Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Smartphones for the developed and developing world

On Monday morning (Sunday night PDT) I gave a presentation on the evolution of the smartphone market via a videoconference to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, that country’s answer to the FCC.

For a half-day workshop organized by Rafiq Dossani of Stanford, I was one of two remote speakers from Silicon Valley (the other being Greg Rosston of SIEPR, talking about a FCC-funded study of broadband adoption). Four other speakers were live at the TRAI headquarters in New Dehli.

The talk drew upon my iPhone study, the Symbian study, and the (currently underway) study of Android. The slides are up on SlideShare if anyone wants to see them.

A few slides might be new to blog readers. I quoted Cisco’s prediction that mobile data traffic is doubling every year from 2010-2014. As smartphone share rises to 65% — according to Tim Bajarin — of new US sales (2012) and global sales (2015), networks will be straining to keep up.

As Irwin Jacobs said at CTIA on October 8, there are no significant spectral improvements coming after 3G, so remaining mobile Internet capacity increases will come from more base stations or more spectrum. The alternative is to shift traffic to Wi-Fi (as European carriers do) or reduce demand by variable-use pricing. (Paul Jacobs wants people to use MediaFLO instead). Still, it’s hard to see how the mobile bandwidth can keep up in the next decade with both the increase in home broadband speeds and the increased supply/use of online video.

In considering the big five cellphone vendors and their attitude towards Android, Motorola (#4) is clearly enthusiastic, Nokia (#1) is opposed, and the other three are in between. For now, I think Samsung’s (#2) infatuation with its own Bada platform makes it unlikely to do more than dabble in Android, while both LG (#3) and Sony Ericsson (#5) could join Motorola (and HTC) as Android promoters if it gets sufficiently popular (or their situation gets sufficiently desperate).

My conclusion was that at least four smartphone platforms will survive for the next five years: BlackBerry, iPhone, Android and whichever platform Nokia uses (Symbian S60 or MeeGo).

While researching the talk was instructive, I learned more from the questions from Dr. J.S. Sharma, and the other TRAI officials and guests. I was asked whether 4 platforms was too fragmented — to which I reiterated my earlier blog post that platform competition is a good thing. Three or four is a good number, providing competition but enough critical mass. Two (and certainly one) is not enough to engender competition.

Another question is about the spread of smartphones to India — which felt really odd, given that I’ve never set foot in the country. (Unlike Japan, China, Germany, U.K. etc.)

However, to me the issue — the open source Android — is the availability of a cheap, high-speed main CPU. The minimum for a decent Android phone seems to be about 600 MHz, so when such CPUs get down to the price of existing featurephone chips, then India-market smartphones should become common. (Will Apple chase this smartphone market? Nokia?)

The last question came from Anil Kripalani, a former TIA chairman and Qualcomm senior VP turned entrepreneur. He asked what would the impact be of the iPad and other devices upon US mobile data demand and capacity.

I had to admit that I’d not considered that. Today’s book readers (e.g. Kindle, the Android-derived Nook) don’t do full-motion video, but the iPad will. Such devices will be much more practical way for teens and young adults (and sports addicts) to watch Hulu, YouTube and other video clips. Perhaps this traffic is even more likely to be shifted to Wi-Fi hotspots. If not, it will further exacerbate bandwidth shortages in the US, given that (IMHO) any further reallocation of spectrum for mobile use is very unlikely in the near term.

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