Swimming With Sharks In the Wireless Waves

June 9, 2004

Have you seen "Jaws?" Of course you have.

Remember the swimmer near the beginning of the movie? A nice peaceful scene.

And remember what suddenly happens to her? Of course you do. Right now, the mobile data industry is playing the part of that swimmer. And Moore's Law is the shark.

Let me explain. I went to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association show ( in Atlanta recently. The industry is thrilled about the profit possibilities of mobile data.

The market is growing fast, but currently still just 2% of total industry revenues. And it's becoming a vital profit stream in Asia and Europe.

 What is mobile data? It's short messages, called SMS, and "Premium SMS" that let someone other than the carrier charge you. It's the 10-second MIDI file ring tones that jingle when a call comes in. It's those little bowling games you play on your cellphone's screen.

"Any data you can sense from your system can now be transmitted. Anything you can imagine is now possible."

In other words, it's small files. The whole industry is dumbing-down old digital offerings, or dusting-off chestnuts from the 1980s. They're calling it "new" product. They don't think their systems can handle any more. (If your attitude is like this, change it.)

Meanwhile, a "fab-less fab" chip maker (meaning they don't own a production plant) called Nvidia ( is preparing to blow these boys out of the water. The company plans on working with Texas Instruments (a major supplier of cell phone silicon) to get new low-power versions of their stuff into $150 cell phones by 2005.

This is not the Moore's Law doubling every 18 months we're talking about.

It's a 1,000-fold improvement, all at once. Using compression, Nvidia-powered phones will be able to display full-motion, full-color video. They'll be able to act as MP3 players (with the music video). Cell phones will become part of the computing and communications mainstream.

That means mobile devices will be able to model complex problems. You'll be able to bring a control system to the problem you're monitoring, look at the problem and data simultaneously, find solutions in real time.

The silicon and software guys are all over this. A week after the show Texas Instruments said they will start shipping dual-mode phones, which can run on 802.11 or cellular frequencies. Microsoft said the new version of its Windows CE (Windows for embedded systems), Version 5.0, will support this stuff. The 802.16 Wi-Max standard is going to let ISPs send dozens of MB/sec across miles of open ground, thus providing real broadband service (with no phone company backhaul) to all sorts of new markets this year.

So what was it doing at the cell phone show?

Well, hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons said carriers should ignore data completely and just make sure their expletive-deleted phones work once in a while.

Universal Music executive David Ring was among those pushing "master ringtones," 30-second MP3 clips that would replace your phone's ringer, and saying that "if we can get $5 each for these, then iTunes are woefully underpriced at $.99."

Verizon was bragging that no data can go through its network unless the application is written in Brew (as opposed to the Java used by everyone else), unless it's tested by them, and unless they're the exclusive retailer, taking a retailer's cut. These guys were all over the show, wearing black jackets and shirts that made them look more like music execs than the actual music execs.

And no one seemed concerned that, unlike the situation everywhere else in the world, American mobile data suppliers can't buy TV or magazine ads for their services, since they're either Verizon-centric or Verizon-absent. Verizon is paying no price for being a walled-garden--they could not care less what you think.

Meanwhile, have you been in a cell phone store lately? If you have, did anyone talk to you about what kinds of data you could get from different phones? Could they tell you where you might access that data? (The answer, friends, is no.) Could they train you how to get more out of your phone? (Again, no.) All it seems they care about is signing you to a contract, preferably a long one.

The industry isn't ready for what silicon is going to be able to do for them. They're going to be overwhelmed. Their business models are going to be bitten in half, chewed up and swallowed before their opening credits even roll.

There's an important lesson here for those swimming process automation's waters. Don't let yourself be pulled under by Moore's Law. The capabilities of silicon are accelerating, not decelerating. Prices are plunging faster than ever, because demand (from software, from industry, from users) can't keep up with what the market can supply.

You don't need wires in your factory automation system, just radios. Don't worry about how much data the radio must handle, worry about getting full descriptions throughout your system. Don't count bits.

Imagine how more finely-grained your control system might be with more data. Any data you can sense from your system can now be transmitted. Anything you imagine is now possible.

Be open and ready with questions, because the technology can answer them. All you need do is come up with applications. Your supply of problems is now the bottleneck--the technology can meet your demands.

Dana Blankenhorn

Business Analyst,

[email protected]

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