a week in wireless

Let a thousand flowers bloom

The Informer recently met with Lee Epting, an interesting lady who holds the position of director of content services for Vodafone. That a carrier should have a director of content services at a time when conversations about ‘pipes’ are so prevalent is fascinating in itself, but not nearly as fascinating as the fact that Epting joined the carrier when the wreckage of Vodafone 360 was still smoking and managed to salvage some of the ill fated project.

Much of that technology has gone into curation tools for the application stores Vodafone supports, a concept the Informer finds slightly amusing as he imagines consumers trying to climb back into the walled gardens they were so keen to escape a few years ago. It’s a jungle out there in the app wilderness and increasingly likely you’ll get eaten alive without some form of guidance.

What we’ve found is that there’s lots of stuff getting into the Apple App Store that we don’t think Apple would be happy with,” Epting said. “We don’t know why; maybe they’ve dropped the bar. But when we quality check these apps they fail our standards, mainly for using APIs not required for the application. So we’re more stringent than other application stores,” she said.

But with so many apps now flooding the market, it’s easy to see how quality is falling. Google this week announced the ten billionth download from its Android Market application store, having racked up no less than four billion downloads in the past six months.

Android Market hit the six billion downloads mark in July of this year, up from one billion in July 2010. By contrast the Apple App Store hit 15 billion downloads in July, suggesting that Android Market is catching up on iOS in terms of numbers.

The latest version of Android, numbered 4.0 but known as Ice Cream Sandwich, also hit the market recently, making its debut on the Samsung Nexus Galaxy, and will soon arrive as an update on in-market high end Android phones. Usually when a major update takes place, there is impatient clamouring from the user community eager to get their hands on the latest version, but to calm the excited masses, Android handset vendors Motorola and Sony Ericsson have released information about the process for deploying operating system updates to in-market handsets.

The OS, which brings together features from the smartphone and tablet worlds, is in great demand as an update, having already made it to rooted devices via the custom ROM and phone hacking community. But it may take a couple of months to hit existing devices like the Samsung Nexus S and Motorola Xoom via the official channels.

The bottleneck, according to Motorola and Sony Ericsson, is the carriers, which have to certify each and every change before an update can be rolled out to users on their networks.

Motorola said it is currently assessing the source code, and over the next month will be determining which devices will get the upgrade. From there the vendor merges and adapts the new release for different device hardware architectures and carrier customisations as well as integrating all of the Motorola-specific software enhancements into the source code. Next, vendors stabilise and ‘bake’ the result to drive out bugs before submitting the upgrade to the carriers for certification. This is the part that takes the longest as the carrier’s lab has to qualify and test the upgrade, so there may be a two-month preparation cycle to enter a carrier lab cycle of one to three months, Motorola said.

In related news, US carrier Verizon Wireless said this week it will not be supporting Google’s m-commerce app Google Wallet when it launches the Galaxy Nexus in the US market this week.

Verizon was keen to stress that it is not “blocking” the application – contrary to what reports in the US have stated – but rather, is saying that it is just not making it available until it can offer “the best security and user experience”.

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesperson for Verizon, said “Google Wallet does not simply access the operating system and basic hardware of our phones like thousands of other applications. Instead, in order to work as architected by Google, Google Wallet needs to be integrated into a new, secure and proprietary hardware element.”

But one reason for Verizon’s stance could be its own m-commerce interests. Verizon and rivals AT&T and T-Mobile USA are part of a consortium called ISIS, which is planning to launch its own payment system in the US soon.

On the subject of commercial interests, Verizon Wireless has also announced that it will be acquiring Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) spectrum from a number of other US carriers in a bid to boost its LTE offering. Verizon intends to buy 122 AWS spectrum licences  from SpectrumCo, a joint venture between cable companies Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. The firm will pay $3.6bn for the spectrum.

Verizon claims that by buying this AWS spectrum, it can bring even better 4G LTE products and services to its customers—and according to Sara Kaufman, an analyst at Ovum, the deal puts the carrier in a much stronger position to compete on LTE.

“Acquiring spectrum that it can use for LTE is a key objective for Verizon, and this deal gives it a lot of spectrum that it can use for its 4G services,” she said.

Meanwhile, rival Sprint Nextel will make use of 800MHz spectrum for its LTE network during 2012, in addition to the 1900MHz frequency on which it plans to launch the network, it was revealed this week by Sprint CFO Joseph Euteneuer. The use of the lower frequency will be made possible by moving of its iDEN customers onto its CDMA push-to-talk service.

Sticking in the US, and Apple has been denied a preliminary injunction to block the sale of Samsung’s touchscreen smartphones and tablets in North America, after a judge in California ruled that the Korean manufacturer’s products would not severely impact Apple’s sales.

The ruling means that Samsung will be able to sell its devices in the US during the traditionally lucrative Christmas season.

US District Judge Lucy Koh in said in a court in San Jose, California: “It is not clear that an injunction on Samsung’s accused devices would prevent Apple from being irreparably harmed.”

Samsung responded to the ruling, with a spokesperson saying that the ruling “confirms our long-held view that Apple’s arguments lack merit. In particular, the court has recognised that Samsung has raised substantial questions about the validity of certain Apple design patents.”

Koh’s ruling only relates to an interim injunction that Apple had been seeking, and there is still a chance that Samsung could see an eventual ban imposed on its devices, when a full trial commences in July 2012. However, Samsung remains optimistic that it will come out victorious in the main trial as well.

Apple has been seeking a ban on Samsung products – most aggressively on the Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet – in various countries across the world. It won its bid to ban sales of the device in Germany, where a Düsseldorf court upheld Apple’s preliminary injunction, which claims that Samsung had infringed its intellectual property and copied the iPad’s design.

But while Apple’s having trouble stopping Samsung selling tablets, Blackberry vendor Research In Motion is having enough trouble shifting its own hardware. The Canadian firm has warned shareholders that it has a large inventory of PlayBook tablets sitting in its channels at the moment, amounting to a provision for this quarter of around $360m.

RIM said it sold approximately 150,000 PlayBook tablets into the channel in the third quarter and believes sell-through to end customers was higher than this amount. Yet the company isn’t shifting its stock as fast as it would like. Clearly there won’t be many Playbooks under Christmas trees this year.

The company also suffered a legal setback after a ruling that prevents it from using the BBX moniker for its forthcoming flagship operating system. BBX, unveiled in October, is a hybrid of the BlackBerry platform and the QNX operating system that the firm uses in its tablet offering, but software firm Basis is claiming it infringes a trademark on its own OS, also dubbed BBx.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has announced that it will miss its target of launching its Windows Phone 7 handsets in China, stating that the devices will be available in the country in the first half of 2012, rather than by the end of 2011, as originally planned.

China is a key market for Microsoft, as penetration of its Windows smartphones in the country is expected to grow more than 20-fold over the next five years, from just 800,000 devices on the market today, to 18.92 million units by the end of 2016, according to forecasts from Informa Telecoms & Media.

The company had has been in discussions with Chinese handset makers including Lenovo, ZTE and Huawei Technologies about developing Windows Phone 7 devices for Chinese consumers, and it is not currently clear which handset manufacturer will launch the first handsets on the OS in China.

Microsoft bedfellow Nokia, might be looking to offload its bling, if rumours are correct. The company has long harboured a little unit called Vertu, which makes ridiculously expensive phones, encrusted with gold and diamonds, for luxury markets in places like Dubai. The handsets themselves are technologically mid-tier, but the use of precious metals and stones can push prices into hundreds of thousands.

For a company that excelled in the low end mass markets, Vertu was never a good fit, but it did apparently deliver profits. Now, it could be a useful way of rustling up some cash as private equity firms are reported to be sniffing round the asset. Offloading also fits with CEO Stephen Elop’s vision of trimming the fat.

There’ll be a lot of fat to trim come January, the Informer fears. That time of year is almost upon us and the mince pies have already made an appearance in the Informer’s diet. Lovely.

Take care

The Informer

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