SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. As the market for cellphones approaches saturation in North America, carriers are hungry for new kinds of gadgets to link to their networks. But some systems and software designers are not eager to take on the broadening design challenges.
In separate keynotes at the Go Mobile conference here, executives from AT&T and Verizon said nearly 90 percent of the potential cellphone subscribers in the U.S. now have handsets. That frightening fact is propelling them to embrace the long standing vision of ubiquitous computing in their quest for growth.
"If I do my job well you will have a SIM [subscriber identity module] card in your camera, your smart phone and your dog collar. This is the next big thing," said Glenn Lurie, president of emerging devices at AT&T in a keynote.
Lurie called for a future where users have cellular links on their eBooks, digital picture frames and more and carriers measure their success on the number of connections per person or household.
"We are looking to get to 400 or 500 percent penetration, and the only way to do that is to look outside traditional wireless services today," said Maurice Thompson, director of open development at Verizon Wireless in a separate keynote.
To jumpstart the trend, Verizon has published on its Web site documents needed to get devices approved for use on its network, streamlining the process to less than four weeks in some cases, Thompson said. The program only examines the device's network interface, and does not require any review of its applications.
So far 42 devices including nine smart electric meters, several vertical market computers and terminals and a handful of portable Wi-Fi base stations have been approved using the new process, he said. The list of areas Verizon wants to explore includes home security and health care devices, media players, fleet monitoring systems and machine-to-machine links.
Carriers are ready to deal. "We've got to change the way we think about wireless," said Thompson.
"We need to throw out the rules," said Lurie. "I can't walk into Samsung and dictate how you do something like a wireless dog collar, so it's important we look at different business models," he added.
Lurie gave a similar talk (video below) on June 2, 2009 at the Connections conference in Santa Clara, Calif.
"You are seeing different attitudes from carriers who want to own more of the revenues," said Mohammad Shakouri vice president of marketing for the WiMax Forum. "Carriers lost the broadband battle and someone else makes the money on their nets," he added.
Indeed data traffic is rising faster than revenue, forcing network build outs at lower profit levels. For example, the number of text messages send over AT&T's network has risen well more than 100 percent a year for the last three years, but AT&T's data revenues have only gone up about 65 percent.
That trend may only continue. "In two years we predict half of our traffic will come from mobile devices," said John Faith, general manager of MySpace Mobile in an on-stage interview at the conference.
With the rise of both mobile email and texting, the dominant handsets have shifted from flip phones to qwerty handsets in a year. "This is how the next gen will communicate," Lurie said.
In their search for growth, the service providers are essentially co-opting the ubiquitous computing vision promoted in the late 1980's by Mark Weiser of Xerox PARC, said Azita Arvani, president of Arvani Group, a wireless consulting firm and a former Xerox employee. But there are limits to the new openness.
For example, only one cellphone is among the group of systems going through the new Verizon process, according Arvani. "They are looking for things that are not directly competitive for them," she said.
One Motorola executive privately complained a unique handset the company designed and produced in small quantities for Verizon was rejected "because we have too many SKUs," he said.