As carriers accelerate 4G and 3.5G mobile network expansion plans, shrinking device development cycles, ever increasing processing power and new cooperative efforts aimed at getting applications to market faster and at vaster scales point to big changes ahead.
On the device front, it’s safe to say that with the advent of slate computers led by the Apple iPad combined with the latest smartphone releases by handset manufacturers, the marketplace has already crossed from the smartphone era to the era of ubiquitous computing where device categories start to become meaningless. “We’ll look back on this moment as the beginning of a whole new era,” said Nick DiCarlo, vice president of product planning at Samsung, speaking at last month’s CTIA Wireless convention in Las Vegas.
“We’re seeing a whole generation of people come of age where the PC is a secondary or tertiary Web access tool,” DiCarlo said. “When you think about the behavior shifts underway, there’s an amazing opportunity to create new products and new solutions that run on top of those device platforms.”
“We think about smartphones with a particular definition of broadband access to the Internet with a browser able to support HTML5, and a hardcore performance system underneath,” said Rick Oserloh, corporate vice president for mobile devices at Motorola. “Those are all key elements, but I personally think there’s an unexplored continuum of products between laptops or netbooks and phones.”
As noted by Martin Richter, vice president of product management and planning at HTC, one of the hallmarks of this new era in mobile computing is a radical reduction in device development cycles. “When I entered the industry in the ’90s we were talking about two years,” Richter said. “Now it takes significantly less than a year from conceiving the idea to delivery of the phone.”
Samsung offered a hint of what’s to come with introduction of its Galaxy S handset, an Android-powered smartphone with a 4-inch screen and 1 GHz processor loaded with advanced features, including always-on social network connectivity; improved touch response; a mobile version of the Digital Natural Image engine used in Samsung HDTVs to support access to HD video, e-books, photos and other image-rich environments, and Super Amoled display technology, which the company claims allows users to view content in direct sunlight.
A company demonstration revealed a user interface with sideways and up/down scrolling that afforded fast access to and personalization of myriad applications. These included a “daily briefing” app that organizes news, weather and traffic updates; voice-driven global map applications; video conferencing; remote control functionality tied to all Samsung TV sets, and much else.
Not to be outdone, HTC introduced the first 3G/4G WiMAX mobile phone, the HTC EVO, which will be available exclusively for use on Sprint’s networks. The phone runs on Android 2.1 with features that include a 1 GHz processor, 4.3-inch screen, “pinch-to-zoom” displays, 8.0 megapixel auto-focus camera with HD-capable video camcorder, connectivity to up to 8 Wi-Fi enabled devices, multi-social network aggregation, HDMI connectivity to HDTVs and more.
Notably, the HTC phone comes with support for voice-to-text composition of SMS and email messages, which, if it works accurately, would be an industry first, notwithstanding many attempts at voice recognition with applications such as the Yahoo! mobile search engine. Not everyone, however, was convinced the market is ready for this level of speech recognition technology.
“Speech technology has several different levels you need to look at,” said Motrola’s Oserloh. “In a lot of phones you can do navigations of different functions pretty well with that technology. At other end of the spectrum is dictation, which is really far from working. Someday the technology will get good enough to support accurate dictation.”
But HTC’s Richter, without mentioning the new HTC EVO, suggested the day is closer at hand than some manufacturers may think. “One of the key enablers to accuracy in voice recognition is noise cancellation,” Richter said. “If you can get rid of the spurious noise, speech recognition will pick up words more easily. We’re seeing that happen in our phones.”
Noise cancellation will help, Oserloh replied. But the larger issue is that the pattern matching processing required in voice recognition “is a massive computing problem.” He added: “It will take lot of time to solve. Probably it will take a big cloud computing component to get it right. I wouldn’t want to jam something on consumers that doesn’t work quite right.”
Debates over the state of voice recognition art aside, manufacturing representatives appear to be in general agreement that a lot of work needs to be done on all aspects of the user interface with these next-generation devices. Presently, according to one calculation, the error rate on messages input via touch on smartphones is running at about 2.7 errors per message.
“The input systems on phones is a source of frustration for everyone,” said Samsung’s DiCarlo. “Everything has flaws – voice, touch, keyboards. We haven’t found the right input yet. Form factors and input mechanisms are going to change.”
“We need to do a better job of finding error-correction algorithms that overcome the input problem,” Richter said. “You need algorithms that predict what the next letter should be. There’s a lot of stuff we can do to improve the error rate on touch.”
No doubt, with processing power set to expand beyond the 1 GHz level, these challenges will be met. Meanwhile, the rollout of applications that can exploit these processing speeds is proceeding at an accelerating pace, with prospects improving as a result of new industry initiatives aimed at supporting multi-platform app development and wholesale extensions of business models.
One stunning example of the new app environment that’s common to the Samsung, HTC and other new Android-based phones entering the market is the Google Goggles picture-based search, which works with books, DVDs, barcodes to landmarks, logos, artwork, product labels, etc. For example, a picture taken of the Golden Gate Bridge returns information about the structure. When a user takes pictures of restaurant options, the platform will provide restaurant reviews and other information about the facilities. These phones also provide users access to applications, widgets and games hosted in the rapidly growing Android Market.
As explained by Tim Haysom, CMO at Open Mobile Terminal Platforms, an industry forum with wide participation, that group’s BONDI platform provides an online environment with newly developed and pre-existing standard applications program interfaces (APIs) that are designed to allow applications developers to extend their reach across multiple device platforms.
“Everything above secure access is all standard Web technology,” Haysom said. “We’ve added a secure access layer, policy and policy management and the API management layer.”
The APIs of the 1.1 version of the platform, now completed, include support for accessing the key device capabilities of participating manufacturers’ products. “Version 1.5, now under development, will add DLNA, Bluetooth, cryptography and low-level smartcard support,” Haysom said.
It will take many years for the efficiencies enabled through BONDI to have a major impact on the market, he acknowledged. But BONDI-enabled apps are already in the market and version 1.1 apps will hit by year’s end, he said, noting Samsung, LG Electronics and other suppliers are actively promoting use of BONDI by offering developers BONDI-specific software development kits.
Meanwhile, another initiative showing promise as a driver to applications scalability is the Wholesale Applications Community, which was launched in February with participation of 24 carriers representing three billion subscribers. The aim of this group is to get beyond the carrier-specific app store to create a wholesale environment where applications can be picked up by whoever wants them. “Rather than negotiating deals with different app silos, developers will have the ability to target a wholesale platform and deploy their apps through all operators who sign up for those apps,” Haysom said.