It’s amazing how a few weeks can change your perspective. At the close of the 3GSM World Congress in February in Cannes, France, the world press was trumpeting the comeback of wireless, pointing to, among other factors, a surge in visitors to 3GSM. Early estimates put attendance near 35,000, a 30-percent rise over 2003 and certainly something to call home about—wirelessly, of course.
Well, it turns out that attendance was more like 29,000, up just 12 percent. The analogy is clear: Things are looking up in wireless, but there’s still a long way to go. Sniffing about at 3GSM, however, I did detect the scent of hype that once drove this industry.
“2004 is gearing up to be the most exciting year in some time,” proclaimed Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila. “The most important development in 2004 will be the commercialization of 3G. 3G will be an enabler, bringing many new opportunities.”
Show organizers, the GSM Association, also spent considerable time propounding the 1 billionth GSM customer. No one was quite sure exactly who he/she is, but that didn’t matter as much as all those zeroes. In fact, GSM’s user base grew 22.8 percent in 2003, led by upticks in Latin America (131 percent), Russia (101 percent) and India (99 percent).
Globally, GSM has maintained its dominance: nearly 80 percent of mobile users in 2003 used it. CDMA was a distant second at 15.6 percent. In the U.S., of course, wireless is still split. Analyst group Ovum predicts that in 2004 CDMA will account for 46 percent of cellular connections, while 19.5 percent will be GSM. (TDMA and analog account for the rest.)
GSM backers in Cannes not only realize the importance of the American market, but the power wielded by enterprise buyers here. “Enterprise mobility has been waiting on the networks to be reliable and fast enough to give users a decent amount of data at reasonable speeds,” argued John Fletcher of U.K. research firm Analysys. “And when you get 3G card phones, that will push enterprise mobility forward.”
But we’re far from 3G here in the States. ME columnist Tim Bajarin points out on page 82 of this issue that GSM-based EDGE networks will be pushing 500 mbps this year. But, in my view, coverage will be limited, handsets will be expensive and carriers still won’t know how to bundle EDGE with enterprise services.
“Generally, network operators have the wrong business model (air time only) and contacts (CFOs rather than CIOs) for enterprise customers. The opportunity for them is to become involved as a partner for systems integrators,” contends Bengt Nordstrom of the Swedish consultancy Northstream.
So while the GSM carriers pondered the unfulfilled promise of 3G in the enterprise, there were some announcements of note for business users.
Nokia, which owns nearly 40 percent of the handset market share, is forming a 2,000-person Enterprise Solutions group in the U.S. It will be run by newcomer Mary McDowell, who worked at HP for 17 years in corporate development and servers. Nokia also announced a partnership with IBM to sell enterprise solutions, and the launch of the new Symbian-based 9500 Communicator, aimed at the corporate market.
Reaction: This is one of the biggest moves into the enterprise space in recent years. McDowell is green to mobility, but maybe this market needs a newcomer’s approach. Nokia must downplay its ties with Symbian, however: American CIOs don’t want yet another mobile OS. And Nokia must execute on the vision. Anyone remember Wireless Knowledge?
Visto is nipping hungrily at RIM’s heels. The wireless messaging provider is making life simpler for carriers and users with its new Visto Mobile Family wireless e-mail and PIM services. Visto Mobile Personal Edition is geared for carriers and end users, offering real-time access to e-mail, PIM and desktop files. Visto Mobile Enterprise Server provides over-the-air sync with Microsoft Exchange and push messaging.
The company is as agnostic as they come, with support for Windows, Palm, Symbian, Java and WAP. Visto also unveiled two deals: one with Palm to embed its e-mail platform in OS 6; and another with Microsoft to jointly promote Visto Mobile Personal Edition to carriers.
Reaction: Visto is playing the game perfectly, remaining device and network independent while the market shakes out. Two strikes against Visto: U.S. carriers still don’t know how to market wireless data to corporations; and pundits claim there’s no ROI for wireless e-mail. But eventually every exec in America will be using it, so Visto will succeed if it can bide its time.
Radixs, an upstart from Singapore, is taking on Microsoft, Palm and Symbian in one giant cage match. It’s launched a mobile platform called Motion Experience Interface (MXI), and CEO R. Chandrasekar promises MXI allows existing Windows, Linux and Java desktop software, along with Palm apps, to run on the same wireless device—with no recoding. Sound too good to be true? Well, according to Radixs, three major wireless carriers plan to offer MXI-based services to customers this year, while Radixs continues talks with enterprise software providers.
Reaction: Chandrasekar might have something here. He claims that mobile apps are sputtering in the U.S. because a) coders have to rewrite software; and b) mobile users have been spoiled by the rich PC experience. If he can convince the carriers and enterprise providers to run MXI in the background and sell it as a service, not a new mobile platform, it has potential.