LUND, Sweden The pull for mobile connectivity is tugging the center of activity of consumer electronics design from Japan and the United States to Europe. In enclaves like Lund, small university town 300 kilometers south of Stockholm, engineers like Michel Saboune of Ericsson are brewing up concepts for families of wireless gadgets in which beefy CPUs take a backseat to clever design in RF, miniaturization and user interfaces.
The vision: a world of radio-enabled mobile and wearable devices that talk to each other and to the Net, perhaps controlled by some sort of electronic pen or wand that may one day serve as a universal communications remote control for any appliance in the home, office or car.
"The mobile industry is serving as a catalyst" for changes in the consumer realm, said Manfred Halbe, executive vice president and chief technical officer at Philips Consumer Communications (Le Mans, France). And thanks to its dominance in cell phones, Europe is in the catbird seat.
Indeed, many Europeans believe it won't be PCs or game consoles that emerge as the platform of choice for Internet communications, but cellular handsets. Nokia estimates that by 2003 the number of handsets linked to the Net will top the number of Web-connected PCs.
Backed by the roaring success of digital mobile phones here and also by a willingness to invest in new ideas, companies such as Nokia and Ericsson along with a host of new startups dedicated to bringing the Internet to mobile gadgets have begun the work of redefining the future of consumer electronics.
"Internet, mobility and digitization of voice" are the three key elements at the heart of a new generation of consumer products from Nokia, said Jouko Hayrynen, vice president of the digital convergence unit at Nokia Mobile Phones in Espoo, Finland, another small Scandinavian town that is becoming a hotbed of consumer design. The drivers propelling those products, in Hayrynen's view, include the Wireless Application Protocol, Bluetooth and wireless-LAN technologies, and coming third-generation (3G) mobile networks. A major enabler, he said, is EPOC32, an operating system from Symbian Ltd. (London) designed to turn voice-oriented handsets into media phones and wireless information devices.
For Ericsson, the short-range Bluetooth RF network and a wide-area Universal Mobile Telephone System (UMTS) network are the central wireless elements of all new-product development.
"Because we are the pioneer of Bluetooth, it gives us an edge in branching our business into a host of new communication devices combined with consumer electronics," said Saboune, who is the industrial-design director of Ericsson Consumer Division in Lund, where many of the company's handset and Bluetooth R&D engineers work.
With Bluetooth, for example, a mobile phone no longer needs to look like a phone, Saboune said. "It can be a wearable radio around your neck, whose Bluetooth link talks to your watch, which functions as a display."
That's why powerful CPUs and the drive to cram multiple functions into a single box are alien to consumer designers here. The trick, they think, lies in gearing systems to communicate with each other wirelessly so that tasks can be delegated across different devices. Another key is the development of much friendlier human interfaces that embrace voice or electronic pens to deliver new features.
Enter a slew of startups now popping up across Europe to do just that. For instance, Anoto, also based in Lund, is designing a digital pen linked to mobile phones. And iobox (Helsinki, Finland) is developing what it hopes will become a Web portal of choice for mobile phone users.
Anoto's pen uses an integrated CMOS sensor, ARM7-based image processor and Bluetooth transceiver to send a user's notes or drawings written on ordinary paper automatically to the Web via the company's Internet gateway. The pen works by laying down a proprietary pattern of dots. The CMOS sensor takes snapshots of the dot patterns in the user's handwriting at a rate of 100 per second. The image processor then calculates, in real-time, the x/y coordinates, angle between pen and paper, the turning of the pen, pressure against the paper and accurate time stamp. That information, stored in the pen, is transmitted to a mobile phone via a Bluetooth radio link, then ultimately onto the Anoto gateway on the Internet.
Ericsson holds a 17 percent stake in the company, which is planning to launch the digital pen in volume by mid 2001. "We hope to be the standard for digital pen and paper," said Linus Wiebe, business development manager at Anoto.
But Anoto is not the only company interested in marrying CMOS sensors to digital cellular nets. "We already have a less-than-$10 CMOS camera module integrated with a lens, sensor and processor in a size smaller than 1 cubic centimeter ready for cell phone manufacturers to integrate," claimed Philippe Geyres, general manager of consumer and microcontroller groups at STMicroelectronics (Grenoble, France).
Nokia's Hayrynen declined to comment on details of products that merge digital cameras and mobile phones, but noted that "the imaging element regardless whether still or moving images is essential for rich calls." Rather than positioning videoconferencing as a key application for mobile camera/phones, Hayrynen said, "We believe pictures to be one element of multitasking functions voice, data, imaging, browsing and downloadable applications."
The hybrid cellular/camera concepts from STM and Nokia may be just the beginning of many kinds of wireless-enabled consumer devices. Further down the road, designers say, gadgets like Anoto's pen could morph into personal cellular gateways that link multiple devices on a personal-area network to the broader Internet.
Delivering a new class of mobile applications downloadable to such devices via the Wireless Application Protocol or GSM's Short Message Service is the goal of iobox. Those apps include everything from location-based services and group messaging to novel ringing tones, icons and electronic pets.
"We are not just about bringing Internet to mobile devices. Our goal is to create killer services that are useful because your devices are mobile," said Vesa Kemppainen, director of systems development at iobox.
To truly enable such third-party applications, the cellular industry is migrating from its historic roots in proprietary operating systems toward an open platform. The front-runner here is EPOC. Both Nokia and Ericsson are investors in Symbian, and are designing their next-generation phones based on the English company's OS.
Nokia will launch its first EPOC-based mobile phones before the end of this year. Though Nokia also has a partnership agreement with Palm Inc. (Santa Clara, Calif.), developer of the Palm OS used in the popular Palm Pilot, the cell phone giant sees a place for both operating systems. It will run the Palm OS like an application on top of EPOC, for those who are Palm enthusiasts, said Hayrynen. Palm is also coveted for its Graffiti handwriting-recognition technology.
Philips, meanwhile, is "in the final phase of selecting an open operating system platform" for its mobile phones, according to Halbe. The Dutch giant, which turned around its consumer communication business from a loss of $35 million in the first quarter of 1999 to a profit of $22.5 million in the first quarter of this year, claims 8 percent market share on the global GSM market.
"Our mobile phone will have more than 4 Mbytes of memory, when a 3G phone is launched in 2002," Halbe said. "Building our phones on an open platform becomes critical so that we can enable more applications."
Beyond the operating system, the mobile consumer revolution faces a number of daunting hurdles. For starters, the Internet lacks the quality-of-service features to handle voice traffic elegantly. And developers must find a way to harmonize cellular's many conflicting air interfaces.
"Today's Internet infrastructure is just not good enough to support reliability, quality-of-service and durability needed for mobile communications. It's unacceptable," said Ilkka Pukkila, director of 3G strategic marketing at Nokia Networks.
Because a majority of the routers used in the Internet backbone today are not designed for wireless services, they tend to take far too long for routing and may drop packets, he added. "We have to build a lot of mobile-aware nodes in the network by adding higher-speed routing and service platforms to the current infrastructure," said Pukkila, an effort he said is "almost like building a highway on top of the Internet."
To tame conflicting air interfaces, Nokia is working on development of "one common resource manager," to be designed into a network to harmonize incompatible interfaces between a radio network controller network and packet subsystem. The idea is to provide interstandard handover so that service continuity can be maintained over heterogeneous networks, explained Pukkila.
Despite the hurdles for coming 3G broadband wireless nets, packet-switched data is already becoming available on today's narrowband phones. "We are not waiting for the wideband standard to fully perfect the bandwidth issue," said Nokia's Hayrynen. Even with limited data speed, "We are enhancing hardware to make things happen in a practical manner."