At the recent CTIA trade show in Las Vegas, representatives of the Wi-Fi Alliance-the marketing body that certifies Wi-Fi devices for interoperability-pulled me aside for a while to tell me something that I already knew: Wi-Fi is now a must-have feature on mobile devices, particularly smartphones. But they had some numbers to back that up.
Their numbers, based on a study by ABI Research conducted in February, indicate that 77 percent of users of phones with Wi-Fi inside report that they are either “completely” or “very” satisfied with their device. Of these owners of Wi-Fi-enabled phones, 74 percent use the Wi-Fi and 77 percent would require the technology be in their next device.
ABI goes on to report that 44 percent of smartphones currently have Wi-Fi, with that number expected to hit 90 percent by 2014. I would actually expect such levels of penetration to come much sooner because I can think of only one widely promoted smartphone released in the last six months that shipped without Wi-Fi-the Blackberry Storm.
Of course, I don’t pay attention to every device that comes down the pike, but Wi-Fi integration in smartphones has definitely come fast and furious. Even Palm-which took forever to get on board the Wi-Fi bus-is making sure Wi-Fi is in its new devices, whether they are based on Windows Mobile or on Palm’s new WebOS.
Now that I think of it, I’ll go even a step further: My device-an Apple iPhone-would be practically useless without Wi-Fi. No matter how many commercials I see touting more bars in more places, AT&T has completely failed to win me over with its network. I typically get a maximum of two bars of coverage in the places I spend the most time (home and the office), leaving my iPhone generally untenable for telephony and good for data primarily because I have provided my own excellent data coverage in both places via Wi-Fi.
In addition, as of this week, I can make outbound VOIP calls over Wi-Fi using Skype, for which I already have a yearly SkypeOut subscription. Instead of giving out my AT&T number, I give out my Google Voice (formerly GrandCentral) number, which routes the call to my iPhone. When the caller inevitably cannot reach me, Google Voice records the voice mail and transcribes the message to text, which is sent via e-mail and SMS. Once notified, if the transcription makes no sense, I can check the message on the Web-over Wi-Fi.
It’s a lot to go through to cover up for AT&T’s less-than-stellar coverage, and, yes, I will likely try out another carrier once my service contract expires.
But as my Wi-Fi usage continues to grow and encompass a much wider array of applications, I’m starting to have some concerns about the security of these applications, particularly over Wi-Fi.
I’ve been traveling a lot lately, connecting to a wide assortment of open hot spot networks in hotels and conference centers that are not encrypted at the network level, and I have found myself intensely curious about whether my data is secure. Unencrypted Wi-Fi is just too easy to capture and decode, and many applications are now chatting on the network, but I don’t have a good sense of their over-the-air hygiene.
When using Web applications via a browser, I can see the HTTPS:// or the little padlock icon and think, OK, I’m encrypted. But with third-party applications, I generally don’t see obvious signs that I shouldn’t be worried. When I fire up those communication applications-including Facebook, Fring and the Amazon shopping application-will my authentication details or credit card info be secure?
Possibly, I am fretting about nothing. I haven’t combed through the terms of service or privacy policies of every application on my phone. But during casual use of applications, I can definitively say that only the Amazon app says it is using SSL. It makes me want to sniff my own traffic, just to see what’s what.
I do wish someone would take the lead on this issue, making it clear in third-party applications what security measures are or are not present as data traverses the network-particularly unencrypted networks. I tried to encourage the Wi-Fi Alliance to take the lead on this, to apply pressure on device vendors or application store maintainers to make it clear when data is protected by an application. But, honestly, I know it isn’t the right party to make that happen.
Instead, the call needs to go out to Apple, RIM, Nokia and Microsoft: Make sure your developers have guidelines in place requiring application-level security of personal and financial information, as well as a clear-cut way for that security to be presented to the user.
Senior Analyst Andrew Garcia can be reached at [email protected]