Mobile advances over the last 12 months show no sign of stopping. Improvements in hardware, software, services and networks all add up to more online activities and subscriber growth for network operators. What will the next wave of innovation bring? Rather than reiterate some ideas that haven’t yet taken root — namely widespread NFC use, standardized mobile payments and a third player in the mobile platform space — our mobile experts share thoughts on trends that will more likely affect consumers and enterprises in the coming year.
Chip wars intensify as more gain LTE integration
Qualcomm(s qcom) has experienced a phenomenal run as the provider of integration applications processors and radios for smartphones this past year. The application processor is the brains for the smartphone, while the radios allow them to communicate. Qualcomm’s longstanding practice is to combine those chips onto one system on a chip to save space inside the handset, which has helped it lead the pack in terms of market share.
Now others are finally following its lead with Nvidia(s nvda), which purchased radio maker Icera, and Intel(s intc), which purchased Infineon’s wireless business; both are set to release integrated chips next year. Nvidia’s Grey and Wayne chips will combine its Tegra processor and should hit devices in the second half of the year
Intel on the other hand has released an integrated modem and application processor that found its way into a handful of handsets this year, but didn’t support LTE. The chip giant plans to release an Atom-based application processor that supports the 4G standard early next year. Qualcomm is going to get some competition with good tech and competition with deep pockets as handset makers will have more chip options for the onslaught of LTE handsets expected in 2013.
The incredibly shrinking network
Next year networks are going to get smaller — or at least the cells within them are. The major U.S. operators led by AT&T(s t) and Sprint(s s) plan to begin their first small cell launches in 2013, paving the way for far denser networks and big increases in mobile data capacity.
Why are small cells important? Each cell in a network only has a finite amount of capacity, so if you increase the number of cells in a given area you increase the overall amount of shared bandwidth available to a carrier’s subscribers. Radio network analytics and optimization firm Actix estimates that today the typical square kilometer in a busy urban area contains five to seven macrocells, but in 2015 that same area will be augmented with a layer of 40 or more micro and picocells. Such an architecture could support 3,000 GB of traffic a day within a single square-kilometer, a 10X increase in capacity over what our networks support today.
The big cell mounted on rooftops and towers isn’t going away. Instead it will be incorporated into the heterogeneous network, allowing our smartphones and tablets to choose among many connection options and eventually to establish multiple connections simultaneously. Mobile bandwidth will become more plentiful and hopefully much cheaper. This won’t happen overnight, but we’ll see the precursors of these hetnets next year.
The resurgence of the MVNO
The independent mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) all but died in the last decade. But in 2012 the MVNO made a big comeback. Dozens of new virtual carriers emerged, but instead of focusing on a specific demographic or a media brand like the defunct Amp’d Mobile or Disney Mobile, this new breed of MVNO is targeting the industry’s traditional business models.
There are dozens of virtual operators led by Straight Talk(s amx) that are now undercutting the big operators in price, but a few of them have gone further, upturning the usual minutes/bucket of megabytes plans. Republic Wireless is tapping into public, readily available Wi-Fi to offer unlimited data and voice plans at sub-$40 rates. Ting is offering what amounts to metered pricing, charging customers only for what they use. Karma and FreedomPop are using social networking principles to distribute 4G bandwidth.
Most of these MVNOs are just getting off the ground and many of them may get culled by the market. But 2013 could be the year for those MVNOs to flourish. There’s growing discontent in the market with the major carriers’ pricing models, sending consumers searching for alternatives. But there’s also greater willingness among carriers to work with MVNOs. They’re lifting many of the old restrictions such as limited access to networks and device that previously kept MVNOs from thriving.
Wi-Fi gets better both in and out of the home
As carriers continue moving towards tiered and shared mobile broadband data plans, look for reliance on Wi-Fi networks to continue to increase. The one-time barrier of hotspot availability has diminished, but hasn’t solved a key problem: seamless connection to Wi-Fi networks. That’s where Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0 initiatives come into play. These services add new capabilities to Wi-Fi devices, primarily allowing certified products to automatically sign in and use a Wi-Fi network.
That’s just the first step, however; the idea is that smartphones, tablets and laptops will roam from one Wi-Fi hotspot to another without any user intervention. Not only will that help consumers and enterprise workers out in the field, but it also benefits cellular operators, making it even easier to offload data traffic from 3G and 4G networks to hotspots.
Home Wi-Fi use will improve as well thanks to the new 802.11ac standard, which boosts throughput over today’s 802.11n networks. Supporting up to eight antennas and wider bandwidth on a 5 GHz channel, 802.11ac devices deliver a wider coverage range with throughput speeds over a gigabit per second. Although the standard is still in draft form, expect to see some mobile devices support early versions of 802.11ac mainly for traditional networking activities and video sharing in the home.
Digital assistance and contextual smarts improve on smartphones… and beyond.
Siri(s aapl), Google Now(s goog) and various third-party assistants set the stage for contextual software in smartphones, but there’s more work to be done. Expect to see these and other related services mature by taking advantage of more mobile device sensors combined with deeper access to personal information such as schedules, contacts, locations, and your historical smartphone usage. More apps will arrive to help our handsets become more effective, and the successful apps will be eyed by platform vendors for integration at the operating system level.
This coming year will also see such contextual services appear in other objects. Think televisions that learn your viewing habits and automatically record shows you may be interested in, for example. How about a smart desk chair sets your online IM status to “available” thanks to a pressure sensor that “sees” when you’re sitting at your desk and back to “away” when you leave?
The possibilities are limitless thanks to the advances in apps and small hardware pioneered by smartphones. Helping to drive this movement are the hacker and tinkerer communities. These have long created their own solutions, but will drive change this year through open-source hardware and software projects such as Arduino.