Life begins at 40!

As a teenager and young man the Informer scoffed when he heard the old folks reassuring one another that ‘life begins at 40’. Clearly it was an attempt to sugar the reality that the best years had passed and it was downhill from here on in. Now, with 40 approaching at a gallop, the Informer feels more inclined to see wisdom in the statement. The Informer’s not the only one getting old, as the mobile phone turned 40 this week with the anniversary of the first cellular phone call.

April 5, 2013

9 Min Read
Life begins at 40!

By The Informer

As a teenager and young man the Informer scoffed when he heard the old folks reassuring one another that ‘life begins at 40’. Clearly it was an attempt to sugar the reality that the best years had passed and it was downhill from here on in. Now, with 40 approaching at a gallop, the Informer feels more inclined to see wisdom in the statement.

The Informer’s not the only one getting old, as the mobile phone turned 40 this week with the anniversary of the first cellular phone call, made in New York by Motorola Engineer Marty Cooper in 1973. “New York, just like I pictured it: skyscrapers, emerging wireless communications technologies and everythang,” Stevie Wonder would sing later that same year on the original demo of his biting social commentary ‘Living for the City’.

That this begin-again birthday should come so close to Easter, a time that for many signifies the cycle of renewal, is a nice coincidence—so what kind of rebirth can we expect for the mobile phone? After all, it can hardly embark upon the kind of desperate, sports car-buying, younger woman-dating and hair transplanting activities that are traditionally expected of the western male on reaching this milestone (even if, like many of these males, phones at 40 are a lot wider than they were at 30).

Anniversaries such as this often bring forth the kind of evolutionary speculations that, in the industry’s decadent past, were the output of well-paid ‘futurologists’ or ‘imagineers’. So we’ll all have our eyes modified to project the web directly onto our corneas, live with the constant internal chatter of a virtual assistant that nobody else can hear, and conduct our phone calls through jawbone implants that have done away with the need for external devices (all of which predictions the Informer has encountered over the years).

In short, we’ll be seeing things that aren’t there, hearing voices in our heads and talking to ourselves—which sounds a lot like madness.

These suggestions are sufficiently whacky to be comforting for the industry’s incumbents, as the change they represent does not feel imminent. But what if the change is of a different nature? If the mobile phone’s life begins at 40, should the industry be concerned that it was on this very anniversary that Facebook should decide to enter the device market…?

There was widespread expectation that Facebook’s announcement on Thursday this week would centre on the launch of a branded handset but, in the event, the move was somewhat subtler. Facebook unveiled an Android compatible launcher called Home—a prism UI layer that makes the phone you have look like the phone Facebook would have created had it gone down that route.

It’s a neat approach that signifies the shifting times in which we live. Why go to the lengths of designing, commissioning and building a single device that you then have to sell to end users when you can simply occupy the millions of devices that are already in the market? It reminds the Informer of classic B-movie Invaders from Mars—a film that will be celebrating a birthday of its own, 60 years old, in this case, later this month.

Or, if you prefer a naturalist analogy, Facebook is a cuckoo in the nest. This was the observation from Danish consultancy Strand Consult, which warned that “not only are OTT companies such as Facebook rendering mobile operators into dumb pipes, they are making all smartphones into dumb terminals”. Strand went on to suggest that Facebook’s objective is not simply to feed its tracking and advertising business model, but to move into operators’ core services.

“The key for Facebook is to monetise its users for the very communication it offers: SMS, voice, and data-enabled services,” the firm said. “Should Facebook monetise these activities, it would be bigger and richer than any telecommunications operator.”

Never mind the operators, though: what does Google make of all this?

Facebook also announced that an upcoming HTC device—called the First—will feature Home as a native UI, which chimed with another device/OTT story this week.

Such is the concern raised by Facebook’s designs on the spaces occupied by traditional operators and device vendors that the Informer finds it hard to believe the timing of this week’s Joyn device announcement from the GSMA could be coincidental.

Ahead of the Facebook launch on Thursday GSMA announced that Spain’s three Joyn chearleaders—Vodafone, Orange and Telefónica—had made the commercial debut of Joyn as a native service on a number of high-end devices from Samsung (SIII), LG (L9), HTC (One S), Sony (Xperia Z) and Nokia (Lumia920). Existing devices can be upgraded over the air with a software update but all new versions of the handsets will have Joyn embedded at the point of manufacture.

You don’t have to be an imagineer to read into GSMA’s statement an implicit criticism of aggressive moves from the likes of Facebook. “To enable them to use the Joyn brand these devices will pass a rigorous certification process and interoperability testing to ensure quality, privacy, security and ubiquity of services,” the group said.

Now, it wasn’t just Easter this week, it was also April Fools’ Day. The Informer once knew a journalist who was sacked in his first week writing for a leading UK broadsheet website for publishing a story about an upcoming film featuring a meeting between the leading characters from Star Wars and Star Trek. Needless to say the press release promoting this film was a Fools’ Day hoax, so the Informer has always had his wits about him (such as they are) on this particular day of the year.

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” he chuckled to himself when he got the release from Blackberry announcing that it had turned a $94m profit in the first quarter of 2013. Turns out it was true! For the same period in 2012 the firm recorded a loss of $118m and in the final quarter of last year it managed a profit of $14m. For the first three months of this year the Canadian vendor shipped one million of its new flagship Z10 devices, described by Ovum’s chief telecoms analyst Jan Dawson as “a good start for the platform,” although he added that the second quarter would be a more reliable indicator of success or failure.

It wasn’t all about the devices this week; there was also a new industry coupling in town on the infrastructure side. Were this Hollywood and not Telecoms we might be referring to the deal as UbiquiCisco.

Small cell technology provider Ubiquisys became the object of Cisco’s desires this week, with the US giant making a $310m move for the UK firm. Cisco aims to add Ubiquisys’ indoor small-cell and software expertise to its own radio and wifi portfolio to create a small cell solution for operators that supports their transition to LTE networks, the firm said.

“Cisco is no stranger to small cells, but that has been primarily through its carrier wifi efforts,” said Daryl Schoolar, principal analyst at Ovum. “In the licensed spectrum small cell space Cisco has basically been reliant on its femtocell relationship with AT&T. Outside of its work with AT&T, Cisco’s licensed small cell experience has been hard to find.”

Schoolar added that in contrast, Ubiquisys has over 50 customers including Japan’s Softbank, France’s SFR, and Network Norway. “Ubiquisys’ small cell experience greatly bolsters Cisco’s small cell position,” he said. “Small cell vendors should take Cisco very seriously. Not only is Cisco greatly improving what it can offer mobile  operators  in terms of a licensed small cell, Cisco can also offer those mobile operators other tools, like data analytics, SON, and evolved packet core needed to build a mobile network.”

In other LTE-related news, French challenger Bouygues Telecom has revealed that it will launch LTE “in the next few weeks”.  The firm will use 2.6GHz spectrum to deploy the service across eight cities, CEO Olivier Roussat told local press.

The announcement follows last month’s declaration from the nation’s telecoms regulator ARCEP that Bouygues Telecom will be allowed to refarm its 1800MHz spectrum for LTE services. Bouygues Telcom will be permitted to switch on the LTE1800 network from October 1, 2013 although it must relinquish a portion of its spectrum holding before it does so.

According to the report, Bouygues Telecom will price 4G at a premium “of about €5″. Apple’s iPhone 5 will operate on the 2.6GHz LTE network as soon as Apple provides an update, Roussat said.

Telecom Italia Mobile’s Brazilian outpost TIM Brasil revealed this week that it has lined up Nokia Siemens Networks to supply an LTE network, also in the 2.6GHz band. Marco di Costanzo, head of networks at TIM Brasil was bubbling with praise for NSN. “Our long-term partnership with Nokia Siemens Networks has been excellent, and the 2G and 3G equipment installed by the company is performing so well that it was a natural decision to deploy an LTE network with the same vendor.”

LTE is everywhere now, and deployments are ramping up fast—it is the global standard for which the industry has always yearned. Apart from the fact, as the Informer learned from speaking to Qualcomm’s senior director of marketing Peter Carson this week, that Q has counted 17 different ways to do voice from an LTE handset. More than ten of these are commercially available, Carson pointed out. Fragmentation will always be with us.

Let’s have some operator M&A news now, or not, as the case may be. TeliaSonera announced this week that it will keep hold of Spanish subsidiary Yoigo, as nobody wanted to pay a price that satisfied the Nordic player. There was more luck for TeliaSonera’s regional competitor Tele2, which has sold its Russian operation to banking group VTB for £2.4bn in cash and £1.15bn in debt. Meanwhile Russian player Altimo has made a bid for Egyptian firm Orascom

Finally this week another story that could well have been filed under April Fools’. Fast food outlet KFC is to begin trials of a mobile payment service, enabling iPhone users to manage their fried chicken preferences, remote order and make one-click payments, as well as check in to stores. It occurs to the Informer that, for many iPhone users, checking in to KFC would be akin to coming out, as it were.

Unfortunately for the headline writers—not to mention fans of the AWIW pithy finish—there is no NFC in the KFC trial at the moment.

Take care

The Informer

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