Android KitKat and the Nexus 5
With the Android KitKat and Nexus 5 launch today Google showed that they’re iterating Android at an insane pace. Let’s look at the new announcements they made that has affected Android just this year:
- Staged roll outs on Google Play
- Android Studio, a dedicated Android development environment
- Cross-platform Google Play games
- Google Play Music all access, dubbed Google’s ”Spotify killer”
- Google Hangouts, a unified messaging platform across all Google products launched and got updated with SMS support just a few months later
- Completely new version of Google Maps and Gmail
- Google+ got 15 GB of photo storage
- Google Play Services, basically pulling a lot of Android APIs from the device and onto Google Play to unify the Android platform
- Android 4.3 with a huge change log of features, including major features such as restricted profiles and improved support for wireless displays (WiDi)
- Android 4.4 KitKat, a new version of the Android OS that apart from adding a bunch of new features improves system performance by lowering memory usage significantly.
- Two new Nexus devices made by LG and Asus: Nexus 5 and Nexus 7
- A huge amount of other Android hardware including big product launches such as the Galaxy S4, the HTC One and the Moto X (you could argue that it would have been better with the one device strategy that Apple has, but still)
Read through that list again. It’s pretty darned impressive.
Comments on Paul Graham’s Essay On Fundraising
Paul Graham’s essay on fundraising should be required reading for anyone considering to raise money from angels, family offices or VCs. If you haven’t read the essay yet, go do so now.
Apart from being extremely useful it’s also remarkable in that it’s one of the first things that PG has written that is equally true for Europe as for SF.
But, and there’s always a but, fundraising is a skill. A skill just like programming, designing or doing sales. Just like you wouldn’t expect to be a great Ruby developer after reading "Why’s Poignant Guide to Ruby" you shouldn’t expect to be great at fundraising after reading PG’s essay.
It’s one thing to know that you should just ignore cold calls by VC associates. It’s another to actually receive an email from a top tier VC firm saying they love your startup and not be emotionally affected.
The sad and complex state of video out on smartphones
Have you ever you wanted to connect your smartphone or tablet to an HDTV? I tried to do exactly that and discovered that this is a much more complex problem than I could imagine.
My goal was to be able to use my smartphone and tablet as a source for playing video to the TV in our country house. I also had this crazy idea that I would be able to use my phone as a fully fledged computer with an external display and a Bluetooth keyboard.
As I started reading up on the options I got more and more frustrated at how badly documented it all was. So I turned that frustration into this blog post. If you read the comment sections of sites like Engadget you’ll see there is a lot of confusion around this issue. Hopefully this post will clear that up.
Let’s start by reviewing the different solutions available to output video from a smartphone.
SlimPort is a proprietary solution based on DisplayPort made by Analogix, a semiconductor company. SlimPort allows you to output uncompressed 1080p @ 60 hz through “any 5-wire port”, i.e micro USB, typically the only port on all Android devices for the past few years.
There are SlimPort adapters for all kinds of displays: HDMI, DisplayPort, VGA and so on.
SlimPort claims to be very power efficient meaning it can show content without external power going to the adapter. I could see this being pretty useful if you’re using the phone to show presentations to customers for example, but in most situations you’re likely to want to charge the adapter anyway to not drain the battery.
Supposedly SlimPort should be able to draw power and even charge your device while showing content but there’s no information available on which displays support this.
As of now the only notable devices that do support it include some devices made by LG such as the Nexus 4 and Nexus 7 2013 edition.
SlimPort is an implementation of the DisplayPort MyDP standard but there doesn’t seem to be any MyDP branded products available.
The SlimPort branding is somewhat unfortunate. Something like “DisplayPort Mobile” would maybe have been better to emphasize its relation to DisplayPort.
The MHL (“Mobile High-Definition Link”) specification is made by a consortium of companies with Samsung and Sony being the most notable. It’s well supported on the device side and almost every single new modern smartphone from HTC, Sony, Samsung and LG supports it.
Just as with SlimPort, MHL connects through a device’s micro USB port and outputs a nice clean uncompressed signal over HDMI. MHL only supports HDMI so don’t expect to see MHL to VGA or DisplayPort adapters (but you can of course get a separate HDMI to VGA adapter) .
MHL can draw power and even charge your device from your display, but only on displays that supports MHL. TV:s that do support MHL even allow you to control playback on your smartphone through your TV’s remote just as if it was a Blu-Ray or DVD player although I have yet to see this in practice.
Since most people will be using their MHL-enabled smartphone without an MHL enabled TV, most MHL adapters come with a micro USB port so that the phone can be charged while plugged in. Unlike SlimPort, MHL adapters require power and will not display anything unless it can draw power from the TV or is powered via a charger.
There’s two versions of MHL: 1.0 and 2.0. MHL 2.0 supports 1080p @ 60 hz (full HD) while MHL 1.0 maxes out at 1080i @ 30hz. 2.0 is backwards compatible with 1.0, but if you have a MHL 2.0 compatible device (e.g. the Galaxy S4) you should of course make sure you buy a MHL adapter that supports MHL 2.0.
So far so good, right?
There’s only one problem. MHL does not define how the pins on the device side should be configured. So in theory every manufacturer can come up with their own version of MHL and still be MHL compatible.
That being said, all devices initially supported a standard 5-pin setup. Samsung adopted this standard when they launched their first MHL compatible device, the Galaxy S2, but then changed to their own 11-pin setup on the Galaxy S3, S4 and Note II (and will most likely keep that configuration for all upcoming devices). While Samsung have legitimate reasons for the 11-pin setup , the sort of confusion and bad will this has created in the eyes of consumers outweighs the benefits. This whole debacle has been well documented at http://www.galaxymhl.com/.
This means that today there are “MHL adapters” and “Samsung MHL adapters” that only work with some Samsung phones. What is the point of a standard such as MHL if you can’t rely on MHL adapters and devices being compatible with each other? It would have been much better for Samsung to completely drop the MHL branding and just called it “Samsung video out” or something similar.
On the display side, MHL is fairly well supported. A completely unscientific check in a few Swedish electronic’s stores show that roughly 1/4 of all TVs support MHL, including plenty of sub €500 TVs. Finding out exactly which TV:s support MHL require a bit of detective work. If you are in the market for a new TV, I’d recommend you take a few extra minutes to confirm that it supports MHL.
MHL is also supposed to support full surround sound, but since it’s impossible to find out which phones support this specific feature it becomes more of an academic discussion.
Some phones also have a separate mini HDMI port (notably some Sony phones). There’s not much more to comment on that other than that it’s a dying breed of phones. Since both SlimPort and MHL allow HDMI over micro USB there should be no need for a separate mini HDMI port.
Apple are happy to sell you their own proprietary $49 "Lightning AV Adapter" that connects to your lightning port on a newer iOS device and converts it into 1080p through HDMI. There is no mention by Apple if it’s 30hz or 60hz.
Presumably to simplify the device SoC, the adapter does a lot of processing. This means that the adapter consumes a lot of power (the adapter has its own CPU and 2 GB of RAM).
Unfortunately, the adapter compresses the data yielding artifacts when shown on an HDTV. There’s also a lot of criticism online about how it’s actually 720p and just scales the picture to 1080p. It’s clear that this adapter is a “hack” from Apple. While it does the job, Apple was forced to make a few compromises on video quality to make it happen.
These are all fair compromises but it’s unfortunate that Apple are not open about them. When checking the Apple store it’s easy to believe their adapter will allow you to stream a true 1080p video to your HDTV. Generally, the consumer perception of HDMI is that it outputs a true pixel-by-pixel representation of the source material and Apple has not made it clear that this is not the case.
Another problem with the AV adapter is that if you are using iTunes then iTunes will block you from showing any purchased content through HDMI due to HDCP protection.
Just like SlimPort, the adapter cannot draw power from the display. Fortunately, the adapter comes with a secondary lightning port so that it can be charged simultaneously. But even without being charged it can still show video.
A note on Android and video out
The Android OS allows apps to be scaled to any resolution. This means that Android apps unlike iOS apps take full advantage of any screen size.
This also applies to TV:s and apps are automatically scaled to fit on 16:9 on a 50” TV. In a word processing app where you want as much screen space as possible this is very useful.
But sometimes it becomes a problem. There are lots of use cases when you want to show an app on a TV or projector the way it actually looks on your phone, just like on iOS. For example when you’re at a trade show and want to show off an app on a large display.
This would be very simple to fix by just having a setting that allows you to output video at the same aspect ratio as the phone. Google if you’re reading this, please make this as a setting in Android.
[Edit: There’s an app for that! Requires root and Android 4.2 though]
It’s insanely confusing that there are no less than three different solutions that all allow a micro USB port to act as a video out port. If you compare the pictures above of the different adapters you will see they all look identical except for the branding.
I’ve seen some tech journalists write that a device supports “video out over micro USB”. What does that even mean? SlimPort? MHL 1.0? MHL 2.0? A new proprietary standard? Sigh. Tech journalists take note and always ask manufacturers exactly how video out is handled.
To add even more to the confusion there’s even a risk that consumers will start equating micro USB with video out. For example, no Motorola devices support either SlimPort or MHL including the Moto X.
It’s also hard to get an overview of what displays and smartphones support MHL. Even the MHL Consortium’s own site is not updated. For example, the LG G2 is supposed to support MHL but is not listed as a supported device on MHL’s website.
That being said, MHL is definitely the market leader and has a lot of traction both on the device and display side. Consumers that are in the market for a new TV or display should definitely make sure its MHL-compatible.
So what does this all mean? Well, despite all the standards it looks like we are back on square one. Consumers will still have to look at what video out option their phone supports and buy an appropriate adapter.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
- If you have a newer “lightning” iOS device (iPhone 5, iPad 4, iPad Mini or iPod Touch 5th gen), get the "Lightning AV Adapter" from Apple
- If you have an older iOS device, get the old version
- If you have a Nexus 4 or Nexus 7 get a SlimPort adapter
- If you have an MHL-supported phone such as the Galaxy S2, HTC One or Xperia Z get a standard MHL adapter
- If you have a Samsung Galaxy S3 or Note II get a Samsung MHL 1.0 adapter
- If you have a Samsung Galaxy S4 get the Samsung MHL 2.0 adapter
Other random questions that are already answered above but that I asked myself before writing this article
If video out is important to me, what device should I get?
Any device that support MHL 2.0 (e.g. the Galaxy S4) or any SlimPort supported device (e.g. Nexus 4). If you don’t care about video quality you could also go for any newer iOS device.
Which one is best of SlimPort and MHL?
Honestly - they are pretty equal. SlimPort is fighting hard to show the value over MHL and it certainly has a few advantages, check the video below for example. Unfortunately for them, MHL now also supports 1080p @ 60 hz.
Why are you writing about video out? Shouldn’t you be writing about wifi or anything else that you usually write about?
Let’s just say there was a rainy day where my wife was sick and I really wanted to connect my shiny new Nexus 7 to my TV and for some obscure reason I ended up spending way, way too much time figuring out how to do that instead of just doing what a normal human being would have done and went to a store and just bought a cable.
Is this another one of those cases where Apple wins because it ignores the standard and creates a proprietary solution “that just works”?
The easiest way to view it is as if each smartphone manufacturer have their own proprietary standard.
MHL and SlimPort both have a lot of advantages over Apple’s solution such as being able to draw power from the TV and output full 1080p @ 60 hz uncompressed. That being said, you can’t beat the simplicity of Apple where there’s exactly one adapter, albeit subpar, that works with all their iOS devices.
Is this a case of Apple screwing customers by coming up with their own standard?
No. Remember that when Apple made the decision to support video mirroring neither SlimPort or MHL had any traction in the market. Choosing MHL would have meant that they couldn’t output full HD and SlimPort was still an untested solution that no one else supported.
If Apple would adopt a standard for video out, which one would they choose?
Most likely SlimPort. It’s more power efficient than MHL and can output a video stream without external power, just like their current adapter. Apple is also betting hard on DisplayPort already. Reading online it also seems like SlimPort comes without licensing fees which of course make it a cheaper solution.
 The 11-pin setup used by Samsung allows the adapter to draw power from the device, removing the need to power the adapter. It also allows the micro USB port to act as USB host. Acting as a USB host lets users plug in a USB mouse or a USB keyboard.
Playing In the World of Custom ROMs and Rooted Phones
Should you root your Android phone? Short answer: probably not. For science (and Instabridge), I rooted my Samsung Galaxy S3. Of the apps that lists root access as a requirement few (read: none) of them are worth the effort.
It’s telling that the most popular apps for rooted phones are Titanium Backup and ROM Manager. ROM Manager allows you to easily install a custom ROM while Titanium Backup allows you preserve your app data while doing so. That should give you an indication of why people root their phones.
(A ROM is a file that contains the operating system running on the device. Custom ROMs are pre-packaged forks of the Android open source project, usually with some extra bells and whistles included.)
The by far most popular ROM is “Cynaogen Mod”, a fork of Android 4.2.1 without any of the extra software added by OEMs like HTC, Sony or Samsung and with a slew of customization options.
I can see a few more reasons to root your device though. Maybe this is just because I work with wifi but one thing you could do is install one of the apps that will change the MAC address of your phone. Would be pretty useful when you’re at a wifi network that only gives you free wifi for a limited amount of time or only allows you to download a set amount of data (e.g. airports with “free” wifi). In that case you could just reset your MAC address and reset their counters.
That being said, if you wanted to install a custom ROM or root your phone how would you go about it? The process is pretty simple. Below is the process for us that are lazy.
- If you have a Samsung phone, download Odin. Odin is a leaked internal software from Samsung that makes it super easy to flash any Samsung phone with custom software. Do this on a Windows computer.
While it’s technically possible to make Odin run on OS X it just isn’t worth the extra hassle. Odin requires you to have the "Samsung Kies" software installed since it uses the same USB device drivers.
- Start your phone in recovery mode by holding volume down, home and power. Plug in your phone with a USB cable once it’s in recovery mode.
- Now download “CF-Auto-Root”, start Odin, choose PDA then click on the CF-Auto-Root file you just downloaded and hit start.
- Congratulations! Your phone should reboot and your phone is now “rooted”.
- Since we’ll assume your whole “reason d’être” for rooting your phone was to install custom ROMs, now is the time to install "ROM Manager" from the Play Store. (Just as an aside - big kudos to the insanity of the people at Google for allowing apps that require root access in the Play Store. Can you imagine Apple allowing apps that require your phone to be jailbroken on the App Store?)
- Bonus step - install "Titanium Backup" from the Play Store to make sure you don’t lose any app data. (I skipped this step, most apps these days are pretty good at backing up their data anyway).
- Start the “ROM Manager” app. If you don’t want to waste unnecessary time just buy the premium key and let the app do the manual steps for you. ROM Manager will start by updating your phone’s “bootloader” with its own bootloader called “Clockwork”.
(The bootloader is the piece of software that runs before your operating system starts. If you’re old school like yours truly you can view this as the phone’s BIOS.)
- Now you’re pretty much done - if you want to try a custom ROM just start “ROM Manager” and select which ROM you want. “ROM Manager” does all the heavy lifting for you. It will also ask you to install “Google Apps” which you probably want since it includes the Gmail app and the Play Store app.
On the value of mobile data
Ever since I was at Ericsson, now over three years ago, the big debate in the telecom industry has been on the future of operators and what it means for them to become “wireless ISPs” (or the more derogatory term “bit pipe”) i.e. only selling mobile data priced by speed and the size of the monthly data bucket. This is in contrast to the “old” telecom world where you were supposed to sell services: voice, sms, mms, video calls and mobile TV.
In many parts of the world the shift to data has already happened. Take Sweden for example. Buying almost any bundle from one of the mobile operators means getting access to unlimited voice and SMS. Only prepaid customers get charged per minute. But even there the Swedish operators are doing their best to convert low ARPU prepaid customers into subscription customers with included data buckets.
While Ericsson, Nokia and the Vodafone:s and DT:s of the world has spent the past five years arguing about how much value there really will be in mobile data its value has exploded in the eyes of consumers.
Slowly, but surely consumers are now aware that 4G means the ability to let their kids play real-time action games and stream Netflix videos. A small data bucket means they’ll be forced to a slow connection in the middle of the month that barely allows them to check their email. That value is clear to everyone. In fact, I’d even argue that while fixed line ISPs have had a hard time justifying why consumers should buy 100 mbit instead of 20 mbit or even 5 mbit - mobile operators are in the enviable position of having consumers that just want more and more data and speed.
To me, that sounds like a bright future for mobile operators.
Facebook recently did a campaign where they asked their own engineers to “live” with Android phones so that they would dogfood (“droidfood”) their own apps on Android.
Android apps function differently than iOS apps and most people in the startup community use iOS devices and are therefore not accustomed to how Android users expect their apps to function. The only way to create Android apps that live and breathe Android is to use such a device at least for a couple of weeks.
Unfortunately, some developers still don’t seem to “droidfood”. But instead of just complaining about sloppy developers I’ve listed my biggest pet peeves with apps that have not been made by engineers living in an Android world.
no playback controls from the notification area. Scratch that! Came with the latest update. Yay!
Snapchat - does not integrate the intents system. Meaning i can’t select a picture directly from the gallery and send it to Snapchat like I can with every other image sharing app. Now I have to do like on iOS: start snapchat first and select the picture from there. (For an app who’s sole purpose is to send images this is a surprising omission to say the least.)
Path - seems to be developed by a bunch of iOS engineers that got excited when they saw how many hooks there are for Android apps to do notifications and thought it was a good idea to latch on to every single one of them. Let me set that straight: that’s not a good idea. It just makes the app look spammy and is surely a reason for many uninstalls.
Voxer - lacks widgets. This is a baffling omission. Voxer is basically MADE to use widgets. And now that you can put widgets on your lock screen it makes even more sense. I could have a one click button to Vox the people I Vox the most, making it work exactly like a walkie talkie. Voxer, if you don’t do this soon I swear I will reverse engineer your API and do it myself. (Ok that was a lame threat, but you get the idea).
Other than that most Android apps are very well integrated. A year ago when I started using an Android phone that was not the case.
And to sum things up if you’re an iOS engineer without an Android phone nearby I’ve listed the top things to think about when making an Android version of your app.
Intents system - use it
Android has a great way of sharing info between apps. For example, I can pick an image from the gallery, open it with an image editing app, crop it and fix it up and then immediately share the new photo on WhatsApp or post it to Instagram. The same workflow can be used on any file type (sound, text, etc). In my mind, there’s no excuse for not supporting the intents system.
Notification area - use it with modesty
An extremely useful feature in Android 4.x is the ability to interact with apps directly from the notification area. In the messaging app for example you can reply to a text message without even opening the app. The usage of the notification area of course differs for every single app.
Most Android users love widgets. A great way to end up on the user’s home screen. Some good examples of this is Wunderlist that allows me to see my to do lists directly from the home screen.
Hope this helps anyone!
Mapping the Stockholm startup ecosystem
Last year at Stockholm Startup Day, Copenhagen-based investor Nikolaj Nyholm showed a map of the Berlin startup ecosystem. If you missed his presentation, I recommend you to watch it: “Inside the head of an investor”. (I’ve even embedded it below because that’s just the nice guy that I am.)
Nikolaj made a great point that is often forgotten - the startup ecosystem in Berlin (and most likely other cities) is very tightly knit. The Stockholm ecosystem is probably very similar. Shedding some light on exactly what that looks like would useful to both entrepreneurs and investors. One immediate use I can see would be to allow outside actors like new entrepreneurs or people in the government to get some insight into what the startup world looks like.
For example, I spent five years at Ericsson IPX, a venture within Ericsson that grew exponentially during that time. From IPX there have been at least four companies started:
Both Widespace and CLX have been around for a while and are incredibly successful. Instabridge and Fidesmo are both more recently started. I think it’s just a matter of time before we see a third level of companies started with people that worked for Widespace and CLX.
I would love to see this properly mapped out for all other startups in Stockholm: Stardoll, Videoplaza, Spotify and so on. Can anyone help me out and maybe we all can learn something?
From Skyper to Passpoint: The afterwave of Wi-Fi Innovation
(originally posted at the VisionMobile blog)
Wi-Fi is now over 10 years old, but a new wave of innovation is leveraging those same technology foundations. Why? Firstly, the smartphone revolution has created 100 of millions of Wi-Fi endpoints. In addition, Wi-Fi has become too ubiquitous to ignore. It’s also unregulated enough to spur 100s of new use cases.
FON, a large Wi-Fi sharing community, announced last year that they have 7 million hotspots and the new 5th generation Wi-Fi routers (802.11ac) clock in at data speeds of over 1 Gb/s. Everything from VisualLight, a Wi-Fi enabled light bulb to hotspots for sharing Wi-Fi with strangers has appeared in just the last two years.
Read on to understand how Facebook can be used to grant Wi-Fi access, how FON got 7 million hotspots and how mobile operators in US and France are challenging the incumbents by relying on Wi-Fi.
Wi-Fi: The bad old days
For as long as Wi-Fi has been around people have dreamt of large scale Wi-Fi networks which can provide ubiquitous wireless Internet access.
Many of the first initiatives for free Wi-Fi access were community-driven. “Elektrosmog” in Sweden, dating back to 2001, was one of the earliest, biggest initatives. The movement had hundreds of members that had installed open Wi-Fi routers in as many places as possible. It was in no way unique - similar initiatives existed in almost every major city in the world, many of which still survive.
Skype, initially dubbed “Skyper” (short for “Sky peer-to-peer”) was intended as a way to create a free P2P mesh network. The free voice call aspect was a mere afterthought to lure users into joining the network and the naming change to Skype happened because the domain name Skyper was already taken.
There have also been attempts with “software only” approaches that leverage already deployed home Wi-Fi routers. A good example is Wisher, a software client for OS X and Windows XP that synced Wi-Fi credentials between its users. Unfortunately, it never got a large enough following and disappeared.
The most famous large scale attempt of an open Wi-Fi network is Martin Varsavsky’s FON. The original idea of FON was that users would install FONera routers that shared their own home Wi-Fi network with other FON users, with the upside being that by installing a FON router every user gained access to all other hotspots in the FON network. As in the Wisher case, however, users never ordered enough FONera routers for the network to truly take off. FON is now successfully partnering with fixed line operators to have the FON software included by default on all routers, removing the need of users to buy a separate piece of hardware. This allows FON and the fixed line operators to quickly add millions of hotspots that can offload traffic from 3G networks. Customers include BT, MTC and Softbank.
Other initiatives include the Open Wi-Fi Movement, which wants people to open up the guest SSID on their home routers to passers-by, and German-run wifis.org, which has built a popular way for anonymously contacting the owner of a certain Wi-Fi hotspot.
Wi-Fi Innovation vs 3G innovation
EDGE, 3G and LTE have been mostly restricted to phones, tablets and M2M applications. This stands in contrast to Wi-Fi. The freedom of the spectrum that Wi-Fi operates in and the availability of cheap Wi-Fi hardware has fostered an enormous amount of innovation and ingenuity.
For a few years it seemed as though Wi-Fi had been relegated to the back seat while consumers bought mobile data subscriptions, moving the spotlight to mobile broadband. But Wi-Fi innovation has hardly stopped.
In the last year alone we’ve seen several highly successful crowd-funded Wi-Fi projects like Lockitron, a Wi-Fi enabled physical lock, LIFX, a Wi-Fi enabled light bulb, and Twine, a Wi-Fi enabled platform for capturing sensor data. To pundits in the mobile industry it should be worrying that none of these projects are even offering a 3G version. So why aren’t they? According to Cameron Robertson from Lockitron the main reasons for not producing a 3G version was the higher power consumption and the requirement of a mobile data plan.
The proliferation of smartphones have has contributed greatly to Wi-Fi innovation. US-based OpenGarden’s app creates an automatic mesh network between all devices running the app using Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. A user running OpenGarden on their smartphone or computer will automatically hop on to the OpenGarden mesh network using any nearby access point. Other good examples are DeviceScape and WeFi that collect open Wi-Fi networks and automatically connect users when one is nearby.
A quick look on Google Play shows plenty of Wi-Fi related apps in the top 500 hundred lists doing everything from hacking (!) WEP keys to analyzing the optimal configuration for your home Wi-Fi router. The popularity of such apps shows the importance of Wi-Fi in the minds of consumers.
There’s also the concept of “social Wi-Fi,” which as of yet means different things to different people. Socialwifi.net, Wiman.me and even Facebook itself are testing a variety of social mechanisms for granting Wi-Fi access, the most popular requiring a user to like a page on Facebook or check in on Foursquare in exchange for access.
In the US, a new MVNO simply named “Karma” is selling a mobile hotspot connected to the Clearwire WiMAX network. The social part being that users get extra megabytes of data by sharing their mobile hotspot connection with anyone who connects to the hotspot and logs on with Facebook.
Another example is Instabridge (of which I am a co-founder), an app that allows its users to selectively grant Wi-Fi access to Facebook friends or addressbook contacts.
Wi-Fi and mobile operators: friends with benefits
Free Mobile in France offers users a lower cost on their home broadband if they agree to be part of the Free Mobile Wi-Fi network. By combining this network with another network of public hotspots they push users over to Wi-Fi whenever possible and cut prices on mobile data subscriptions. The results speak for themselves: the new entrant took a 5.4% market share in just six months. Bouygues and SFR have been forced to reorganize themselves to compete with Free Mobile. Operators who were not seriously considering working with Wi-Fi before have certainly changed their mind now.
Free Mobile is not the only MVNO using Wi-Fi to lower prices. RepublicWireless in the US have also bet heavily on that users can cover a majority of their data and calling needs with Wi-Fi. RepublicWireless offers an “all you can eat” voice and data plan for just $19 / month without a contract. The catch is that all their phones are preloaded with RepublicWireless’ own VoIP app that routes calls through Wi-Fi whenever possible.
2012 also saw the launch of FreedomPop. Like Karma, they also rely on Clearwire’s WiMAX network. FreedomPop provides a sleeve for iPod touches that allows an iPod touch to be used as a VoIP phone and function as a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to 8 different devices.
Operator controlled Wi-Fi calling apps have also gained traction. Apart from offloading the network they also help increase indoor coverage. In 2012 many operators started experimenting with Wi-Fi calling, T-Mobile and its Bobsled app being on the forefront.
Incumbent mobile operators are also openly embracing Wi-Fi. Boingo recently announced an offloading deal with the CCA which Dave Hagan, Boingo’s CEO, refers to as their first “true Wi-Fi offloading deal.” Another telling sign of the industry embracing Wi-Fi is that Ericsson finally caved in and accepted Wi-Fi as an important technology after ignoring it for years, by buying BelAir Networks to strengthen it’s non-existing Wi-Fi portfolio. (During my time at Ericsson, Wi-Fi wasn’t seen as neither important or relevant).
New standards and certifications such as Passpoint and Hotspot 2.0 have also been created to help increase Wi-Fi usage. Passpoint certified routers allow devices to check which nearby hotspots they can authenticate towards and automatically connect to them based on pre-defined policies like for example if they belong to a Wi-Fi operator the mobile operator has a roaming agreement with.
In essence, mobile operators are betting on Passpoint to allow them to integrate Wi-Fi in their 3G network, just like any other base station. The first Passpoint-enabled routers were certified by the Wi-Fi alliance last year.
But operator-controlled Wi-Fi is not without controversy. Several analysts have raised concerns over how much control operators should and can have over Wi-Fi. After all, the operators’ main asset is their GSM, 3G and LTE licenses and networks leveraging those licenses. Why should they dabble in other technologies in which they have no strategic advantage?
Fortunately for operators, device manufacturers have been quick to integrate new Wi-Fi related standards on the device side, lending credence to the idea that some of these new standards will actually be used commercially and not just be more paper tigers. EAP-SIM, which allows SIM-based authentication to hotspots has been available on Apple devices since iOS 5. Samsung has made a custom Android implementation in its Samsung Galaxy S3 devices and it should only be a matter of time before it’s included by default on all Android devices.
With smartphones losing their “smarts” as soon as they lose their Internet connection handset makers of course have a vested interest in enabling easy Wi-Fi access. Apple and Amazon have bet heavily on the importance of Wi-Fi with their latest devices, the Apple iPhone 5 and the Kindle Fire HD. They both list the Wi-Fi speed as one of the top features of their devices.
Wi-Fi innovation in 2013 and beyond
For years, Wi-Fi has been seen as 3G’s cheap and unreliable step brother. But Wi-Fi has improved. New standards and technologies that increase both speed, range and reliability may change consumers’ perception of Wi-Fi. Most people in the mobile industry have not yet realized how mature this technology has become.
Handset makers will be in the driving seat because of their pursuit to create great consumer devices where people a expect reliable Internet connection. Their customers, the end users, will continue to embrace Wi-Fi and use it in more situations.
This will leave us with two winners: any player with access to a large Wi-Fi network, including fixed line operators with large home Wi-Fi deployments, and either completely new MVNOs or operators that combine their 3G and LTE networks with Wi-Fi to provide cheap mobile data and voice plans.
Where will innovation come from next? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!