Why Do We Go To Mobile World Congress

Right now, more than 50,000 people (including myself) are about to descend on Barcelona for Mobile World Congress 2013, where we will immerse ourselves in the latest of everything related to mobile devices and wireless services. Barcelona is an awesome city, but we are not going there to look at architectural masterpieces by Gaudí, eat lots of jamón ibérico, or watch FC Barcelona dominate European football (those are just nice side-effects of the trip if one has the time!). We are there to experience--first-hand--what is new and great in the world of mobile. And for many of us, we are there to talk about how our little part of the mobile universe is relevant and exciting. This typically results in at least 30 hours of time spent on the show floor talking, meeting, exploring, and drinking lots of coffee. Exhausting for sure (especially considering the 2+ hour dinners that start at 9:30pm), but you just have to be there to fully absorb all the grand possibilities that the latest mobile technologies can offer.

So what do we take away from all this? It is nice to see, feel, and hear about the latest technology, but when you look at it from 30,000 feet (as we fly home), what does it really mean for typical users of wireless services and mobile technology? For a test and measurement company like Spirent, where I lead marketing for our mobile devices segment, it can be challenging to connect what we do to what end users actually experience when using mobile devices in their daily life. But that is what really matters, so my goal for Mobile World Congress 2013 is to take the most important technologies we are all talking about and clarify how they can and will impact the mobile experience.

This post will kick things off with a look at the most hyped technology coming into the show and how it impacts the mobile experience. As the show progresses, I will be providing updates via twitter (@brockbutler or @SpirentWireless) and then posting at least two more updates here -- one during the show and one that wraps everything up afterwards. My goal is to make the connection to the mobile user, and I welcome any type of feedback and questions along the way – let’s make it interesting and real!

First of all, let me make sure the term “mobile experience” is clear. My intention is to use these words to describe the level to which mobile devices and wireless services meet the expectations of end users. This includes the quality of services like voice, data, video, SMS, and location. It also includes the perception (or usability) of smartphone applications, the form factor of devices, the coverage and ubiquity of services, the price people have to pay for services, and the overall ability of mobile devices to delight end users. Many of us experienced first-hand how technology raised the bar on mobile experience when the iPhone launched and people never looked at smartphones the same. LTE has done the same for data-intensive applications and will hopefully do the same for voice.

Improvements to the mobile experience ultimately drive consumers to buy new devices, upgrade their wireless services, and download new applications on their smartphones, so our emphasis must be on connecting products and services with the ultimate impact on users' experiences.

Heading into Mobile World Congress, here is my take on the hot technologies and applications that are getting the most attention, as well how they may or may not impact the mobile experience:

Small Cells & Heterogeneous Networks (HetNets)

“Small Cells” is a big buzzword this year, and they are an essential part of the HetNet strategy carriers have been talking about for a while. Residential femtocells, microcells, picocells all fall under the umbrella of small cells. Even Wi-Fi access points, another key part of HetNets, are starting to get thrown in the small cells umbrella. The promise of small cells is to provide a way to offload data traffic from macrocells, thereby decreasing the most widely discussed bottleneck in the wireless world. The demand for data bandwidth on mobile devices is increasing so fast (predictions have it increasing 1000% between now and 2017), that operators must find ways to quickly scale the data capacity of their networks. If the Berg Insights forecast of 44.8% CAGR is correct, small cell deployment is going to be a key part of the solution.

Mobile Experience Impact: In the near term, changes to mobile experience will be a mixed bag. The increase in data bandwidth is going to make us very happy when streaming videos and using other data-intensive applications. However, small cells and HetNets make mobility significantly more complicated, and we are likely to see more service disruptions when moving between macro and small cells (and from one small cell to another). Example: It is great to be able to stream HD video on our smartphone, but the freezing and stalling as we move from one place to another is not. This problem will decrease as time goes on and the mobile experience will ultimately go up as a result.

Bottom Line: Short-term hit, long term gain

LTE-Advanced & Carrier Aggregation

The next generation of wireless infrastructure is all about LTE-Advanced (defined in 3GPP Release 10), and the carrier aggregation feature will be the first to see widespread deployment by operators. Like small cells, carrier aggregation is a way to increase the data pipe, particularly for asymmetric data services like video where the primary need is in the downlink. The key to carrier aggregation is making multiple non-contiguous frequency bands work as if they were a single channel. The New Jersey Department of Transportation did the same thing to one of our major roadways on the East Coast of the United States: They were unable to make the existing roadway any bigger, so they doubled capacity by building an adjacent roadway in close proximity that paralleled the original one. Carrier Aggregation is good for operators who own discrete and disparate chunks of spectrum and want to use as much of it as possible for their LTE services.

Mobile Experience Impact: Like any new technology, carrier aggregation has a fair share of interoperability and performance challenges ahead of it, but those are likely to be worked out before deployment. Assuming that is the case, carrier aggregation will provide operators a much-needed way to boost the capacity of their network, and that will definitely help the mobile experience for those of us with an LTE smartphone (actually, I should say those of “you” because I don’t have one yet).

Bottom Line: Thumbs up

The 3rd, 4th, and 5th Ecosystems for Mobile Applications (Win8, BB, HTML5)

This is less about technology and more about the operating system we choose to use on our smartphones. iOS and Android will retain their dominant positions as #1 and #2 ecosystems for mobile applications, but the rest of the pack is clamoring for ways to get a bigger slice of the pie. Windows Phone 8, BlackBerry 10, and HTML5 are the main contenders fighting for #3, 4, & 5. While Windows and BlackBerry are somewhat obvious, HTML5 is a bit of a black sheep because it isn’t an operating system; it is a web technology that can run on any smartphone OS with HTML5-equiped web browser. This may give it an advantage if applications built on HTML5 can start to rival the richness and usability of native OS applications.

Mobile Experience Impact: The mobile experience is heavily impacted by the quality of applications, the quantity of applications available for a particular platform, and the features and robustness of the underlying operating system. iOS is leading in mobile experience right now because it comes out on top in all three areas. If the 3rd, 4th and 5th application ecosystems succeed and become more viable, then users will have more options to choose from and the ecosystem that offers the best mobile experience will most likely gain market share. The impact here is that top-tier application vendors may have to consider supporting more ecosystems. This puts a strain on resources as they try to maintain a consistent user experience across all smartphones. More choices are always good for the consumer, but it may come at the cost of discrepancies in the mobile experience.

Bottom Line: It will be harder to maintain high mobile experience across all smartphone users, but the ecosystems that offer the best overall mobile experience will gain market share.

More to come …

There are many other important technologies and mobile applications making headlines. These include VoLTE, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Hotspot 2.0, Near Field Communications (NFC), Mobile Payments, Home Health Monitoring (mHealth), Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) & Connected Car, Home Automation, Family Locator Services, and Fleet Management.

I will try to look at the mobile experience impact of all of them throughout the next week or two.

If you get a chance, give me your thoughts on twitter @brockbutler or stop by Hall 6 Booth 6D85 to grab some coffee and talk to the Spirent team directly. After all, we go to Mobile World Congress to talk and debate these ideas, right? Otherwise, we could just read the articles from our homes and avoid the exhaustion.

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