Monday, October 31, 2005

On the ground: Virtual wallet

The idea of a virtual wallet isn't new. From online payment systems like PayPal, to credit and debit cards with a chip that will store cash amounts have been a reality for a while. But in Japan, where most new technologies seem to appear these days, they have integrated a virtual wallet to cell phones.

The system is called Edy, and people can load up money to their virtual wallet by going to a recharge unit or by using their phone to do the transfer online. Then when going to a store they simply put their phone near the store machine and the transfer is done. It's one more item added to the convergence wagon, and it has some good advantages like convenience. The biggest obstacle to this, like any of the previous virtual wallet solutions, will be consumer acceptance.

Trends: Fashion phones getting out of hand?

First there was cell phone covers. Everyone loved the idea of getting their own phone customized with the cover they wanted. They could switch color every day, or just pick their favorite color to be different from everyone else. They even introduced covers with pictures and motifs on them to be truly unique. Now most Nokia phones have covers available to them and people spend plenty of money on them.

Then some very weird concepts got announced, like the $54,000 diamond covered Samsung phone available in limited quantities. Did they sell even one? And now Verizon Wireless introduced a new deal: the celebrity phone auction, where the winners will get their phones autographed by a celebrity. Where will it stop?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Article: Prepaid or contracts?

It's easy to fall in for an advertisement claiming you can get a state of the art phone for $99, or sometimes even free. It feels even better when you go see a dealer and they tell you they can get you a contract for only $20 a month. The surprise usually comes when you get the first bill after a month, and the amount is quite a bit more expensive. Unexpected contract charges is the number one complaint from cell phone users. This is not to say contracts are all evil, in fact most cell phone users in North America are using contracts, although less use them in other parts of the world. We'll see what pitfalls to avoid with contracts and prepaid, and which one is best for which customers.

The way providers work is simple. They get a deal with a phone manufacturer to get a phone branded with their name. Then they sell the phone through their dealers at various prices. They sell it at the full price if you intend to go with prepaid, or they will give you big rebates if you agree to sign a contract, since they know they will make more money from you during the contract time. For example, the Samsung P207 from Rogers Wireless will cost you $339 if you buy the phone without contract. If you agree to a 1 year contract, it will cost $224. $149 on 2 years, and $99 on 3 years. So as you can see the rebate can be big.

When looking at the actual monthly fee, the biggest difference is the included features and the unexpected fees. With prepaid, you go out every month and buy a prepaid card (or call in to add money with a credit card, or online) and the money you spend is what you get as far as airtime. There are no added fees, and there's several features included. For example with Rogers Wireless, you can buy a $10 card and get 30 minutes of airtime, with call display and voice mail included. For a contract, a $20 plan will give you 150 airtime minutes. However to get the voicemail and call display you need to add $10. Plus, contracts add a $6.95 monthly access fee, and $0.50 911 fee. This means the $20 contract will actually costs you $37.45, plus taxes. You still get more airtime for the amount, but you have to be careful about such hidden fees.

The story is the same for all providers. For example on Verizon Wireless, their prepaid service includes voice mail and call display. Their plans also include both, however their lowest individual contracts start at $39. For the phone, they offer the LG VX4650 for $69 on a 2 years contract, and $119 on 1 year. One thing to note is that some providers like Rogers allow you to use any phone they support with prepaid. Others will only sell you a few phones for prepaid.

For data, fees usually change between plans and prepaid. For example on Rogers Wireless, there are data packs that can be added to a contract and provides free data usage including a small download size. You can spend $7 per month for 1 MB of download, with $0.02 per KB after that. On prepaid, it will cost you $0.05 per web page, regardless of the size. So for data usage, prepaid will be a much better choice in this case.

The general rule is that plans will usually be the best choice for people using their phones a lot for voice calls. You can get a large number of airtime minutes for a lower price than if you used prepaid. However, with a plan, you usually need to pay for each additional feature, plus there's often hidden fees. Also if you don't keep track of how much you use your phone, you will end up with a big surprise at the next bill. Remember that if you want to cancel your plan before the term is over, you can be charged $20 per month as a cancelation fee, up to $200. Also most plans will require a credit check.

Prepaid is usually better for low voice usage, for people wanting an emergency phone, or for those who want to keep control of their service. There's often features that you get for free on prepaid, and there is no hidden fee. If you want to pay the least amount per month this is the way to go. However remember you will not get access to the rebates on phones so you will pay the phone full price, and you won't get a lot of airtime for your money. Also note that providers will usually let you switch your prepaid service to a contrat should you wish to, for free or for a little fee. The final advice really, is to investigate fully before deciding anything.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

News: Touch screens

Sony is rolling out a new touch screen technology that allows the screen to give feedback to the user, using tiny motors behind the screen. This will help users know if they clicked the spot they intended by getting feedback as if they used a touch pad. It's an interesting technology that could be expended to do much more, such as in mobile games and such.

One thing I noticed is that there's more and more mobile devices with touch screens. It used to be that the only ones with them were the Palm devices. Now, all PDAs introduced seem to have touch screens, and they are even starting to show up in smart phones. The incentive is clear, since when you can remove the keyboard you can fit a much larger screen. However I for one do not want to have to use a stylus every time I use my phone. I can see a day when the super convergence device we will have is only usable with a touch screen, and while it has benefits, not just Pocket PCs need to have a keyboard.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

On the ground: Smart phones sales soared

It comes as no surprise that Q3 sales show smart phones sold very well. The most popular smart phones according to analyst firm Canalys were Nokia phones such as the 6680 and N90, followed by the Treo 650, and then RIM with their Blackberry products. Apparently Motorola, in fourth place, grew very fast in the smart phone market with Linux based phones in China.

Also in the news is a prediction that between 23% and 33% of US cell phone users will have left their land line and use their cell phone as their primary phone by 2009, according to a report from In-Stat

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

On the ground: VoIP vs Telcos

In some countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the national Telcos (land based phone companies) have started using software from Narus Inc. to block VoIP (Voice over IP) software used on their network, such as Skype or Vonage. This opens the gate to phone companies being able to block users from using software they decide over their network. Since these are national providers, that means a large population in these countries are blocked from doing certain things on the Internet. Not only is this a clear violation of free speech and free enterprise, it's a new technology allowing any provider to start filtering and censuring information.

It's obvious that VoIP is a big threat to old monopolies that only deal with wired telephony. It's also a big issue to cell phone providers. A cell phone using a java based VoIP software could make voice calls using the data network, potentially costing less to the user. A cell phone with wi-fi using the same program could do voice calls for free any time you're near a hotspot. Fortunatly some companies are working for the customers like Motorola's announcement to create a VoIP API for its cell phones. Let's just hope this is truly an open and genuine offer, and that it doesn't get shut down from the usual big corporate lobbyists. The VoIP technology is here to stay, and just like so many new technologies, the old guys are doing everything they can to stop or slow them down, but in the end if we make it clear we want choice they will lose.

News: Rogers Wireless $100 prepaid card

News has started circulating that Rogers Wireless will introduce a short time offer $100 prepaid card with a 1 year time span. The interesting part isn't that a new card will be announced, but a lower cost and much longer time span card is a very good thing for people like me, who use their phone mainly for data functions and not that much for voice calls. There really is a need for very long cards at reduced prices. Of course it's not really attractive to the providers, since they make a lot more money with contracts than with prepaid. But for customers like me who don't want contracts, whoever brings the most attractive prepaid plans will win a growing market.

Trends: Portable chatrooms, and GPS directions

Think if you could go in class, a party or anywhere, push a button on your cell phone, and all your friends that are nearby would receive an invite to an on-the-fly chatroom. Up to 5 people nearby would be able to send text, images and audio over the air, all on their cell phones. That's one new product KDDI introduced: The Hello Messenger. It works like the push-to-talk function on cell phones that support radio communications, and is being introduced in Japan.

KDDI also introduced a new feature that ties into the video broadcasts people can get on their phones, and can use a GPS device to show you in which direction a store is located. Apparently the school girls are the main users of these new technologies in Japan, where they are always looking for new ways to communicate. Pretty interesting stuff coming up over there!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Trends: Ringback tones getting better

Ringback tones are those tones that are sent back to the caller. It appears they must be successful, since Verizon is rolling out software that will provide more features for these. People will be able to customize which songs are used based on time of day and number calling. Land based providers always try to stay competitive, how long before any number we call brings us the latest Eminem or U2 song?

Trends: People like camera phones more than music phones

According to a survey done on 2,000 US Internet users, more people said they would like a camera phone rather than a music phone. 52% said they would buy a camera phone against 30% for a phone able to download music. 25% even said they could use a high-resolution camera phone as their primary camera. The full report is available here.

There's always been 2 schools of thought: either you have multiple devices doing one function each, and very good at their function, or you have one device doing everything, but usually less good at everything. This has been the case in cameras, cell phones, portable MP3 players and even portable media devices to view photos and videos. Now with smartphones and even some high end cell phones, you can do everything on one device. Some people prefer it, others prefer to get the best device for each application. As technology advances however, my bet is we'll see smartphones get better and eventually get equal and why not surpass the single use devices. At that point, a lot of companies might go under, but we'll have one heck of a phone.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Article: What you need to know about Cingular's HSDPA service

In the last few months, Cingular rolled out their 3G (3rd Generation) HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) network. HSDPA is an add-on to the UMTS specification and is being deployed on top of it to compete with other 3G services such as EVDO. Providers around the world are switching from 2G networks like GSM and CDMA to 3G, in order to increase the speed for data on cell phones. The Cingular network should support speeds around 400 to 700 Kbps, at least technically. Cingular turned on its HSDPA network on the 18th of October. It's the first network in the US to support it, and one of the first to switch to 3G following Verizon. But there are a few things you should know.

First, in order to benefit from the new network, you need a phone that supports it. And chances are your phone doesn't. For example, Cingular does not expect to be offering phones that support the new network until the first half of 2006. However, it does provide wireless cards for laptops (first one being the Aircard 860). Also, that new network is only in a few select cities. Don't expect to have it in rural towns anytime soon.

The other issue is that these network use a specific frequency. In North America, HSDPA is available on the 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies. This means that the existing 3G phones from Europe do not work on Cingular's network. This also applies to many modems / PC Cards sold currently with the HSDPA logo on them. To complicate things, some Europe networks have decided to use new frequencies for their 3G deployments, such as 2100 MHz. This means there are phones currently used on the North America networks, which say they support 3G, but use the Europe frequencies, so they will not work on Cingular's HSDPA network.

Finally, the issue of speed. Average speeds usually apply to people which are in an unobstructed location, near a tower. This technology has the same problems as older cell phone technologies, where if you have a weaker signal to your phone, the speed will be lower. Network congestion can also be an issue for speed. The 3G deployments around the world is good news, since we'll all soon have high speed mobile devices available, but for now people need to do some research before giving in to what marketing says, especially considering the prices these technologies start at.

Friday, October 21, 2005

On the ground: Over 200 million cell phones sold so far this year

IDC reported that sales of cell phones grew almost 20% this year. The headlines are that vendors sold over 200 million units this year so far, and that new multimedia phones are a popular hit especially in Europe. Nokia sold the most units with a 30% growth, followed by Motorola.

Full report

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Article: Choices in smart phones

If we were to compare cell phones, the task would be easy but very long. There are hundreds of cell phones, they all have the same basic functions, and more come out almost every day. Smart phones however are more of a niche market. They are used by less than 10% of the population, mainly because of their price, but we've seen them get better, smaller and more affordable. According to IDC, smart phones are being sold this year more than ever.

First let's define what a smart phone is. It's basically a cell phone with some PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) functions included. It will typically have a better processor, more memory, a bigger screen, a filesystem, and be able to run better applications. The higher end technology in a smart phone is the reason why they will often cost over $400.

There are two popular types of smart phones. First there's those based on Microsoft Windows Mobile, and there's the ones based on the Symbian operating system. The Windows Mobile devices are made by various companies, including Motorola and Audiovox, while the Symbian ones are primarily made by Nokia, with a few other companies making them in lesser quantity.

Both types of smart phone will provide the same basic functions: You can store files on them, you can use email, browse the web, install and use applications (both Java and Symbian or Windows Mobile applications), you can connect them to a computer or other devices, and you can play music and view videos on them. The main difference is on which applications will be used, and thus what the user interface will be.

Windows Mobile devices have the familiar Windows look. They also come with a mobile version of Word, Internet Explorer and Windows Media. Symbian devices on the other hand, comes with the Symbian notepad, various web browsers (Opera is available for the Symbian devices for a fee), and usually Real Player. Since the applications are comparable, when selecting which phone you prefer, often the choice is based more on the hardware than the software running on it.

One of the most popular smart phones is the Nokia 6682 (North America version, 6680 is the Europe one) which is the newest smart phone from Nokia for the mass market following their 6620 (6600 for Europe) from last year. It runs the Symbian OS, comes with a 1.3 megapixel camera, supports bluetooth, 10 MB internal memory and comes with a 64 MB MMC memory card. It's a tri-band GSM phone with all the necessary software for email and web browsing on EDGE (256 Kbps) networks. It's a very good smart phone and while some complained of software glitches, usually receives good reviews.

On the Windows Mobile side, for the mass market, one popular phone is the Audiovox SMT 5600. It runs on Windows Mobile 2003, is also a tri-band GSM phone, has a VGA camera, supports bluetooth, 64 MB internal memory with a MiniSD memory slot, and comes with all the standard Windows Mobile applications. While some users have complained about some stability problems, it usually receives good reviews as well. Another Windows Mobile option is the i-mate SP5 which was just released. It's a world phone, with wi-fi, a mini-USB port and the latest Windows Mobile 2005. It's also much more expensive.

For business users, two popular choices are the Treo 650 from Palm and the Blackberry 7100 from RIM. These devices are a bit bigger, thinner, and are aimed mainly at business users. They come with improved email support, including protocols to connect to corporate systems, but usually have a lower end screen and less support for games or web browsing. Various models are available, as well as prices, and your milage may vary.

For high end business users, Nokia recently introduced it's high end 9500. It's a mix between a smart phone and a Pocket PC. It features the same things as the previous smart phones, but has a bigger touchscreen, and also incorporate the business features from the previous two models. It even has wi-fi.

Finally, before investing in a smart phone, researching the various choices is very important, since technology changes very fast. The most recent smart phones include touchscreens such as the W-ZERO3, much bigger screens such as the PPC 6700, phones running on Linux, merges between Windows Mobile and traditional Pocket PC devices like the i-mate K-JAM and cool designs like the Samsung i300.

Trends: Ringback images

This may be the start of something big. After ringback tones, SK Telecom is introducing a way for users to send an image from their cell phone to the phone they are calling. So when your phone is ringing, you would see an image that your caller sent with the ring. Is this the start of a new boom?

From a technical viewpoint this will require quite a bit of bandwidth if it becomes popular. There's also all the issues of spam, and bad people sending vulgar pictures. However if done well it would be a great hit among young people. I'm sure lots of providers will keep an eye on SK Telecom.

On the ground: South Korea going with HSDPA

It seems South Korea is going to HSDPA which is a surprising move since HSDPA is seen as a GSM successor, while South Korea is mainly using CDMA. This could be a simple one time business decision, or it could be signs that GSM is gaining ground.

HSDPA is the technology that comes after UMTS. As I've talked about yesterday, the goal of these technologies is to provide more bandwidth. The problem is they require a brand new network, which cost millions. As these technologies get deployed world wide, there's intense lobbying going on, and a major market like South Korea is an important grab.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Article: Cell phone technology

Everyone knows what a cell phone is. But few people understand how the network their cell phone connects to works. Yet, knowing this can be very important since the technology behind the network is what determines the features you have access to. For example, if you connect to an analog network, chances are it won't be around for much longer, since the providers all switched to digital networks and they no longer promote any analog phone. Another thing that can be affected by what type of network you are using is the speed at which you can receive emails or browse the web from your mobile devices.

The first thing to know is if the network is analog or digital. Chances are if you have a modern phone and you live in a city you are connected to a digital network. Cell providers keep their analog networks running because the digital ones have not yet reached every rural home, but they are getting there very fast. Also some people, very few nowadays, are still using older phones that could only support analog connections. If you have an analog phone, chances are the best you can do with it is voice calls and SMS messages (short messages).

Digital networks come in many flavors. There's also several ways to categorize them: either by technology or by speed. The most common digital networks are CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) which is used by more than half the customers in North-America, and a few other countries such as South Korea, TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) used by a few providers mainly as an older digital technology, and GSM (Global System for Mobile communication) which is by far the most used digital technology, which covers all of Europe, nearly half of North America, and most other countries. Recent studies show there are more than 1.5 billion GSM cell phones world wide. These technologies are refered to as 2G (Second Generation).

Comparing these 3 technologies can be tricky, but for normal uses like voice calls, SMS, MMS (multimedia messages) and basic web browsing, they all work as well. Each provider usually supports either CDMA (Like Bell Canada and Telus in Canada, Verizon and Sprint PCS in the US) or GSM (Rogers Wireless and Fido in Canada, Cingular, T-Mobile in the US, and all of Europe). So it really comes down to the choice of the phone itself. Some people say GSM phones are cooler and more plentiful, which may be because the biggest market is in GSM, and also Nokia, an european company, has the biggest market share.

Where it may be useful to compare these technologies is when you want to do more advanced things. For example, GSM phones come with what is called a SIM card. This is a very small card in your phone containing information such as your phone number, address book, and the setup information on how to connect to your provider. This means when you upgrade, or if you have more than one phone, you can remove your SIM card from the phone and insert it into the next easily. While it's technically possible to use a SIM card in CDMA phones, very few phones support it and networks do not.

Another thing to know about the network you are using is the frequency. For example, GSM is usually used on the 850, 900, 1800 and 1900 MHz frequencies. In Europe, 900 and 1800 MHz are used, and in North America it's 850 and 1900 MHz. The main thing to remember about this is that the lower the frequency, the better your connection will be. However, the higher the frequency, the farther the cell tower can transmit. So if you have a phone that supports 850MHz and are near a tower which also supports it, you will have a better voice quality, higher download speed, and less call drops. However, it also means your provider will have to install more towers to cover the same territory, so in rural areas chances are only 1900 MHz will be provided. Two terms found frequently with GSM phones are "double band", "tri-band" and "quad-band" or "world" phone. A double band North America phone will support 850 and 1900MHz, which means you can only use it in North America. An european can have the exact same phone but with the 900 and 1800 MHz channels. However if you have a world phone, you can use it anywhere.

CDMA phones also use similar frequencies, but the main difference is that GSM phones are only digital, but CDMA and TDMA phones usually support both digital and analog. For example, a CDMA phone may support analog on 850 MHz, digital on 850 MHz and digital on 1900 MHz. Someone who has to travel far from cities on a regular basis should look at provider coverage maps to know if there are places where digital is not available yet, and these phones can be useful for that. So depending on what you want to do, you may want to decide on a CDMA or a GSM provider.

As we look to the future, we'll see the world migrating to two new technologies. Most CDMA companies are going to EVDO (Evolution Data Optimized) which is a CDMA2000 technology, while many GSM providers are moving to UMTS (Universal Mobile Communication System) also sometimes called W-CDMA, which interestingly enough has no relation with the CDMA technology. The main goal is to provide more speed for things like mobile web browsing and streaming of media content. These are refered to as 3G (3rd Generation) technologies and with these, providers will be able to deliver up to 15 Mbps speeds, which is more than most people currently have with broadband Internet connections. These new networks have already been deployed and are in early testing phases in Europe, and are currently being deployed in North America and other countries. By the end of 2006, most of the new smartphones and high end cell phones sold will be using these technologies.

News: Cell Watch is born!

Hiya, and welcome to my new site. I thought long and hard what I should blog about. Cell phones and mobile technology in general is always something that interested me, yet it seems there are very few good resources online. Sure there are very good news sites such as http://www.phonescoop.com and very good forums such as http://www.howardforums.com but there's no central source of information and news that is easy to understand to the average cell phone user, yet complete and telling things as they are with all the details. Add to that the fact that cell phone use is booming right now and some people are starting to say they rely more on the cell phone technologies such as SMS, mobile web and remote email than they rely on their computer. So I had my idea.