The typically staid wireless telecom crowd at the 3GSM World Congress last week was wowed by images of futuristic mobile devices helping run businesses and homes. But later, wireless technology leaders warned that such gee-whiz applications are years away.
Business applications will be developed before mass-market uses for new technology, and in the U.S., widespread availability of high-speed wireless data applications is probably at least three years away, experts predicted.
Eventually, everyday life will grow more dependent on wireless technologies, said Hans Snook, chief executive of mobile operator Orange. "Forget about being mere service providers," Snook said. "Our future is as a communications-based life services company."
He described the intelligent house that Orange built in the U.K. In it, residents control everything from drawing the bath to starting the washing machine using voice commands to their wireless phones. "The Orange phone becomes the remote control for the home," Snook said. Orange had a disappointing initial public offering this month and is still mostly owned by France Télécom.
Sir Richard Bransons racy presentation about his Virgin Mobile service was rooted more in the present. The U.K. company recently introduced a package of services called VirginXtras which alert users about band schedules, club events and other local happenings. "It will tell you when Britney Spears is in the news, when her next concert is, and help you buy tickets," Branson said.
But many users may find the VirginXtras service cumbersome until higher data rates are available. Most European operators are upgrading to Global Packet Radio System (GPRS), which will carry higher data speeds.
That effort is hampered by a typical problem that plagues each major wireless network upgrade: Handsets arent available. Motorola is the only supplier with commercial GPRS handsets, and others arent expected to follow until midyear. "The bad news is, one supplier doesnt make an industry," said Adrian Nemcek, senior vice president and general manager of the Global Telecom Solutions Sector at Motorola. "Operators need choice."
Business users will likely be the first to scoop up the expensive handsets. Some early users are expected to be traveling salespeople accessing customer databases and mobile workers punching into corporate networks for e-mail.
Pushing back GPRS only complicates further the drive toward third-generation wireless technology, which will deliver even higher data speeds and greater network efficiencies. "GPRS is essentially a steppingstone where operators could learn how to do something else but voice," Nemcek said.