a week in wireless

Saving lives with SMS

We’ll start this week with an impressive story about the impact of mobile telephony in a genuinely life-or-death situation. Much is often made of the empowerment that cellular services offer in developing markets in terms of economics and wellbeing. But a story emerged this week about a British doctor who volunteers for Medicins Sans Frantieres for a month each year in Africa’s troubled Democratic Republic of Congo.

Vascular surgeon David Nott had a 16 year-old patient whose arm had been ripped off, causing a wound that had become infected and gangrenous, leaving the teenage boy with just days to live. Nott realised that in order to save the child he would have to perform an operation called a forequarter amputation, involving the removal of the shoulder and collar bone; an operation that he had never before undertaken.

So he texted a colleague back in London, who had previously carried out the procedure, and received step by step instructions back over SMS, which he followed to complete the surgery – a definition of assuredness.

The cause of the child’s injuries was not clear, with some suggesting he had been bitten by a hippopotamus and other reports claiming he had been caught in the gun fighting that riddles the nation. 1,200 people die each day in the DRC from the conflict, according to the BBC, more than half of them children. Happily, the teenager on whom David Nott performed his first forequarter amputation made a full recovery.

The DRC is linked to the cellular industry, home as it is to significant quantities of coltan, an ore used to produce tantalum, which is used in the production of mobile phones.

Sticking with handsets, albeit along a safer, more prosaic line, Nokia unveiled its latest top-end flagship this week, the touch-screen N97. December usually sees handset sales boom in many wealthy, mature markets, as people fling their earnings around in the Christmas shopping frenzy. Things is a bit different this year, though, what with the credit crunch and all, and while Nokia chose December to release details of its new product, the phone won’t actually be available until sometime next year.

The Informer wonders if this is a bid by the Finnish firm to deter any Christmas shoppers from committing to other handsets during the advent period. It’s de rigeur for handset vendors to unveil products way ahead of commercial availability, of course, but in the Christmas run-up it’s unusual. With sales impacted by the financial situation, you might have thought Nokia would be keen to run down its own inventories rather than coax people into waiting for its next unit. But given that it’s not available at the busiest time of the year, it probably makes more sense to dangle it in front of any as-yet undecided buyers.

On the other hand, it might be that the Finn is just thinking ahead. Just as AWIW went to press, Nokia lowered its fourth quarter forecasts for device industry volumes for the second time in a month, and reiterated its expectations that number will also be down in 2009.

The N97 certainly has some oomph onboard. It sports a 3.5″ full touch-screen display and a QWERTY keyboard that slides out from the underside, 32GB of memory, which is further expandable with a 16GB microSD card. The camera is 5 megapixels, fitted with Carl Zeiss optics, while the display can handle 16:9 widescreen media and DVD quality video capture. Connectivity is via HSDPA and wifi, with integrated A-GPS offering ‘social location’ (‘So-Lo’) functionality for social networking.

This is all well and good, and clearly files the N97 under ‘response to iPhone’ in Nokia’s portfolio. But all the gubbins ain’t worth jack if the interface and user experience don’t cut the mustard. Take the N95 8GB unit, with which the Informer is more than familiar. The camera’s great, the sound’s great, the movie capture excellent. But the interface – particularly for browsing – is poor. And it takes ages to open the simplest of applications.

The iPhone, of course, got by with a far lower spec than the N95 precisely because it was so easy and intuitive to use. Well, and because it was up there with Scientology and David Hasselhoff in terms of cult status. We won’t find out whether or not Nokia has tweaked its interface until some time in the first half of next year, when eager beavers can get their hands on the N97 for Eur550 before subsidies.

In other handset news, Taiwanese vendor HTC has bought itself a little Christmas present, which is shaped exactly like San Francisco-headquartered design outfit One & Company Design (OCD). The US firm, which is presumably renowned for its attention to detail, designed HTC’s Touch Diamond handset and was acquired by the Taiwanese vendor this week for an undisclosed sum. HTC has clearly been impressed by OCD’s work, given that it recently upped its forecasts for Touch Diamond sales from two million to three million by the end of this year.

One & Co said it will maintain its name and client base while it joins forces with HTC. The company also counts Apple, Microsoft, Palm and Motorola among its clients.

Among HTC’s many white-label handsets is the Android-based G1, the Google handset offered exclusively at the moment by T-Mobile in the US and UK. In the UK, the German operator cut prices for the G1 this week, from £50 to zero on its £53 and £30 monthly tariffs. HTC has also upped its shipment projections for the G1 by almost 100 per cent, saying that it now expects one million units to shift by the end of 2008.

The Android platform picked up a little more speed this week, as a hitherto unknown Australian manufacturer unveiled the world’s second device to be based on the Google OS. The Agora and Agora Pro, made by Kogan Technologies, will be available to buy worldwide on January 29, at A$299 (Eur153) and A$399 respectively, with the more expensive version featuring GPS, wifi and a 2 megapixel camera.

In other news, T-Mobile is also hoping to beat the credit crunch blues by offering ad funded mobile games. T-Mo customers can access at least one new game per week by joining the operator’s Game Club. The first free game available to consumers is Poker Million II, and new games will be made available each week.

In exchange for watching two full screen, targeted adverts before starting the game and two adverts after the game has finished, customers get the game for free and will not be hit with any hidden charges. Within the UK, customers will not be charged for the data required for downloading the game or accessing the adverts. The full screen, interstitial adverts are interactive and enable the user to visit an advertiser’s mobile site or even click to call or text the advertiser.

Good news for HTC, perhaps, but the number-heads at Gartner warned this week that the global smartphone market posted its weakest quarterly growth in Q3 this year since the firm made it a subject of scrutiny. It’s still growing, of course, partly down to the larger number of qualifying handsets in the shops. But with a year on year increase of 11.5 per cent – to 36.5 million users – the market is decelerating.

Nokia, used to being top of all the handset rankings, actually posted a three per cent decrease in sales on the same period for 2007, but retained a healthy 42.4 per cent of the smartphone market. Gartner reckons an absence of touch screen products has hampered the Finn, something the firm hopes to sort out with the N97.

Research in Motion, meanwhile, saw smartphone sales jump 81.7 per cent year on year, keeping it in second place with 15.9 per cent of the market ahead of bronze medallist Apple, with 12.9 per cent and an understandable 327.5 per cent year on year increase in sales.

In the OS rankings, Symbian was out on its own with 49.8 per cent, which is the first time the OS has fallen below 50 per cent market share. RIM and Apple took second and third with shares, naturally, that matched unit sales.

But in Europe it will be the operators, and not the vendors, that feel the current credit crunch most keenly – at least if the latest research from Ovum is anything to go by. The analyst house suggested this week that, while carriers in other regions look to be demonstrating resilience to the financial crisis, European numbers paint a bleaker picture.

“Unlike other regions where the mobile market has proved resilient so far, the third quarter financial results of Europe’s top mobile operators show a marked, credit-crunch-induced deterioration in their performance,” said Emeka Obiodu, senior analyst at Ovum.

However, the good news is that Ovum does not anticipate a major slowdown for the mobile telecoms industry. Although some operators may become vulnerable, the market remains overwhelmingly buoyant and is expected to ride out the financial crises.

“Reassuringly, the basics of the mobile market are still intact,” said Obiodu. “Mobile services have become the de-facto consumer communication tool of choice, and with an increasing shift to postpaid contracts, plus the opportunities enabled by high-speed mobile data services, there is still money out there to be made in the mobile market.”

This is not good news for Vodafone, particularly in light of its costly situation in India. The world’s biggest operator in terms of revenue looks to have lost its fight against the Mumbai High Court and now faces the reality of a $2bn tax bill.

The bill is based on capital gains tax resulting from Voda’s $11.7bn acquisition of a 67 per cent stake in Indian GSM carrier Hutchison-Essar in 2007.

The Big V naturally fought the claim, but it seems the Indian court has dismissed the challenge. Vodafone now plans to lodge an appeal with the country’s highest court, the Supreme Court, in a bid to have the ruling overturned. Vodafone’s main defence is that the deal took place between two foreign companies, both based in the Cayman Islands, and as a result is not subject to Indian law.

The upshot of the case is that many other foreign investors may be thinking twice about moving into the Indian market.

Meanwhile, and finally, the Informer decided to get a head start on his Christmas shopping this year, rather than leave it to the last minute again – Mrs The Informer wasn’t best pleased with her box of firelighters and windscreen cleaner last year.

In a brazen attempt to impress his missus, the Informer is digging deep for a brand new Porsche. That’s right, never mind fancy jewellery or a romantic trip to Lapland New Forest. This year the Informer is banking on German luxury sports car manufacturer Porsche to bring home the brownie points.

The Teutonic auto firm has teamed up with French handset maker Sagem to bring a new touchscreen terminal to market. It comes with all the usual sleigh bells and whistles including GPS, 5 megapixel camera and wifi. It’s only got EDGE connectivity, but Mrs The Informer won’t bother her pretty little head about speeds. It’s bright and shiny, and it’s got a Porsche badge for heaven’s sake, and that’s what counts.

Old Ma Informer, meanwhile, has gone all environmentally friendly in her old age. This year she’s been sending friends and relatives the cards they sent her last year, using her supply of old copies of MCI for wrapping paper, and decorating the tree with an assortment of buttons hand selected from the mammoth collection she’s squirreled away over the decades.

So she’ll be well chuffed with her new green phone charger. Telefonica O2 has launched a Universal Charger, you see. Not only is it compatible with Nokia, Samsung and Sony Ericsson devices, it also promises to cut energy consumption by as much as 70 per cent.

The Informer’s little brother is usually fairly easy to please. Like all young males, he spends most of his time locked away in his room with the curtains drawn listening to heavy metal while furiously waggling his joystick. He’s computer game mad, the cheeky scamp. This year he’ll be able to ape all of his favourite musical artists with the mobile version of Guitar Hero World Tour.

The popular Activision console game has been mobilised by Hands-On. The game features 15 MP3 quality tracks, with more planned for download over the coming months. Players can battle head-to-head against other throughout the country, regardless of their carrier.

The Informer’s older sister, however, tends to spend Christmas day sat in an armchair with headphones on listening to the latest chart sensation, too cool to wear a paper hat from a cracker, constantly texting her friends about how boring everything is and how immature her little brothers are, while simultaneously flicking through the latest issue of Hello.

In a shameless attempt to look at least a little bit cool in his sister’s eyes, the Informer will be gifting her a selection of videos by rap star Jay-Z, available on mobile exclusively from Thumbplay.com.

Like all good pet owners, the Informer knows a dog is for life and not just for Christmas. That’s why he’ll be getting his hound a Retrieva dog-tracking collar. It comes fitted with an Orange SIM and GPS to help owners track their mutt wherever it may roam.

The collar works with the ICyou, a portable smart base station that sits in the owner’s home and doubles as the recharging unit for the collar. The ICyou is an automated monitoring system that promises to alert you if the dog leaves home unexpectedly. If you’ve got a dog that can operate Yale locks, for example.

Speaking of Rovers, off-road 4×4 manufacturer Land Rover has teamed up with Sonim Technologies and announced the launch of a couple of new ruggedised mobile phones. Sadly for Pa Informer he’s going to have to wait until the middle of 2009 before he gets hold of one. Until then he’ll have to make do with cartoon socks. Again.

Take care

The Informer

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