The uncertain future of wireless multimodal mobile TV devices -

The uncertain future of wireless multimodal mobile TV devices

As we plunge headlong into the future full of broadband wirelessand Mobile TV we can't make the same assumptions we have in the pastabout the nature of the ultimate killer app.

A common misconception exists that if you can find the rightmix of features and capabilities appropriate to the new post-PChandheld appliance environment, the new killer app equivalent of thedesktop PC will emerge. Then, it is believed, business as usual willprevail, along a predictable straight-line development track asconsumers rush out to buy the new computing and entertainmentplatforms.

People assume that we will see a repeat of the experience ofthe desktop PC in the '80s and '90s, but with ubiquitous wired andwireless connectivity thrown into the mix, and that many of thestrategies that worked in the past will work in this new environment.

Assumptions like this are valid only if the underlyingfoundations are the same. In the PC market we had a system ofinterrelated activities that operated within a mature marketplace withestablished norms and direct causal links. Given an established set ofservices, OEMs, and channels, then technologies and products along aparticular line of development were assured of some degree of marketsuccess.

However, we are going through a time much like that period inthe '70s after the introduction of the microprocessor and before thedesktop computer. Now, as then, the market is in a state of chaos. Allprevious causal relationships have been rent asunder due to thecollision of computing and communications, with no industry wide set ofservices, OEMs, and channels to depend on.

After the introduction of the microprocessor, it took tenyears for the market to reach a steady state. I see no reason to assumethat this new computing environment will settle down into a similarpredictable framework much before the end of this first decade of the21st century.

In particular, I see this mistaken assumption at the heart ofmany of the new wireless multimodalmultimeida computing and communications appliances that are hitting themarket: PDAs and cell phones with WLAN capability; cell phones with PDAcapabilities; both such platforms with gaming and/or cameracapabilities; as well as full-motion video and MP3 audio, and nowdelivery of broadcast quality over next generation broadband wirelessto the various handheld devices.

Everyone seems to be adopting the Microsoft feature-richstrategy that worked so well for the company in the desktop era: builda low-cost box that is as powerful as economics will allow, and if youjust continue to pile on the features the customers will buy and keepbuying. Name any major player in this connected computing environment— Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Texas Instruments, andMotorola among others — and you see everyone assuming that thesefeature-rich multimodal devices are the end game, the platform fromwhich years, and hopefully decades, of stability and profits will come.

To support that strategy, fundamental changes are being made inthe wireless connections that are becoming the common mechanism bywhich these various new embedded and computing appliances connect tothe wider wired Internet. Three of the most important of these are: (1)the intensifying rush to achieve multimillion bps transmission ratesover wireless connections; (2) improvements in quality of service to atleast match that of the wired Internet; and, (3) achievement of an”always on” mode for wireless LANs, similar to that on the cable or DSLwired connections.

Achieving those three goals, it is believed, will make themultimodal Internet appliance blossom into the wireless equivalent ofthe desktop PCs, and even the living room TV in terms of the unitvolumes and profits generated.

But as many companies– IBM, Fairchild, and even Motorola,among others — found out during the chaotic '70s, 80s and 90, suchassumptions cannot be made with any assurance of success.

Ironically, all of the money and intellectual resources beingcommitted to improving wireless connectivity are just as likely to havean impact quite the opposite of what every one hopes will occur.

For example, let's look at the impact of just one of the aboveinitiatives — multi-mbps wireless transmission rates. An immediateresult will be to make true the misleading television ads aboutwireless phones that allow you to quickly and easily transmit picturesof your pet dog or to “blog” video and audio on the Internet.

If you have a chance to try out some of those devices, you'llfind that unless you are willing to spend the equivalent of what you'dspend for a high-end desktop and create a carefully engineeredenvironment surrounding it, what you get is a compromise design.

That's the fundamental nature of such feature-rich,general-purpose platforms. It was true of the desktop computer and itis true here as well. Everything you do depends on the compromises thedesigner or the end user makes.

You can certainly take a reasonably high quality photographwith a PDA-camera-cell phone combo, but only within the limits of theLCD imager that is built in. And you can save it as a relatively highquality photo image if you are willing to sacrifice processor andmemory resources committed normally to a number of other functions. Andyou can probably send the image if you're willing to compromise evenfurther on the quality of the image or the time it would take.

Ditto for live video, Internet functionality, voicecommunications and any combination of features in such convergedcompromise devices.

We want to believe that with high bandwidth wirelessconnectivity, the compromises found in present devices will be a thingof the past. I am not so sure. Certainly, with high wireless bandwidthyou can send a high-resolution photograph or video image, but notwithout making compromises to conserve battery power or maintain theability of the internal processor to perform other importantoperations.

And it's just as likely that high bandwidth wirelessconnectivity could lead to a much more distributed computing future inwhich general purpose handheld wireless platforms will be a thing ofthe past.

Think about it. With sufficiently high wireless bandwidth,what's the point in having everything converged into one multipurposeunit?

Why not a confederation of separate dedicated devices withintegrated high bandwidth receivers or transmitters: a high quality,high pixel density CCD for image collection; a high quality, high pixeldensity LCD integrated into a pair of glasses; a high quality wirelessearphone and a high quality wireless microphone or connection to theInternet and so on. Another alternative is a general purpose handhelddevice, much like a very thin client, which has all of the featuresnecessary to display and manipulate images and audio, but with much ofthe content and the software needed to manage it on a fat serversomewhere at the end of a very high bandwidth connection.

One objection related to the first alternative would be thesize and number of such devices. Given even our present fabricationtechnology, each such dedicated device would be no larger than a fewcoins or a pair of dice. The audio and video input and retransmitterscertainly could be small enough to attach to a shirt collar or coatlapel, or to put into a finger ring. The computers that must performthe post and preprocessing almost certainly would be no larger than acredit card. When I look inside a converged PDA/cellphone/camera andsubtract out the sensors and analog-to-digital conversion circuitry,the core computing devices that are left would fit on a card not toomuch larger than that.

Isn't carrying half a dozen or so personal computing devices,no matter how small, rather inconvenient, you ask? I don't know aboutyou, but these wireless computing and communications devices we'represently burdened with are much more inconvenient: too big to fit in ashirt pocket and too large to comfortably slip in a pants pocket. Andwhen you hang one from your belt, it's likely to fall off if you sitdown.

Besides those you need to connect to your collar or to yourear, a half dozen or so such quarter-sized personal electronics devicescould be easily deposited in all those pockets we no longer use forcoin or paper money in this increasingly cashless society. The powerdraw on the batteries of each of these dedicated would be much smaller,I suspect, than in a converged multipurpose unit. And it wouldcertainly give you more choices. If you were going to be traveling bycar, you wouldn't use the audio/MP3 player in your pocket. You woulduse the better one in the car.

What about the second alternative, a handheld thin client,optimized for I/O and data flow into and out of the device, with onlythose features necessary for human operation and viewing of a varietyof tranmissions, but with most of the information storage, and softwaremanagement located remotely on a fat server somewhere? Well, it wouldcertainly not require the multicore architectures of two, three andfour CPUs. What it need though, is a new kind of processor architecturededicated to data flow, not local data processing. Such a thinclient/fat server architecture would certainly solve as lot of problemsrelated to security because most of the business sensitive informationwould not reside on the handheld device, or dozens or hundreds of othersimilar devices, but in just one place on a server.

What I am saying is that we don't have the same ubiquitousservices/products/channels infrastructure that came into being duringthe desktop era to direct the way in which new technologies willevolve. In an environment in which we are still establishing such aninfrastructure we can't make assumptions about what the ultimate killerapp will be.

Reader Feedback
How long ago was it, did BobMetcalfe, editor of the erstwhile InfoWorld magazine and inventor ofEthernet, declare that wireless was a dead-end and was technicallyinfeasible for wide-scale expansion?

Fascinating error, isn't it?

Matthew Staben,

I enjoyed reading your suggestedfuture for mobile electronics, with yourinteresting proposed direction for their development.

It is interesting to note that has its similarities to suggestionsmade in thepast for conventional (“fixed-position” or desktop) computing, forthin-clientcomputing with thick-pipes to servers. That model did not flourish (atleastcompared to the PC), and was probably due to several factors – bothtechnical and philosophical (I suspect the concept of independentoperation had a lot to do with its faltering – akin to cars versusmass-transit).

While you are probably close to the mark on the future size ofelectronics,there is one area you did not acount for: powering these devices.

Yes, if you remove the components you mentioned from a recentPDA/camera/phone, you would be left with a circuit board about the sizeyou suggest, AND a rather large battery pack and its attendentelectronics for both converting the battery's power and recharging it.

The concept of highly distributed interactive devices will stillconsume anon-trivial level of power (although, hopefully, less with eachsuceedinggeneration). The required batteries will be non-trivial in bulk andweight, andthe duplication of the power handling electronics in each package willadd more again.

Ro Ablate

This is an excellent output from Bernard, but I wonder aboutpoint below: If we compare the above to software between having smallindividual utilities performing their own functionality in a UNIXifiedOS to one giant which has everything embedded into it.

Now, the strange thing about pragmatics is the point about howthe Giant Bloated OS has succeeded in the consumer market in sharpcontrast to all our principles! WHY? Is not because of userconvenience? Isn't Making a jukebox certainly one thing that isconvenient to the layman than using an assorted set of utilities forthe user to mix and match?

Saravanan T S
Senior Engineer

Nice article. I share your vision about the distantfuture. For the near future it seems that multimodal is the way to go.I think it is marketing thing. Hansdpring makes mobile phone/PDA combobecause it has a head start in PDAs and Nokia makes such combo becauseit has third of the mobile phones market. I welcome it because I don'treally want carrying both palm AND phone.

On a different note, when I think of the future of devices,there are invariable factors, the human nature. The distance betweenhuman mouth and ear. It limits the shrinkage of mobile phone. Being auser of bluetooth headset I cant see wireless earbuds as a solution.They must be light as air if I am to wear them all the time.

Anyway, I liked your article and I too think we'll all have alot of fun watching Microsoft battling Nokia and Nikon choosing Linuxfor its next OS.

Michael Kariv

Bernard Cole issite editor for, site leader and web master at iApplianceweband an independent editorial services consultant. Call him at 602-288-7257 or send an email to .

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