Manhattan is easily one of the most congested cities in the United States, with millions of people and businesses squeezed into roughly 28 square miles of water-locked real estate. The heart of New York City pales in comparison, however, to the limited geography and footprint within the average cell phone, which typically crams as much technology as possible into an increasingly smaller space.
This technology housing crunch is not expected to get any better, as developers look to expand the capabilities of these small devices with additional GPS and WiMAX chips, more memory and embedded applications. The challenge of packing more technology into a small space is pretty much lost on consumers and business users, who are more concerned with what they can do with a wireless device than with how many circuits can be balanced on the head of a pin.
"Customers don't care about technology," said Barry West, president of the 4G Mobile Broadband Division and chief technology officer at Sprint Nextel. "They care about what the services are and what they have to pay and all the rest of it. The technologies come and go."
West was specifically talking about mobile WiMAX and Sprint's efforts to become an early leader in this still developing, but potentially huge, market. A recent survey conducted by In-Stat of 1,200 consumers supports this enthusiasm, revealing that more than half prefer the promised capabilities and pricing of mobile WiMAX over cellular and WiFi networks - another reason why Sprint Nextel and others are pushing handset manufacturers to add WiMAX chips to wireless phones in the near future.
The Layered Look
Mobile WiMAX is particularly attractive to business users since the technology reportedly performs much better than cellular in urban areas where there are typically a lot of wireless users and congested communications can create problems with signal reception, reliability and overall system performance.
Other companies are also looking to move embedded and layered IC technologies into a cell phone's already crowded neighborhood to deliver a range of new applications and services that may change the whole nature and use of cell phones. Texas-based Freescale Semiconductor, for example, earlier this year unveiled its ZSTAR reference design, which makes use of low-power wireless motion technology that can be used by mobile developers to build applications that can sense motion, positioning, vibrations, tilts and even falls. The target industry for such motion-aware applications is mobile gaming, although there may be some enterprise uses as well. Think of a cell phone doing double-duty as a pointer to easily flip through and highlight slides in a PowerPoint presentation stored in the phone's memory and transferred to a viewing screen through a Bluetooth-enabled LCD projector.
At the 3GSM World Congress earlier this year, Freescale also demonstrated a variety of chips and chip packaging technologies, all designed to make better use of every square millimeter of scarce handset space. Many of these target multimedia and "infotainment" applications, as well as simultaneous voice and data transmissions for business users.
Snapping to Attention
Adding new circuits or keyboard alternatives to a cell phone usually requires either a partial or a complete upgrade to the mobile device, which is not an easy sell to manufacturers dealing with users who may be reluctant to part with a fairly new device or companies determined to squeeze every last drop of ROI benefit from systems deployed across a mobile workforce.
In these situations, subtle software-based approaches may make more sense than moving new technology into the congested internal neighborhood of a cell phone.
This is the strategy taken by SNAPin Software, a maker of mobile interaction management solutions that can easily be integrated into existing cell phones to let operators quickly customize them for consumer or business applications. The software contains applications that are embedded directly into the cell phone or SIM card and can communicate back to the wireless provider in real time without any user interaction.
Most of the applications involve billing, customer care and system troubleshooting - all of which can generate considerable call center and support expenses for wireless service providers. However, mobile operators can use the technology to customize and brand their products at the point of sale for individual customers and provide over-the-air updates of these embedded applications.
"We are trying to make it possible for the carriers to allow the enterprise to gain control of that handset," explains Brian Roundtree, founder and CTO of the Bellevue, Wash.--based company. For example, the embedded software and applications might control and manage the flow of information to and from the mobile handset, or it can automatically direct sensitive email to a more secure area of the SIM card.
"The Self-Service Configure software becomes a part of the product since it uses technology that already exists in the SIM card, like extended memory, and enhances what that handset can do," adds Roundtree.
Orange UK, the key brand of France Telecom, is one of the first wireless service providers to recognize the benefits of configuring-on-the-fly by launching a pilot program with SNAPin back in February. As part of the program, Orange is test-marketing phones that are equipped with large memory SuperSIMs that can be automatically customized for individual users at the point of sale. This eliminates the need to install applications and brand the phone as part of the manufacturing process.
SNAPin's self-service approach also has an enterprise spin since mobile executives can get applications from carriers to automatically update corporate directories and instantly shuttle sensitive corporate data to a secure part of the SIM. Users can also take some responsibility for basic mobile IT support functions such as resetting a password or refreshing a device with personal and corporate data.
Once personalities and applications are embedded into individual SIM cards, a single device might then be used by multiple people within an organization to push the ROI envelope even further, says Roundtree. "There are some complexities with the GSM standard, but it is a possibility with devices that are more enterprise-oriented."
Rising Above the Noise
While the less-intrusive software approach is fine for some technologies, it may be a little too soft when it comes to enhancing the core communications capabilities of a cell phone. This is where a mix of software and "semi-soft" hardware can be used to substantially boost the performance of a mobile device.
This is the approach taken by Quellan, which has developed a way to insert specialized analog integrated circuits into cell phones and other
wireless handheld devices to improve the signal integrity by up to 400 percent, claims chairman and CEO Tony Stelliga. "The semiconductor [companies have] always been the creators of the noise and not really the reducers or eliminators of it," says Stelliga.
Just as audio noise can be tracked and eliminated through noise-cancellation headphones, the internal and external RF noise created by keyboards, LCD screens and even conflicting communications signals can also be identified and eliminated to improve signal reception and performance in a wireless device.
Instead of filtering and suppressing the RF noise - which can degrade technologies such as GPS - Quellan's approach is to intelligently listen to the noise spectrum and use algorithms in the software to remove that noise from the equation. The resulting improvement in signal quality and reception is "the equivalent of someone whispering in your ear while a jet engine is taking off beside you at full throttle," notes Stelliga. "The dynamic is that amazing."
While a typical day for a mobile user won't include accessing email on an active airport runway, the technology does have some very concrete applications in the business world. Users of mobile systems that incorporate both GPS and GSM communications architectures, for example, know from experience that it always takes a few minutes for the GPS chip to "learn" where you are after stepping off a plane or leaving a building. This is because GPS receivers are inherently weak, while GSM is a very aggressive and robust technology. The result is a conflict as the GPS chip strains to pick up a satellite signal and get a lock on your position through an interweaving process.
The Quellan technology eliminates a lot of the RF noise associated with the GSM signal and other sources, allowing the GPS receiver to get a faster and stronger link to the satellite's signal, explains Stelliga. Since it can tune out a lot of ambient RF noise, the technology also allows GPS to be used within buildings and perform much better in the concrete canyons of a city like Manhattan.
The company is involved in a number of in-building GPS projects that involve public safety workers such as firefighters, and mobile fleet operations that make use of both GPS and WiFi communications. In the latter instance, Quellan's active in-band cancellation technology is used to suppress the noise on WiFi's "edge channels" and add muscle to the middle channels to improve signal strength. "As a result, we can tune out the noise and get full transmit strength across all of the channels and get more bandwidth," says Stelliga.
Improvements in signal reception and reliability are critical when it comes to developing multiple wireless networks that work within large and congested metropolitan areas - what IBM Global Technology Services refers to as digital communities. As more businesses and public agencies make use of wireless technologies, there is a growing need to improve the connections and interactivities between these "islands of communications," says Kevin Mazzatta, the mobility leader with IBM's Wireless and RFID Services and Integrated Communications Services group. Says Mazzatta, "All of these are growing together, and there is a need for reliable bridges between those islands."
Tim Scannell is the president of Shoreline Research and a managing director with 2in10 Ltd.