What will wireless look like in 5 or 10 years? For over 25 years the wireless industry has repeatedly trounced every subscriber forecast. There are now more than 4.1 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide. Mobile phone markets in China and India are still growing by tens of millions of users each month.
There is a huge market for replacement handsets. Operators push handset upgrades to reduce churn (subscribers switching to other service providers) and drive premium services (such as mobile TV). Smartphone shipments are increasing while standard phones are becoming smarter. Inside the industry, mobile applications (and application stores) are hot.
As consultant Chetan Sharma puts it, “the mobile phone will become the remote control of our lives.” The number and variety of applications is overwhelming. With more than 4 billion potential customers, even applications that seem esoteric or silly could make developers rich. Major categories include mobile entertainment, mobile health, social networking, location-based services, and mobile commerce.
So what will mobile devices and services look like in 5 or 10 years? I suspect that will be largely determined locally. It will also depend on who is first to grab mind share. There are way too many choices; the average subscriber will let early adopters and power users sort them out.
I find turn-by-turn driving directions to be compelling. But it may not be compelling to people who live in small towns or depend on public transportation. Mobile health is also powerful, but it won’t take off until hospitals, physician groups, and pharmacies buy in.
I suspect that more “things” will become connected to wireless networks. Hospitals are already equipping wheelchairs and IV pumps with wireless transmitters so they can be located when needed. Amazon’s Kindle downloads titles via a mobile phone network; the user does not need an individual subscription. I wouldn’t be surprised if in 5 or 10 years most automobiles, portable computers, and air conditioners follow Kindle’s lead.
The flipside is that most mobile phones will support Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi to communicate with local devices. Near field communications (NFC) makes sense for secure and quick transactions. Together, these technologies permit mobile operators to offload certain types of communications while making subscribers even more dependent on their existing service providers. When it’s time for a handset upgrade, guess who can ensure seamless transfer of your personal data and settings?
A century ago, William Ayrton predicted a future in which people are always in contact via wireless technology. To paraphrase Ayrton, "If you try to reach someone and they don’t respond, then it can only mean they are dead." When I first read that I was impressed, but now I’m not so sure. In the future your wireless phone may just keep responding without you.