The Hype Around WiFi Phones

16 Comments

This morning there is a lot of talk over The New York Times story, The Air Is Free, about the coming onslaught of WiFi handsets and how people can make calls piggy backing on open wireless connections. The WiFi phones sound so cool, but many forget that what is cool, is not always that functional.

The consumer experience on these devices remains horrible, and logging onto a WiFi network remains as much a mystery as the Chicago Cub’s decision to give a $136 million contract to Alfonso Soriono. We have tried most of the new WiFi phones, and despite being ten feet away from the access point, have run into serious problems. Similar challenges crop up when using dual mode cellular phones such as the E61.


WiFi, is a bit of a black magic really, and even on laptops, one is challenged constantly to stay connected. It is good to see that there are others who are equally concerned about the consumer experience, though others are happy with the prospect of disruption. Of course, no one doubts the potential and the disruptive nature of these devices, but the hype needs to be tempered with reality. Other wise you are merely setting up phone buyers to be disappointed.

Additional reading: #1, #2, #3.

16 Comments

aeonsafe

We work with hotspots. I carry a Vonage UT1000 phone. We’ve made our platform compatible with the WiFi phone. It works very well. Unfortunately, the phone does not work with MetroFi, Google WiFi, T-mobile, and ATT Freedom Link.

Battery life is an issue. But so is my cell phone with its one year old battery.

We certainly need more compatible, public venues before these WiFi phones have mobile value. Today, it is more like a cordless phone. Fortunately for me, I spent most of time with our customers, where the WiFi is compatible.

Mike

There is something I have learned during my engineering years: your carefully measured specifications will be turned into wild claims by the marketing department.

Having seen meetings where battery life was “calculated” by how much the target customer was expecting, ignoring whatever scientific measurement was given by the R&D department, makes me somewhat doubt Nokia’s claims right off the bat. I have yet to see a WiFi chipset that has built-in dynamic transmit power regulation based on mutual RSSI measurements with the AP. Of course, they could claim this if their phone was running on 1mW most of the time, which would rather defeat the point of the exercise.

Steve Shaw

Today Nokia announced their second cellular/Wi-Fi, UMA enabled phone.

From the specs on their web site http://europe.nokia.com/A4254246, the 6086 has a GSM talk time of 5 hrs and a Wi-Fi talk time of 6 hrs (yes, higher on Wi-Fi).

Of course, UMA technology offers seamless mobility between the GSM and Wi-Fi networks.

Now that T-Mobile is trialing a UMA-based service in Seattle, one can only assume that some day the service will be expanded across the US.

It’s not Skype on a handset, but it does make a cool technology functional for the masses.

Mike

I actually will agree – if you are walking down the street on your way to wherever, will you stop, find an open AP, and make the call, or would you rather dial and expect to keep the conversation as you keep moving?

IMHO there are some rather big issues with WiFi phones right now:

  1. Battery life: read the specs on any dual phone, and the numbers don’t lie. WiFi has a huge power consumption compared to a GSM or CDMA chipset. The first was optimized for throughput, the latter for efficiency. If you get 6 hours talk time out of a GSM handset, expect to get less than 2 over WiFi. If in doubt, get yourself a Qtek 9000, and watch the battery level dive as soon as you start using WiFi.

  2. Roaming: I don’t mean roaming in the traditional cellco sense of moving to foreign networks, but roaming between APs and not having your call interrupted. As things stand right now, this is a nasty problem. As I mention above, if you want to call using WiFi, you become static rather than mobile.

  3. Usability: Switch on a GSM phone, it registers on the network, you’re good to go. Switch on a WiFi phone, you see a list of networks, take a guess which one to connect to, hope it works, if not move down a block or two, scan again, repeat ad nauseam. Until these phones can be provisioned, or they are made clever enough to be able to connect all by themselves in most scenarios, usability will be a major blocker.

I have been trying a Paragon Wireless Hipi for a few months now, and believe me, WiFi outside a controlled environment is a pain, since you don’t know what you are going to get. The end result was that I used the GSM part whenever I was not in range of a known AP that gave a stable and reliable service.

Right now WiFi phones are tied to the home or office, to give a more convenient way for people to call on Skype or other VoIP providers, but on their own AP, with their own connection, and knowing how far they can walk away until the call gets cut off.

Andy Abramson

Om,

For Xmas your favorite Nokia Santa will soon have a nice Gizmo for you that at 80 will make you change your mind about VoIP on a Mobile phone…

Based on my in depth testing today and over the weekend with my E61 there are really great services that are working very, very well now.

Andy

James Robertson

My wifi phone (E61) suits me just fine, I am fortunate however that I had the time to get it set up correctly. It felt like a similar experience to getting connected to the Internet on Windows 3.1 for the first time.

Sahim

Maybe all you gentlemen are in prime network areas where WiFi is expected to be “fast and furious”
But in places like south carolina where WiFi at the public library is basically a Belkin 4 port router, thats not the case.
:)

Gibu Thomas

For me, one of the big stumbling blocks in making the WiFi VOIP experience compelling is battery life considerations. It is fine and dandy for phones to aggressively search for new WiFi hotspots and all, until you can’t make that critical call because your phone battery ran out in half the time that it usually takes.

Power management is a critical issue that often seems overlooked in all these discussions about cool new data applications, sexy (small) new form factors and what not, yet it can be the difference between a good user experience and a bad one.

Steve Ross

I also disagree. I’ve been using the SMC WiFi phone being sold by Skype (Disclaimer: Skype has invested in the company I work for; FON) and have found it very useful. It connects perfectly from anywhere in my house – and into my yard – and the call quality is clear. I can call other Skype users anywhere in the world free or use Skype Out to call traditional numbers for a small fee. Great product that will pay for itself in international calls in no time.

Ted

I also disagree, not with the facts but with the tone. Voice is a fabulous application for WiFi that the powerbrokers in the carrier business have decided to ignore. But the momentum is too great to see it going quietly away. Time will tell, but I believe GSM/CDMA/etc will be my backup plan in just a few years.

Ben Metcalfe

One of the aspects people don’t seem to be talking about is how ‘aggressively’ the phones automatically connect to open wifi. By that I mean the issues if they don’t, and frankly, the issues if they do.

As a consumer, I would expect that any such device (whilst sitting in my pocket) would be constantly monitoring the available wifi access points and connecting to the best open wifi coverage accordingly – unless a known private hotspot was in range. This is what I mean by ‘aggressively connecting’ – and is essentially the same method cell phones use to ensure they are constantly online.

I’m yet to get my hands on a NetGear/Belkin/SMC skype phone (they all look like the same OEM to me) but I’m lead to believe that they don’t do this. I’ve had a go of the Sony Mylo and was disappointed to see that it needed to be instructed on which base stations to connect to.

This seems to really miss the point – how can I receive incoming calls via a SkypeIn number if the phone is not online unless I go to make an outgoing call?

The reasons I’ve heard for this decision include:

a) Device makers removing any liability. If you explicitly connected to an open wifi node, then you are liable for any legal issues that raises. If the phone auto-connects than the device manufacture is.

b) Pressure by Skype on not having to process a constant flow of reconnects as you pass between coverage

c) The possibility that the idea doesn’t scale… if you lived in an urban area with an open wifi node, and everyone had auto-connecting phones you could suddenly find your base station having to deal with a constant flow of 20 or 30+ connections at any time — which will reduce performance and over time lead to more people closing wifi… which then removes much of the selling point of these phones.

As much as I am excited by the possibility these phones raise, point C seems very valid.

As the prevalence of wifi devices increases, esp into second-tier usage like phones, surely we can only expect a dilution of open wifi nodes?

People offer open wifi for different reasons: out of kindness, out of services and out of ignorance.

Kindness only goes so far, and if that kindness is abused then the opportunity is simply taken away. So many devices connecting to poor Joe Brown’s wifi router is only going to abuse that kindness – and perhaps lead to it’s closure.

Service, such as coffee shops, is slowly closing up too. I’ve noticed recently many places are now only giving out WEP/WPA keys on request (so no auto-connect on your phone if you don’t know the code) to prevent those from accessing who are not customers.

And ignorance is slowly changing – routers now come closed by default and people are understanding more about the equipment they are buying… perhaps that’s a good thing as I do feel it unfair to use someone’s internet connection if they didn’t knowingly intend for it to be used publicly.

So I still don’t know what to make of these phones. If they don’t auto-connect then they seem a bit pointless. But if they do auto-connect, and loads of people have them, then the additional load on people’s wifi may ultimately have an adverse effect on the connection availability.

Andrew

Om, some phones will transparently switch between cellular and WiFi, so the consumer should theoretically never have trouble making a call (the idea being you use cellular at the default, and WiFi when the phone finds an open network). However, I’m sure it will take some time to iron out the kinks.

Victor Blake

I respectfully disagree. I’ve been traveling a lot lately as a consultant — and living with my cell phone. Cell coverage is so horrible at the places I’ve been that I’ve found Skype over WiFi to be far superior. In fact it has been my primary telephone line for about 1 month because of horrible coverage on on CDMA network. I’ve been using Skype on Windows Mobile 5 on the HTC (PPC6700). However, I did just get the MotoQ on Verizon and cell coverage is so much better that I’m back on regular cell coverage). Point is that Skype was there when I needed it and it worked great.

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