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Friday, April 28, 2006

The Godmother of Spread Spectrum - Hedy Lamarr

Godmother of spread SpectrumHedy looking sultry

The most beautiful girl in the world was also the inventor of spread spectrum. She was granted Patent #2,292,387 on 11th August 1942 with co-inventor George Antheil for a "Secret Communication System".

The story behind the pair and how they made the invention is detailed in the wonderbook, Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the Mobile Phone by Rob Walters. Apart from the fascinating story of the pair, the book's great strength is that it is written by someone who clearly understands radio technology very well and explains the applications so the non-technical reader can understand it easily.

The brief story is that Hedy Lamarr was born in Austria between the World Wars, became an actress and gained notoriety as the first woman to appear nude in a film. She married an Arms dealer and entertained Adolf Hilter and Mussolini at their palatial home. She didn't like the direction that Europe was heading into (or her husband) and escaped to the USA. On the ship crossing the Atlantic, Louis B Meyer offered her a job. She starred in a few movies and immediately became famous. She met "the bad boy of music" George Antheil, who shared her hatred of the Nazi's and together they invented spread spectrum. The original application they came up with was as a guidance system for torpedo's which could not be jammed. The first application came in the 1950s with the US Navy.

The story of George Antheil is as interesting as Hedy Lamarr's. He was a talented piano player and composer who moved to Europe in between the wars and experimented with new music. His lists of acquaintances are like a who's who's of the cultural scene at the time. His piece Ballet Mécanique created riots the first time it was played in Berlin and Paris. In fact only recently with the advent of computers has the piece been able to played as originally written. It sounds absolutely terrible to me. He returned to the USA and moved to Hollywood to write music for the movies where he met Hedy.

Of course, the invention was too advanced for those mechanical times, but with the silicon of today it is implemented within CDMA, Bluetooth & WiFi technologies.

The story is so good that I'm sure one day it will be made into a movie. The majority of current Hollywood vixens would love to play someone with more than one brain cell. The ending will have to be changed: torpedos being deployed and killing her evil Arms Trading ex-husband...

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Voice 2.0

I think the root cause of the mobile operators failure (apart from one notable exception) to innovate lies in the history of innovation (or more importantly lack thereof) in its core product - Voice.

The various air interfaces can all be traced back to the various equipment manufacturers
*1G – Analogue – Motorola;
*2G – Time Division – EU drove Nokia, Ericsson, Alcatel + Siemens or vica versa; and
*3G – Spread Spectrum - Qualcomm
Less controversially, if we get further back in time, the godfather of all the technologies was probably the US Military (more about the Godmother of 3G tomorrow night)

The backhaul and supporting systems can hardly be differentiated from the fixed line equivalents.

The big innovation in payments was the introduction of prepaid, which really was just a better version of the fixed line calling cards. And even then most of the incremental innovation was done by IT system integrators.

Intelligent Networks originated in the fixed line world and the most successful application is non-geographical numbering, which is now absorbed into the core network. In the UK, the mobile operators use intelligent networks to charge a non-intelligent price structure.

WAP was designed by committee and probably won’t even survive the encroachment into the wireless space from the all powerful and conquering IP stack. I know WAP is not a voice service, but it gives a clue to the success ratio when everyone gets together to set a standard. A more topical example is here

Can anybody think of one single successful voice innovation that emanated from a mobile company? For sure, many people at mobile operators played a huge part in testing of innovations and getting them to be deployed to mega-millions, but there is a big difference between that and creating something.

I think this points to the fact that one of big obstacles to innovation in the operators are the executives themselves who grew up and got rich implementing and selling other people’s technology.

When you have the largest mobile operator in the world openly discussing outsourcing IT operations – what hope is there for Vodafone to compete with the Google, Microsoft, Ericsson, Nokia & Qualcomm’s of this world in the battle for the maturing mobile value chain?

The executives and network engineers can all get together at IMS conferences and say “This time it will different…”, but some people remember the past hype about Parlay and battled with some of the equipment providers to get some of mysteries of the HLR/SS7/handset/(choose network element) interfaces revealed. Personally, I think IMS is just v3.0 of the Intelligent Network (v2.0 being Parlay). It will not be different this time even if the toolkits are the simplest to use in the world. Mainly because ultimately the big network operators just do not have innovation in their bloodstream.

I also point people to one of the most profitable accidental innovations of all time: SMS, which was designed in a committee as an aide for business. I’ve yet to read and hear of anyone who realized that it would be taken up by the youth of today. What is exceptionally funny about this innovation is that not only the network operators missed it, but the equipment providers themselves missed it. Arguably the biggest beneficiaries were Logica and CMG who both ending up merging to protect the SMS riches from the salivating network equipment providers.

Personally, I think something similar which happen in the IMS world: there will be an accidental break through and out of the thousands of people developing solutions something by someone will innovate something interesting. Throw enough sh*t and some of it is bound to stick. However, this someone is more likely to come from the Web2.0 world and the company will immediately be snapped up by Google, Yahoo & Microsoft.

I agree with Martin Geddes about the power of presence (his is also probably the world most interesting blog on voice), but really it has been around forever in the internet world – why is it not on every handset? I’m sure a lot of the real reason is that there is a lot of executives arguing about cannibalization of voice-mail revenues.

In truth, I see a more direct analogy between the mobile operators and music industry. Both had lucky profitable breaks (e.g. the CD in the music biz and SMS in the mobile biz), both will deploy huge reams of lawyers to protect their distribution channels, both will grow via industry consolidation and buying up innovators (Service Providers / MVNOs in the mobile space and A&R execs / Small Labels in the music biz).

Perhaps that’s why they spend so much time speaking to another and stroking one another’s egos rather than getting back to basics and developing new products that will excite the world.

The notable exception to all of the above is of course DoCoMo, but that is for another day. In order to compete against them, perhaps the most interesting mobile operator of the future will be Softbank, I wouldn’t bet against it…

Location 2.0

Probably my favourite purchase of 2005 was the TomTom Go500. This is a dedicated piece of kit for navigation and really is for use only in the car. It was the undoubted hot seller of Christmas 2005 and has a current market share of 57% accord to GfK (source: Tom Q1 2006 Results presentation) and with forecast units to shipped in 2006 to be 8 million up from 3.8m in 2005.

Is this a mobile product? I would argue - yes. It is used in the car, has bluetooth connectivity specifically designed for hands free calling and optional extras such as Speed Cameras, Traffic stats which can be downloaded over GPRS from the handset.

What is interesting about TomTom, apart from the obvious great success for all who invested in the stock in 2005, is:
  • despite the vast investment by network operators in embedding location technology in the network, TomTom uses the US Military GPS satellites for location determination as a better (cheaper, faster and more accurate) alternative;
  • the success of dedicated hardware + software rather than generalised software for PDAs and Mobile Phones (TomTom Sales for PDAs & Smartphones 2006 Q1 - €9m vs 2005 Q1 €16m); and
  • the use of cellular access technology as the dumbest of dumb pipes. User Forums even warn of the cost of downloading via GPRS as opposed to using your broadband connection and UBS port on the computer at home.
In other words, currently it looks like the operators implemented the wrong technology into their networks; dedicated devices are outselling the generalised devices that the mobile operators sell; and the operator pipes are not the recommended choice for data delivery.

If this is the way things are going in location services, the future is not looking bright for the mobile operators.

This gets even worse when you examine Google's recent efforts in location services. This is made even worse for the operators when you look at the integration Google is bring to mapping technologies, satelite imagery and even have a beta for phones

In terms of Vodafone, I think they have just abandoned the area and are going to leave it up to Google.

Unfortunately, I cannot see a scenario where the operators will get the impetus back from specialised companies like TomTom and more generalised web services companies like Google.

I think the mobile industry have missed the boat with location services and instead will be restricted to a dumb pipe, albeit charging higher tariffs than the fixed world. Even here the prices are rapidly falling as you can see with the new T-Mobile UK Mobile monthly 3G data charge of £20 for 2GB which should meet most peoples requirements.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

VodaIdentity 2.0

The SIM card as a personal authentication device allowing a small amount of user defined storage was one of the great innovations of GSM technology and at the time was a great differentiator compared to the competing digital technologies of CDMA & TDMA. It effectively meant that I was no longer tied to the network provided handset and if I wanted I could swap handsets many times a day and carry my address book within the tiny smartcard chip. Now everyone takes the technological leap forward for granted and smart cards are all persuasive as an integral part of security devices in both set-top boxes and even today chip and pin cards are nearly ubiquitous in the UK. A brief history of the Smart Card technology can be found here .

This portable authentication device is a huge leap forward compared to Web1.0 where identity was deliberately designed in as (nearly) anonymous at the network layer and is one of the few areas where the mobile world is actually a vast improvement on the wired world (together with the more obvious portability). Although, a rather controversial statement, I think if the web was re-designed today anonymity would no longer be permitted and some of the more recent attempts to design a web wide authentication scheme are struggling. eg for Microsoft Passport and Liberty Alliance Project ). I'm not even going to mention the more general pending catastrophe that is the UK governments ID card scheme

I believe that the mobile industry should drive home this advantage in already having rolled out part of the technology and having it accepted by the vast majority of the Western European population. The first signs of Identity 2.0 are emerging in Japan with the new Sharp 904SH handset. This contains recognition functionality based upon Facial features using OKI technology.

The trick for widespread adoption is getting the user to accept the technology themselves rather than having big brother impose upon them. This will only happen if the benefits are immediately apparent to the user: in this case of securing privacy on a highly personal device. Once adoption is widespread and accepted then rolling it out across other third party services which bring convenience to the user will be relatively simple.

  • Want to avoid taking reams of documents to the bank when opening up a new account? Then use VodaIdentity 2.0 on your mobile phone to confirm your identity all for the cost of a MMS.
  • Want to sign up to a free newsletter or other service on the Web? Then send a MMS of your face and all your details will immediately be created. This will also provide confirmation of your age for more adult content.
  • Want to avoid proving your identity to police when stopped for a traffic violation? Then use VodaIdentity 2.0 on your mobile phone to confirm your identity all for the cost of a MMS. It will also confirm that you have up-to-date insurance and for the vehicle and avoid a later visit to the local police station.

The uses and benefits are endless...

If you sell the service as making life simpler, do not make it mandatory and use technology that the user is comfortable with then the chances are radically improved for both adoption of the technology and people actually paying for it.

From a technological point of view, the Next Generation Networks which are starting to be built based upon IMS technology (which used to be called 3G-IP) use the mobile network concepts of IMSI, IMEI and MSISDN (the basic definitions stored on a SIM cards and authenticated), so expect to see a lot more SIM cards in use on fixed networks over the next 5-10 years.

Personally, I think one of biggest mistakes by Vodafone was when they allowed BT a free ride to bid, win and build the nationwide TETRA emergency services contract (which has now morphed into o2 Airwave) issued by the Home Office; they should not allow BT a free ride to win the UK National Identity Card, which I can almost guarantee BT will bid on

Monday, April 24, 2006

VodaWeb 2.0 – Photo Sharing

Continuing the theme started by James Enck on possible directions that VOD could go in the Web 2.0 world, I believe the time has come for MMS.

Three factors are converging:
1) Camera Phones are becoming ubiquitous;
2) Picture quality has vastly improved; and
3) Huge numbers of people are using Web Based services such as Flickr for storing and sharing photos.

The prices are still too high, but it is well within VOD’s capability to drastically drop the prices, I suspect even dropping the prices to SMS levels will lead to the service to being extremely profitable. Theoretically, MMS should carry a premium to SMS, but a 300% differential seems like daylight robbery especially when you consider the price model for email.

One important element that VOD is missing is the easy sharing and downloads with a Flickr like tool. Vodafone have a tool called “Studio” which is less Web2.0 and more like Web0.1. The product is the definition of anti-user-friendly with ridiculously low storage limits (5MB).

I believe VOD has three options:
1) Upgrade Studio to something usable with a decent interface. I suspect Studio is a 3rd party product probably an add-on to the MMS platform, so the upgrade is not something that VOD could differentiate with in the medium term; or
2) Do a deal with Yahoo and integrate Flickr onto the MMS platform; or
3) Jump directly to the Web 2.0 and do a deal with company like Riya who has got to be one of the most exciting Web 2.0 services out there.

I discovered Riya via Om Malik’s blog, he mentioned back in November that Google was already sniffing around. I think the face recognition software and categorization is even more important in the mobile world than the web world, just because every single typing of a character on a phone is a pain in the neck, even for the text-wizards.

My favourite option is number 3 and even if a complete takeover is not currently possible, VOD could place some of recently arrived Californian Venture Capital and fund the mobilisation of Riya with of course an exclusivity clause.

For an interesting read on MMS see the report, “How and Why People Use Camera Phones” Although this study dates back to 2004 and is with a limited sample of users, I believe it identifies the obstacles to sharing photos via MMS and I think a lot of the conclusions are still relevant today.

Speaking of identities, my next blog entry (hopefully tomorrow night) will be Identity 2.0 and some other technology coming out of Japan (not the eWallet) which Riya also seem to specialize in.

And it’s goodnight from me…

Friday, April 21, 2006


After many years of posting to various bulletin boards and with some encouragement from (now) fellow bloggers, I have finally decided to start a blog.

Without wishing to constrain the content too much, most of posts will be about the wireless industry - the value chain, business model and strategies. I reserve the right to fire off in other directions.

I do not intend to be prolific and will try and stick to one post a day - my "thought for the day" if you like.