This issue of Africa Telecoms is focused on New Technologies. With your area of expertise being Mobile and Wireless, how would you describe the current condition on the Mobile and Wireless market when talking about Innovation?
Innovation is still very rapid and operates at several levels: Device hardware is evolving rapidly, for example we’re just seeing mobile devices with multicore processors exceeding 1 GHz, we’ll likely see several new types of display including 3D displays on a few mobiles in the next year or so, new sensors, new types of wireless such as Bluetooth 4, perhaps WiFi Direct protocols, wireless HDMI connections to screens and so on. We have economic evolution as well as technological evolution. Nokia is selling smartphones at EUR 115 retail (before tax), which means we’ll likely have sub EUR 100 smartphones next year. This makes smartphones accessible to a much wider range of people. Networks are also evolving. Many operators are on some form of HSPA. A few have started very early LTE deployments, and we can already see the next long term step on the roadmap which is LTE-A. We’re also seeing rapid innovation in mobile applications and services. Apple has over 300K apps, Android around 100K. Increasingly apps don’t just stand alone but integrate with innovative cloud services. We’re seeing growth in a wide range of mobile services such as payment, context, music, social networking and mobile advertising. I expect rapid evolution in all of these areas (and more) to continue for at least 5 years.
We would like to know from you what you believe will be the next big New Technology in the Mobile and Wireless space?
I don’t see any single “next big” technology. There are probably 20 technologies which are important including context, platform independent AD tools, Bluetooth 3 and 4, mobile HTML5, near field wireless, M2M, LTE, mobile augmented reality, haptics and new screen technologies. I think that in the mobile space, innovation often happens not from one single technology, but a combination of technologies. For example look at augmented reality (AR) tools such as Layar or Wikitude. These enable all sorts of new applications and visualisations such as location aware competitions, marketing, games, geotagging to name but a few. But AR itself is built on a set of underlying essential technologies such as GPS, e-compass, graphics accelerators and tilt sensors. So, in my opinion many of the innovations come from combining technologies rather than from a single technology. However, if I had to identify one technology which we don’t yet have, but when it arrives will be very influential, it would be indoor positioning. The holy grail in this area would be a technology that can locate your position indoors (where GPS doesn’t work) to within 1 metre or so. This would enable a wide range of applications such as indoor navigation, indoor AR, finding products on shelves in shops as examples. Sadly, we don’t yet have any single technology that looks as if it will become a dominant standard, although companies like Nokia have demonstrated some interesting possibilities.
In a recent Blog Post you spoke of the “Rule of 3” used in economic theory being applied across many industries. Specifically, you mentioned computers, PC’s and Mac’s for normal people and Linux for Geeks. Do you think this will be the case in the Operating System arena for Mobiles? And, if so would you care to take a guess at what they might be by 2020? Why do you think this will be the case?
I think mobile OSs will eventually consolidate to around 3 strong leaders, however it will take a long time; I don’t see it happening before 2015 at the earliest, probably later. At the moment the best candidates for the long term “top 3” are Symbian, Android and Apple iOS. But the game is still on and many things could happen before the market stabilises, so it’s not a very safe bet!
Mobile Operating systems are clearly a topic of interest worldwide with some interesting information coming out of Gartner over the last few weeks, specifically with declining Symbian and RIM market shares to increasing Android market share. What do you think the main drivers is in the world of Operating Systems?
I see this not so much as an operating system battle but an ecosystem battle. An ecosystem is bigger than an operating system, and it encompasses users, developers, applications and devices as well as the OS. What will determine the long term fate of the operating systems is the strength (or otherwise) of their ecosystem. A strong ecosystem means lots of applications which makes the platform more attractive to users, which in turn makes developers rich and attracts more developers. It’s a virtuous cycle. Ultimately, however good the OS if you don’t have applications and services the device can’t succeed.
Considering this, do you feel there is space in the market for new operating systems or is consolidation going to take place?
I think in the long term we’re going to see consolidation as I mentioned above. However, in the short term the market will get very competitive indeed. 2011 will likely be the most competitive year ever for platforms and devices because we will have a new Symbian version, the first release of MeeGo, a revitalised webOS from HP, Microsoft phone 7, new iPhone versions and new Android versions. It would be extremely difficult for a new platform to make much impact in such a crowded and competitive space. However, the competition isn’t just around OSs, because new “platforms” are emerging above the OS. E.g. I expect HTML5 will become a popular mobile app delivery platform, some of the AR tools I mentioned earlier are becoming “platforms” of a sort, which just complicates matters further.
A final question on the Operating System front. Do you think Open Source or Proprietary Systems will win the battle and why?
Both will co-exist because they have different, but viable business models. For mass market platforms with many manufacturers, open is attractive because the cost of OS licenses can be an issue and an open source approach allows manufacturers to differentiate their products. However the closed model such as that used by Apple or RIM also has advantages because it ensures a consistent end-to-end experience that includes the device and the services in the cloud.
There are many new areas of technology in the Mobile and Wireless space. Some of the ones that we think will have an effect in Africa specifically include:
a. Mobile Health
b. Mobile Government
c. Augmented Reality
d. Machine to Machine
Would you care to comment on their viability in Africa and what aspects do you think are interesting in these areas? Then, I would also like to know over and above these what else do you think will take Africa by storm in the next 2-5yrs?
I agree that healthcare is a huge mobile opportunity, and we’ve seen mobile phones used for clever applications such as eye tests, health education and support for remote health workers. Perhaps my only concern is price, most citizens won’t be able to afford a high end smartphone so there are still some challenges with what can be delivered. I mentioned AR above, I think it will become a major platform for delivering applications as it’s very user friendly, however it does demand top-end expensive smartphones and high speed networks which limits the opportunities a bit. M-governmwnt is also an opportunity although some applications like m-voting can be challenging for reasons of security and authentication. M2M is interesting but the opportunities in rural areas where signal coverage is poor are limited and in my opinion, although we have seen some examples in emerging markets such as India for water pump control. Another area which I think has great potential and where I’ve seen some very interesting leading work carried out in South Africa is mobile learning, i.e. using the mobile phone either to deliver lessons or to support the learning experience.
Tablets seem to be a technology that are taking the world by storm at the moment with the launch of the Apple iPad, the Cisco Cius and the up coming launches of a number of other including Research in Motion’s (RIM) Playbook. Do you think that this is a viable alternative for Third World Economies like Africa to personal computing (granted if the cost of the devices where to come down)?
Personally, I don’t think the hardware is the big issue. We have had low cost hardware for a while, e.g. the OLPC project. You can build cheap netbooks for the same cost as a cheap tablet. In my opinion, people are getting sidetracked by the hardware hype and forgetting the big issue which is the ultimate goal. The challenge is to deliver applications and content that benefit society, the hardware really doesn’t matter. Added to which many of the new generation of tablets aren’t designed for use in challenging environments such as villages without power; it takes a lot more energy to charge a tablet than a phone for example, and it’s easier to break a tablet when you drop it.
Taking a more global look at the Mobile and Wireless Technologies sector what do you think will be the biggest challenge facing the industry in 2011?
I think 2011 will be one of the most competitive years ever - as I mentioned above. For many of the platform vendors this will be a year when they have to run flat out to stop competitors getting ahead. It will also be a challenging year for network operators because the mindshare is owned by platform and device manufacturers such as Apple or Android, or app stores. It’s becoming increasingly hard to convince consumers that the network matters much.
Moving on from that what do you feel is the biggest opportunity that has arisen and can be commercially exploited in 2011?
I don’t see the market having a simple single opportunity. I think it’s a market of many opportunities at many levels. Mobile is still in the discovery phase of the market, in a sense now we’re moving beyond voice and SMS, yet we’re still trying to find out what mobile phones are for. App stores are discovery machines which let thousands of developers experiment with new services and along the way we’ll find out what’s popular by a sort of Darwinian process. Personally, I believe that one principle underlying many of the most successful new mobile services of the next few years will be context. i.e. applications which are hyper-personalised, sensitive to your location, behaviour needs and habits. For example; in a few years I expect my handset will beep one day and say something to me such as: “Did you remember It’s your wife’s birthday? I see from your mobile payment history today that haven’t bought any flowers, but the traffic is bad so by the time you’ve driven home your favourite florist will be closed. However, there are three flower shops within 500 metres of where you’re standing and one of them got great ratings from two of your friends on Facebook.” We can’t quite do all of this in 2011, but we’re certainly seeing the beginning of apps that can combine location, Facebook data and so on. I think context this is a huge opportunity that will continue to evolve for 5 to 10 years, but even now it can be used to deliver suggestions which are personalised and relevant. And that, after all, is what you want from the personal device in your pocket.