Sierra Wireless SmartPhone to Debut at ITU Telecom Show

By Guy Kewney  |  Posted 2003-10-08

Sierra Wireless SmartPhone to Debut at ITU Telecom Show

It really isnt every day you see a brand-new entrant into the GSM phone business; but Sierra Wireless is off to the ITU Telecom World show in Geneva, Switzerland this week with a Microsoft Smartphone. In a year when all the established phone makers are preparing to get to grips with 3G — and beyond - what can have possessed this minnow to jump into the piranha-infested GSM waters?

Its not as if the GSM business is open. Theres a secret cabal of patent Holders — all of whom did deals with each other to swap intellectual property — when the GSM standard was set up. You cant just get that IP, you have to pay for it. The only loophole: using your own IP in trade. But Sierra Wireless really doesnt have any of its own basic phone patents.

Meanwhile, the opportunity for growth must be in the higher-speed 3G data networks, instead of boring old GSM, right?

Talk to a company like Flarion — who sells a wireless IP access system — and youll get a vision of a near-term future where people routinely access the Internet at normal broadband speeds, but from next-generation mobile devices. Not "data on the pause" as BTs Pierre Danon dubbed WiFi hotspots last year, but "data on the move" even in high speed trains and cars.

Amongst the plotters and planners in Switzerland this weekend, Flarion is far more likely to be the talk of the show than Sierra Wireless. Flarion is the curator of a great many high-speed data patents from the old Bell Labs. It offers pure Internet Protocol communications, in a packet switched network, using the existing GSM phone spectrum, and it is now unveiling exactly how powerful this can be.

And yet the old, circuit switched GPRS network is what attracted Sierra to the ITU conference this year. And at least over the next year, that GPRS network will fulfill most corporate wide area connectivity needs.

What makes Sierra Wireless stand out from the crowd isnt just the hype value of being yet another brand in the Microsoft "Windows Mobile" portfolio. Its the companys focus on the corporate user of a personal digital assistant.

Why Sierra, Why Now

"Were phone first people," said Todd Heintz, director of marketing of the Vancouver firm. Sierra Wireless is best known for making a substantial proportion of the 1xrtt and GPRS PC Card adapters used by executives worldwide to get slow, cellular-based wireless networking into their notebooks and PDAs. Why make a phone then? "Our research shows that PDAs are seen as nine to five devices, and are left behind when people go out for the evening. But they will take a phone with them.

But until the Microsoft based XDA, Palm based Treo and Blackberry appeared, there were no wireless-enabled PDAs; and its arguable whether things like the original Treo could really be regarded as phones. What Sierra saw as a gap in the market, was a real phone, but with full PDA functionality.

The companys special gimmick: a flip-open Keyboard on the new line of Voq phones. Unlike devices from Symbian franchisees — like the Sony Ericsson P800 or the old Nokia 9210, the Voq phones have a genuine qwerty layout keyboard which, says Heintz, makes it possible to do genuine email on the move.

In fact, the keyboard isnt the key factor in what Sierra Wireless is touting in Geneva. Rather, its their focus on achieving better ROI for the corporate IT department.

The Voq is designed first to be a business tool. "Some people are better at enterprise wireless, adding voice. Others do consumer and add extra functionality. Were taking wireless data and putting it into a phone. We have to be pocketable; we benchmark ourselves as a phone," said Heintz. But a business phone: no camera built in, no frivolities like an appeal to high fashion or esoteric design; this is designed to fit into a pocket and do office work.

But Heintz raises a key question that will determine Sierra Wireless overall success in this market.: "Will large companies really be prepared to expand their IT budgets to encompass the provision of large numbers of phone/PDAs to staff? or will they take the view that a cellphone is a personal purchase?"

Common sense says IT wont pick up the tab, at least not this year. The Voq wont ship until April 2004 at the earliest – and its not perfect. Based on my initial analysis, there are clear problems with the design, including the lack of internal or even SD-based Bluetooth support. Thus Sierra will probably spend most of its energy seeding evaluation units. After that – well, well just have to see..

I expect Sierra to generate a lot of headlines at the ITU conference. But in the end, delegates to the show will probably focus more on Flarion than Sierra. But thats a topic for another column.

Read more of Wireless Topic Center Editor Guy Kewneys Columns

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