a week in wireless


The boy stood on the burning deck

AWIW432

So the two Steves – Elop and Ballmer – were once again sharing the stage this morning, having ended all the speculation about who’s bed Nokia would be sharing in Barcelona. It was a done deal really, you don’t hire a big cheese from Microsoft and then go with Google’s Android. In fact, the fix had probably been in since Elop joined Nokia in September last year.

He’s definitely a straight shooter this man Elop. The Informer had not seen him speak before this morning but he put on a very good performance, very slick and very different to what the Informer is used to hearing from Nokia’s main spokesman. This deal really cuts to the core of Nokia’s issues, many of which are cultural. The BBC had an interesting piece up this morning, which said that much of the company’s internal crisis is a result of the sauna culture, whereby many of the big decisions are made by sweaty, naked men in a wooden box. Sounds like a potential reality TV show.

The Informer has spent a great deal of time in Finland and counts many Finns among his friends. But it is a very insular culture and Nokia has, to date, been a very insular company. What’s clear from the “burning platform” memo and this morning’s press conference is that all that’s about to change, with a North American at the top and a clearing of much of the dead wood at management level across the company.

Elop was clear to point out that Nokia “will remain a Finnish company” but he made no bones about the fact that internal bureaucracy and unnecessary management figures were slowing the company down. In fact, it sounds a lot like Elop has been reading the Risku Manifesto. What will be interesting to see is how Nokia and Microsoft now go about doing business in North America, which is the handset vendor’s Achilles heel. It also casts Nokia in the role of hardware manufacturer, which is really what the company is and always has been, but as Ovum analyst Adam Leach points out, also puts Nokia in danger of ending up as merely a vehicle for Microsoft should it fail to differentiate from other Windows Phone 7 makers such as HTC, Samsung and LG. What Nokia has to do is come up with some pretty slick WP7-based gadgetry that blows anything on Apple or Android out of the water.

Speaking of which, the CDMA flavoured iPhone went on sale in the US on Thursday, finally giving Verizon Wireless an in to the Apple action. Yet the reception is understood to have been lukewarm, with none of the lengthy queues outside stores that have become synonymous with Apple product launches.

With less than three days to go before most of you reading this will haul out to Barcelona, it’s traditionally a slow week for news. But clearly some companies are keen to make their noise before it’s drowned out by the din of MWC. Nokia’s noise was enough in itself, but there were other announcement this week too. Palm-owner HP tried to whet appetites, lifting the curtain on a portfolio of devices sporting the webOS platform. The range includes a tablet device, naturally, as well as another successor to the Pre and – perhaps going against the trend – a small form factor smartphone.

Amid the hype about tablets, the TouchPad is sure to be the star of HP’s show, with its 9.7-inch diagonal capacitive multitouch display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 1.2GHz processor, and wifi and 3G connectivity. The Pre 3, which follows up on Palm’s flagship Pre series, offers a 3.58-inch touchscreen, a 1.4GHz processor and a full slide-out keyboard, as well as wifi and up to 16GB of storage. While the Veer, the baby of the bunch, which HP claims is “the size of a credit card and no thicker than a deck of cards” incorporates much the same functionality, based on an 800MHz processor, a 2.57-inch glass display; full slide out keyboard; and 8GB of internal storage.

In other handset news, there has long been talk of an official ‘Facebook Phone’, something the social network has always denied was being developed in-house. But niche handset vendor INQ, which focuses on social media and applications and is owned by 3’s parent Hutchison, has come close to validating the rumours with the launch of two new Android handsets created in close collaboration with Facebook.

The Cloud Touch and Cloud Q don’t carry the social network branding on the hardware, but their homescreens are set to display a constantly updating feed of posts, videos and images from the site. The firm described the two devices as being “built for people who use Facebook as their primary means of communication,” and delivering a “fully live Facebook experience built around INQ’s Visual Media Feed.”

The devices will be available first in the UK, where INQ is headquartered, exclusively through the Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy, itself a CPW subsidiary in Europe. Interestingly there seem to be no plans at launch for the phones to be available through 3UK, INQ’s sister company.

Operators aren’t really responsible for much of the innovation that takes place in the telecoms market these days, but Vodafone has just launched the Webbox, which claims to bring affordable internet access to a customer’s existing television set, just by plugging in a keyboard.

The Webbox is developed specifically for customers in emerging markets, and consists of a 14 x 25cm QWERTY keyboard which uses standard RCA connectors to plug into the television. The box houses an installation of the Opera Mini browser, compression technology and an EDGE radio, giving users internet access; SMS and email.

Patrick Chomet, Vodafone’s group director of terminals said the Webbox has the potential to make a powerful difference in the lives of people in emerging markets who have limited access to the internet, but where TV penetration is typically very high.

A lot of the focus next week will be on devices of course, as they’re a guaranteed crowd pleaser. But the Informer will also be checking out new infrastructure innovations highlighted by both Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson this week.

Alcatel Lucent is making bold claims, dispensing with the need for traditional base stations and masts, with an offering dubbed ‘LightRadio’, that sees the base station broken into its component parts and distributed through the antenna and a ‘cloud-like’ network. It was developed in partnership with Freescale Semiconductor and HP and features an antenna cube measuring just 5cm that Alcatel-Lucent said could improve capacity in urban areas by as much as 30 per cent, across 2G, 3G and LTE technologies.

Ericsson is coming at the same problem from a different angle however with its antenna integrated radio solution (AIR) that sees the antenna element of a base station integrated into the radio unit. Ericsson said that field tests of the unit have yielded a 42 per cent reduction in power consumption and a 30 per cent reduction of integration and installation time.

While Alcatel-Lucent is a vocal proponent of the femtocell play, Ericsson has steered clear of this segment of the infrastructure market, although the Swedish company said the AIR product is the “first step” on the road to the introduction of a new architecture that it has called the “heterogeneous network”, or Hetnet. As the femtocell guys are developing their products to be bigger, so the traditional infrastructure guys are making theirs’ smaller. The Informer wonders what would happen if Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson were to combine their technologies? Maybe we would get a base station that continually implodes in on itself and takes up no space whatsoever.

Nokia Siemens Networks is also on trend with a technology proposal that the firm claims could seamlessly extend the mobile network with wifi. Under the premise of helping operators deal with congestion, NSN said its smart wifi can selectively offload traffic from the macro network to wifi without any break in service and bypassing a device’s need to switch its data connection between wifi and cellular broadband. A femtocell by another name, no?

Continuing Tesla’s dream, Qualcomm will be on hand next week to show off WiPower, a demonstration of its technology for the wireless charging of consumer electronic devices. Perhaps Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs will exit his keynote in a flash of electricity from some imposing device, only to reappear at the back of the auditorium moments later, while a clone of Dr J drops through the stage into a water tank below.

MWC – it’s all smoke and mirrors isn’t it. Still, this time next week, it’ll all be over.

See you there,

The Informer


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