a week in wireless

The robots are coming!

Next week, robots and people will flock to the UK’s De Montfort University in Leicester for the thirty-sixth annual convention for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and Simulation of Behaviour (AISB 2010). Alas, the Informer won’t be going, but he thinks it sounds like a fascinating programme, with more than a touch of science fiction about it, aiming to discuss innovations that people will think of as commonplace in 50 years time.

So says the University’s Dr Aladdin Ayesh: “Issues under discussion vary from the practical, covering the ways in which AI technologies are seeping through into our daily lives, to the abstract, where ideas can sometimes feel as though they have a touch of science fiction about them, but then not too long ago, robots were considered to be science fiction and now they are a reality.”

French company Aldebaran Robotics will have its Nao robots on display. These are autonomous, humanoid robots which can be programmed for a variety of purposes, as shown in this spectacular video. There will also be a demonstration of SEMAINE-2.0, a ‘Sensitive Artificial Listener,’ which can sense your emotions, and encourage you to talk about anything you want – a virtual therapist of sorts.

Perhaps SpinVox founder Christina Domecq should book herself in for a session, to help her deal with the final commercial failure of her ambitious voice to text project. Well, it wasn’t so much over-ambition which killed the venture, it was more mismanagement. New owner Nuance was unimpressed with the way SpinVox had been run, noting that the firm “incurred large historical losses, owing to expenses associated with its international expansion and substantial staffing.” And it really stuck the boot into Domecq as well, saying: “The company did not adequately capture all necessary information to administer PAYE properly and to identify expenses that were personal to the CEO.” Still, she had a good time. Apparently the parties were amazing.

The upshot is that Nuance is currently gutting the Marlow-based company and as of today its consumer service will be terminated. Last week the firm sent a message to its undisclosed number of consumer users telling them their service will be disconnected by March 27. Nuance is instead integrating SpinVox’s carrier services with its own speech recognition platform to help it scale to meet the needs of its existing customer base.

Speaking of dead technologies, WiMAX isn’t one of them, says Motorola. Still flying the flag for the platform, the US firm said this week that it has shipped its two millionth WiMAX device, just five months after shipping its one millionth. Moreover, since hitting the two million device shipment milestone in February, Motorola said it has also received a significant order from Mexican service provider Axtel to deliver additional WIMAX CPE units.

WiMAX also got a much needed boost from US carrier Sprint Nextel, which was showing off an HTC built, Android-powered WiMAX device at the CTIA trade show this week. The HTC EVO 4G is similar in form factor to the HTC HD2 and from what the Informer has heard, clips along at a nice little pace with its WiMAX connectivity and Qualcomm Snapdragon 1GHz processor.

Android continued its run of positive news, getting access to a whole new library of pre-written applications, as mobile middleware developer Myriad launched a tool which it claims seamlessly converts Java MIDlets into Android applications.

Myriad’s J2Android is able to take the tens of thousands of MIDlet applications already on the market and develop new revenue opportunities for the Android community. Software features include adaptive screen scaling and the ability to apply virtual keypads and softkeys.

While Android’s looking good at the moment, it’s principal backer’s feeling the Chinese burn. The Big G’s big trouble in not so little China might put Android adoption in that particular market under threat. Since Google stopped censoring google.cn search results by redirecting searchers to its Hong Kong site after suddenly developing moral objections to actively withholding information from people – or retaliating to alleged Chinese attacks on its infrastructure – a good number of local Chinese companies have got very prickly with the web giant. Mobile carrier China Unicom is one of these and has announced that it will no longer be using Google search on any of its handsets.

There’s a lot of political posturing and hand wringing going on around this, but does it really matter whether Google is in China or not? That’s what the Informer wants to know. Local search engine Baidu will always have the biggest market share, whereas Google was trying to move in on a very different culture. The moralistic argument and Google’s ‘openness’ are pretty much negligible here. If Google was required to censor out pictures of cats doing funny things instead of links to the Falun Gong, then there would be uproar.

Speaking of openness, browser firm Opera is looking to take advantage of Apple’s decision to relax the rules on third party browsers for the iPhone and has submitted Opera Mini for iPhone to the Apple iPhone App store for approval. So confident is the company that its creation will be allowed into the App Store that it has put a widget on its site counting up to approval and is offering up a shiny new iPhone to whoever makes the closest guess. After showing a sneak peek of the browser in Barcelona in February, the Norwegian firm has now made a video available to the general public, and the Opera browser, which is billed as six times faster than Safari on the iPhone does indeed look very whizzy.

Ah, but there’s a catch. “Due to server-side rendering, Opera Mini compresses data by up to 90 per cent before sending it to the phone.” Now this server side compression technology is likely based on Opera Turbo – a box that Opera sells to operators to stick on their networks to improve the mobile web experience. So what happens if the operator in question doesn’t have the box installed? Will users get a slower experience? Answers in a tweet please: @telecoms

There will likely be a lot more of this compression taking place, what with the whole data boom taking place. At CTIA this week, Swedish kit vendor Ericsson announced that global mobile data traffic surpassed voice during December 2009, after growing 280 per cent during each of the last two years. And global mobile data traffic is forecast to double annually over the next five years, the company said, adding that the crossover occurred at approximately 140,000 Terabytes per month in both voice and data traffic, while traffic on 3G networks also surpassed that of 2G networks.

As discussed in telecoms.com’s recent feature on the network capacity crunch, this stellar growth in mobile data is causing a major headache for operators both financially and technically. And from a technology angle, femtocell proponents are pushing their technology as the most effective solution. Which brings us to a new feature in AWIW: Analogy Watch, or, AWIWAW as it shall be known. Some of the concepts discussed by the telecom heads on a regular basis are difficult to explain, and the Informer has heard a lot of old twaddle in his time, but some of the analogies used are such gems they deserve to be archived, so we’ll kick of this week with one from Simon Saunders, chairman of the Femto Forum, who is talking about the data boom. “The vast majority of usage is going to be in homes and offices. Trying to service this need with the outdoor network is the equivalent of trying to improve the experience of reading in bed by making lampposts outside brighter instead of installing a bedside lamp,” he said. Thank you, Simon.

Moving on, and money has been changing hands among the companies which, er, help money change hands. Big billing firm Amdocs swooped in and acquired messaging provider MX Telecom for $104m, giving it a leg up in the mobile transaction space. While German carrier Deutsche Telekom acquired online payments firm ClickandBuy for an undisclosed sum.

Elsewhere, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, the founders of Kazaa, Skype, and more recently, the Joost IPTV operation, were using their Midas touch to help the money flow in their direction, with an eye to investing in European startups. Investment vehicle Atomico Ventures II this week completed fundraising to the tune of $165m and will seek to invest in early stage, high growth technology companies in Europe.

On to the big story of the week now, and the long awaited exchange between the two emerging markets giants, Bharti Airtel and Zain, is thought to be a done deal.

Indian operator Bharti closed financing for the deal to the tune of $8.3bn earlier this week, and looks to be transformed into a major global operating group, becoming the world’s fifth largest operator by customer footprint with the acquisition of Zain’s sub-Saharan operations.

Analysts at Informa Telecoms & Media say the case for Africa as an attractive investment destination is based largely on subscription growth potential. At the end of 2009, there were just over 450 million active subscriptions across the region, accounting for a penetration rate of below 45 per cent. Such is the preponderance of multi-SIM activity in Africa that in fact single user penetration is closer to 35 per cent and with Informa forecasting that half the region’s population will remain unconnected in 2014, the potential for connecting new customers is therefore tremendous.

But, as Zain discovered, there are obstacles to be overcome. And it is with this in mind that the Informer’s chums and Informa principal analysts Nick Jotischky and Matt Reed have put together a guide to investing in Africa’s mobile telecommunications market in ten steps, the first instalment of which will be published next week.

That’s all for now. There won’t be an AWIW next Friday as those boffins over in Geneva will finally get around to smashing things up with the Large Hadron Collider and we’ll all be swallowed by a black hole. Actually, it’s because it’s the Good Friday bank holiday. So for the next fortnight, take care,

The Informer

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