and open model,” if anyone else wants it that is.

There were changes afoot at Vodafone this week, which has clearly been spending some time in the gym, emerging much leaner – and meaner – than before. Under the strict governance of CEO Vittorio Colao (maybe he is a “living, breathing, precision instrument of war” after all?), Vodafone has shed its Softbank flab for a cash boost of £3.1bn and there are some that suspect stakes in SFR and Verizon Wireless may soon be for the chop too.

Vodafone reported a year on year revenue growth of 3.9 per cent for the six months to the end of September, to reach £22.6bn, as the operator refocuses on three regions: Europe, Africa and India and strives to become “a more valuable Vodafone,” with a winning growth strategy through mobile data, targeting the enterprise segment, emerging markets, convergence in Europe, and new services such as M2M.

In a bid to increase data revenues from mobile broadband access, Vodafone is also transitioning its data pricing plans to tiered plans and differentiated service levels, having experimented with this approach in Spain. It’s a bold but welcome move and Ovum analyst Emeka Obiodu seems impressed. “Growth will need to come from a leaner, more efficient organisation. That was our assessment of Vittorio Colao’s intentions when he became CEO and he looks to be following through on it,” said Obiodu. “The new strategic agenda, especially with the emphasis on data services, M2M, tiered data pricing, enterprise services and wholesale data (as seen in the Netherlands) are all designed to squeeze out more value from Vodafone’s existing assets,” Obiodu added.

The Informer spent some time this week in Cape Town, where the AfricaCom conference was taking place. The message being hammered home by MTN South Africa CEO Karel Pienaar at the event was that operators need to partner with regulators and suppliers to enable sustainable, long term investment in communications infrastructure if Africa is to become globally competitive.

Much has been made of the potential for growth in the African telecoms sector and Pienaar said that growth can only come from such investment. MTN has invested $3bn in infrastructure over the past year but targets are essential to bringing about improvements to these figures, he said, suggesting that ensuring 50 per cent penetration for household internet connectivity by 2020 could be one such aim.

Indeed, positive developments in technology should help to bring about such improvements. “All of our investments are going rural,” Pienaar said. “The technology is so ripe for that, now. Base station power consumption is down 70 per cent. We’re deploying solar and wind power solutions. The economics for this kind of thing are becoming so much better.”

Due to this expansion into rural areas, the number of active mobile subscriptions in Africa crossed the half billion mark in the third quarter of 2010, to reach 506 million at the end of September, according to research released this week by Informa Telecoms & Media.

At the end of the quarter, Africa accounted for 10 per cent of the world’s mobile subscriptions and was one of the world’s fastest-growing regions – with subscription numbers increasing 18 per cent over the year to September – as a result of the still low mobile penetration rate on the continent as well as demand for new services, such as mobile internet access, that increase the need for telecoms connectivity.

“Although the rate of growth in mobile subscriptions in Africa will slow as markets mature, the continent continues to offer great opportunities for investors in the voice segment in under-penetrated markets and also in the non-voice segments with mobile broadband and mobile-money services taking off,” said Thecla Mbongue, senior analyst at Informa.

MTN’s Pienaar was all over this. According to the CEO, around 60 per cent of all mobile phones being sold by MTN in its own-branded shops in South Africa are smartphones. The operator is also selling 3,000-5,000 mobile broadband-enabled laptops per month. Also, MTN has joined forces with Western Union over a cross-border mobile money transfer service that will be available in 21 countries. The service will first be introduced in Uganda, where MTN’s MobileMoney service has already over one million registered users.

Speaking of registered users, perhaps the Informer’s prediction that Apple’s Ping social network initiative, the one based on exclusivity, was a little hasty. Twitter’s gone and made it so that users can use their twitter accounts with Ping/iTunes, thereby opening up the platform by putting Ping activity, song previews and links to purchase and download music from the iTunes Store right in their tweets.

Still, some competition has launched in the shape of Simon Buckingham’s Appitalism app store, which pushes community reviews of content catering to smartphones, tablets, PCs and ereaders with a catalogue of more than five million apps, songs, books, games and videos.

Appitalism claims to offer an unbiased and personalised experience for members based on their interests and on feedback from the wider community through a chat feature that allows members to discuss, rate and review all of the content on the site and collectively determine the best apps and content with community recommendations being a big part of the offering. Active members are rewarded with App Rewards for their contributions to the community, which can be redeemed for any items in the Appitalism content catalogue.

“Appitalism is an open marketplace, combining a large variety of content with the ability for consumers to discuss, review and rate that content,” said Buckingham. “Our store is programmed by members for members and powered by conversations, not algorithms.”

Perhaps that’s true when it comes to choosing music or books but as the Informer’s memory of his unsolved Rubik’s Cube reminds him, sometimes the computer algorithms are better.

Take care

The Informer


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