a week in wireless

What a difference 70 years makes

Telecoms is an industry so fast-moving that even reflecting back on how things were a decade ago evokes sepia-tinged images of people from the past walking unnervingly fast to the soundtrack of frantic piano. “I remember when the point of mobile phones was to make phone calls,” sneer parents everywhere to their digitally native children. “All we had was Snake when I was a lad and we were grateful for it,” they mutter to themselves, their children have long since ignored them in order to simultaneously IM, tweet, game and perform 12 other arcane acts of digital engagement, any one of which would require the undivided attention of their greying parent.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the D-Day, in which the World War II allies collaborated in a successful effort to free France from German occupation. Mobile phones were a bit different back then, although the EE-8 military field phone was still slightly more compact and discrete than the Nokia Cityman was to be 40 years later, or indeed the Samsung Galaxy Mega is today. While Orange France has pulled out all the stops to ensure 4G coverage at key Normandy sites, commemorations of that historic day are rightly free from jingoism and focused solely on the bravery and sacrifice of all involved.

Having said that, if the telecoms industry is anything to go by, national allegiances couldn’t be much more different than they were 70 years ago. We’ve already come to terms with the Franco-German joint venture that is EE in the UK, and Vodafone severed its US alliance not too long ago to refocus on its European operations, which include Germany and Italy, and is even repatriating its innovation hub from Silicon Valley. As a UK company exits the US, so a Japanese one looks set to step in, with Softbank-owned Sprint gearing up to buy T-Mobile US (thus undermining the Informer’s point somewhat, but there you go). Elsewhere in Europe consolidation is the order of the day as Orange courts Bouygues in France, O2 flirts with E-plus in Germany and Wind exchanges furtive glances with Three in Italy.

At its worldwide developer conference, Apple unveiled a raft of products and tweaks, such as cloud services, health-checkers and home automation, with the central aim of making it even harder to step outside the iOS ecosystem. Apple may well yet decide to rename its Cupertino HQ as Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Apple’s announcements served to match similar initiatives from the Android ecosystem, although its dominant vendor – Samsung – signalled its intention to go it alone by finally launching the first smartphone based on its own Tizen mobile platform. Samsung also revealed it will be launching a co-branded NOOK tablet, as it continued its quest to be involved in every product category imaginable.

Regulators have been busy, as ever, with Ofcom in the UK looking to squeeze operators on mobile termination rates once more. The net-neutrality debate rumbled on in the US, with Verizon and Netflix publicly growling at each other.

The highlight of the week, however, has to be the decision by Softbank, having dealt with US domination earlier in the week, to branch out into the robotics game. Specifically this took the form of collaboration with Aldebaran Robotics to produce Pepper; “The world’s first personal robot that can read emotions,” or so they claim. For around US$2,000, Japanese punters will be able to buy their own empathetic chum that, touchingly “takes his surroundings into consideration to react pro-actively using proprietary algorithms.” The Informer wonders whether mobile operators have been field-testing Pepper in their call-centres in recent years and, if so, can only conclude those algorithms could do with some further tweaking.

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