Charles Arthur On Technology

Smart phones just got smarter
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The Independent Online

Every so often, a technological advance comes along that leaves me breathless, amazed at what electronic engineers can do (and I speak as someone who did the university course, which raises the bar slightly on what is needed to amaze).

Every so often, a technological advance comes along that leaves me breathless, amazed at what electronic engineers can do (and I speak as someone who did the university course, which raises the bar slightly on what is needed to amaze).

Last week saw the unveiling of Vodafone's 3G (third generation) services, which will let us download film trailers, stream video clips and buy music over the airwaves. However, that didn't impress me; I was much more interested in some work done by a Cambridge-based company that has developed a technology which, within a couple of years, should be widely available in mobile phones and handheld computers, and which will pose a serious threat to 3G services as soon as it arrives.

The company is Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), which has a rather good track record in technologies for mobile phones. CSR was the original provider of Bluetooth chips for phones, and in its third quarter just ended it made 47 per cent of those used in the world market, up from 25 per cent in the same period last year.

Then last week CSR announced its next big thing: a single chip able to do Wi-Fi (aka 802.11g). This is the technology of "hotspots", more familiar from Intel's Centrino campaign, first popularised by Apple as Airport, and generally thought of as something for laptops. CSR, however, thinks that there's a huge market for adding the "UniFi" chip into next-generation phones, and that the effect might be that sought-after result - a "disruptive technology".

Think for a moment what a Wi-Fi enabled phone would be like. You'd still be able to make phone calls. You'd still have Bluetooth and a camera. But you would also, when you walked into a "hotspot" area, be able to hook into really cheap, high-speed internet access running at up to 54 megabits per second.

From there, you'd be able to stream video, download film trailers, buy music - and also look at anything else you would normally do on the internet. (The latter might even include making cheap international phone calls through services such as Skype or Gossiptel.) And all through your mobile phone. Compare that to 3G, where the maximum data transfer speed is 384 kilobits per second - almost 150 times slower than Wi-Fi.

Not only that, but the price of songs, videos and pretty much everything else is higher on 3G than through an internet connection; understandably, because the carriers have to recoup the £22bn they laid out on the 3G licences when they collectively lost their minds and their ability to see how technology was developing in the "spectrum auction" of April 2000.

Once you add some internet spice into the mix, things begin to look uncomfortable for 3G. On Vodafone's new 3G service, a song costs between £1 and £1.50 (and it can only be stored and played on your phone, which makes the theft or loss of that phone even more dismaying and expensive); over the internet, you're typically paying between 80p and 99p. There are more film trailers to choose from, more sites to visit, and basically a lot more things to do, faster. And you don't have to pay a 3G subscription starting at £40 per month.

Ah, you say (chorused by Vodafone) - but Wi-Fi isn't available as widely as 3G, and it is quite expensive - £5 for an hour, typically.

So is Wi-Fi for mobiles a solution in search of a problem? Not at all, according to James Collier, the technical director of CSR. "We don't design in an ivory tower," he says. "We do have customers for this. I have travelled around the world, and I have been talking about the specifications for this chip for a couple of years." He is also a careful people-watcher, who thinks that there will be demand among "kids in playgrounds and on buses who want to swap files quickly and easily".

And anyway, he points out to anyone who thinks that putting a wireless local area network system into a phone is convergence gone mad: "The modern mobile is already a converged product, if you think about it: it's a phone, a GPRS modem, an address book, a games player... Wi-Fi is needed for fast sharing and video streaming."

It's true that Wi-Fi networks are still disparate, warring little enclaves that are priced as high as the market will bear (the "market" principally being travelling salespeople). But there's time for the present antagonistic system to mature into one that allows "roaming" between different Wi-Fi network providers; after all, if you knew that by signing up with one provider, you could use any, would that encourage or discourage you? A simple revenue-sharing move would be the smartest thing the rivals could do right now, to get ready for the flood of users around the corner.

Indeed, Collier reckons that the prime use of UniFi, once it is embedded in phones, will probably be "collecting e-mail in coffee shops". The chips should become widely incorporated into mobiles in about 16 months' time, perhaps early to mid-2006. They're cheap, costing only two to three times as much as a Bluetooth chip. And for manufacturers, Wi-Fi-enabled phones will be a big plus to offer not only to the high end of the market, but also (if you think about it) to kids who want to flip files among each other and create local networks as they need to.

To the operators who have stumped up so much for 3G, though, such phones are hard to see as anything but a threat. I'm sure their first reaction will be to try to suppress Wi-Fi, and to limit the applications that can work on any phones equipped with it, and to police (through software) the sorts of files that can be downloaded, or even the places on the net one can go with those phones.

Happily, that is not going to work. Not every operator has a stake in 3G (Virgin, for example, doesn't), so they will be happy to offer Wi-Fi phones. And subscribers will ignore phones that restrict them too much, or they will seek ways around restrictions. Wi-Fi is on the way on your phone, and the operators have little option but to grin and incorporate it, even if the result is that the prices of their 3G offerings are forced down.

Of course, CSR isn't finished. Its chipset roadmap shows that, in 2007, volume production will begin of chips offering Firewire (the high-speed wired data connection) and USB2. By then, I think we'll struggle to decide whether we need to lug a computer around any more; our phones will have as much processing power, and connectivity, as any modern laptop. And if that doesn't leave you amazed and impressed by CSR, you must work for them.