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!
Technologies I look forward to in 2013
Many blog posts this time a year talk about cool future technologies that will be available ten years from now. But there are a couple of under appreciated technologies that are here already that are set to become mainstream during the next year.
Miracast is the open standard answer to Apple’s Airplay. It allows users to mirror content from a device to a display.
Best of all it solves the last remaining problem with Apple TV: since Miracast can be built directly into TVs you don’t need a separate box in your living room and the TV can automatically switch channel when you want to show Miracast content.
Google has been quick to implement Miracast support. The Galaxy Nexus was the first smartphone to support it and it is now included by default since Android 4.2.
It’s going to become mainstream in 2013 since all flagship Android smartphones will support it and plenty of TVs will include support. Apple has already proven that there is consumer demand with Apple TV. Consumers can look forward to coming home to a random friend and instantly being able to show a YouTube video on their TV.
If you ever owned a Kindle (or any e-book reader) you know how amazing the screen is. Since the display is so relaxing it literally puts you in another modus operandi.
E-Ink screens are becoming both cheaper and faster and there already is a phone on the market with an e-Ink screen.
They will become show up in even more devices (smartphones, tablet computers etc) because of how much battery it will save but mostly because looking at a phone with an e-Ink screen is just a much much more pleasant experience than a backlit one.
Google Glass is the kind of sci-fi thing you hear about but don’t think actually will ever exist. But Glass is real and it’s shipping in january. Glass is going to be huge for a number of reasons. The most important being that the early adopters will have a huge advantage over those not using it - like being the only one in a room with an iPhone felt like in 2007.
Imagine being fed information about the persons you meet and having apps that can detect the size of their pupils or the tone of their voice - you would immediately know if they are stressed (lying), relieved, surprised and even if you’ve met them before. Doing business or networking without Google Glass will quickly become unthinkable.
Lifelogging: Fitbit & Memoto
Lifelogging and the quantified self movement have been around for a long time (just ask anyone with Diabetes or Crohn’s disease) but during the last year we’ve seen Fitbit devices that help you track everything you do picking up steam. A new cool device is also the Memoto camera. The tiny beautiful Memoto camera can be attached to your shirt and will then automatically take one picture per minute - it even geotags the pictures.
Do mainstream consumers want these devices? I think the answer is an overwhelming yes. Whenever I’m out running I’d wager that 80%+ of other runners out there that I meet have a smartphone strapped around their arm with the Runkeeper app or a Garmin watch on their wrist.
Another telling sign is the craze of having step counters in your belt. That particular fad may have died out but it certainly was mainstream - even my dad wore one. It’s indicative of how much we love gamification in our lives. It’s a “gateway drug” to more hardcore devices such as Memoto or Fitbit.
Memoto still has some way to go until it can go mainstream (“it photographs EVERYTHING?”). But once people see it in action it will be hard to resist it - imagine a mother showing pictures of her child’s first step or first smile.
And for completeness sake…
It doesn’t seem right of me to make this list without including Instabridge. I’m one of the founders so I’m obviously extremely biased, but on the other hand I wouldn’t have quit my job and started Instabridge in the first place if I wasn’t excited about it!
Internet access is becoming a must have on any device. And almost everywhere we go there’s Wi-Fi. But wifi is difficult to use and locked down. At Instabridge we are creating the world’s largest network of wifi access points that you can access based on the social graph. Imagine being switched over to wifi at all of your friends places without asking for a password and typing it in or being able to ask your new neighbour to use their wifi (think Airbnb or Dropbox for wifi).
I think it will go mainstream for a number of reasons. First of all, mobile data is becoming more and more expensive and operators have a hard time keeping up with consumer adoption. Second of all, wifi is really the only alternative to 3G and LTE right now and just look at how Amazon and Apple market their latest devices - pushing how great the wifi capability is has become a key feature.
Windows 8 Impressions
My niece got an laptop with Windows 8 for Christmas from the family. Since the budget was quite limited I had spent hours selecting it online trying to understand which one would allow him to play Minecraft (the primary purpose for this computer) at a decent FPS. It’s incredibly difficult to get an understanding of the mobile graphics card market - the desktop market is much better documented.
I also wanted a computer with Windows 8. I had no real reason for choosing Windows 8 but kids usually figure things out quickly anyway so I figured I might as well go with the latest OS.
The Acer Asipre V3-571g that I bought ended up giving incredible value for money. For just €800 the laptop contains an Intel core i5 CPU and a 15” screen. Its Geforce graphics card is comparable to that of a 13” Macbook Pro. All in a surprisingly well designed sleek, black and thin package.
I had a lot of negative preconceptions about Windows 8 and assumed the first thing to do was to disable the Metro interface. But after playing with Windows 8 for a few hours all I can say is wow. Windows 8 with Metro feels fresh, modern and fluid. When using my own Macbook Pro again OS X feels old, really old.
Windows 8 has a very clean look, and it’s famous tile system keeps the amount of clutter to a minimum. When clicking the Internet Explorer “e”-tile the tile spins into view with a simple and beautiful animation. Even Internet Explorer is a joy to use and Microsoft has adapted it to look great in full screen mode. By default all applications run in full screen and switching between them is as easy as moving the mouse to a corner of the screen. This gives the whole OS a very uncluttered feel. Microsoft has made some huge bets with Windows 8 and it has payed off.
OS X on the other hand is dark and cluttered. All the shaded areas, grey chrome bars and skeumorphic panels add up. Even the background images follow the same pattern: high resolution photos full of small details. Microsoft on the other hand has chose a simple iconic modern art image with a restricted color palette.
It’s funny how we ended up where we are. When laptops got high resolution screens Apple made sure it’s laptops showed them off and everyone quickly copied them. Now that 300 PPI screens are the default we long back to the days of uncluttered designs.
I used to find OS X’s attention to detail amazing and contrary to the rest of the Internet I even enjoyed the skeumorphic hints. I’m not ready to switch back to Windows but for the first time in 10 years someone has challenged Apple on their home turf.
As a once hardcore Apple fanatic all I can say is: well played Microsoft, well played.
Testing VoIP apps to lower my phone bills
Since I left the comfort of corporate life with a company mobile phone and started paying my own phone bills I have become much more wary about int’l data roaming costs and expensive int’l calls.
I literally cut my phone bill down to 1/10 of my previous cost by using a few apps. Here are the apps and services I’m using to keep my phone bill under control when travelling and calling abroad.
Skype - should already be a given for most people. Skype’s biggest problem is that it forces you to login before using it. Unfortunately, the mobile client randomly disconnects from their servers which forces a re-login and making you unreachable. The Skype app feels like a desktop client being forced to run on a mobile device. But still the best option hands down when it comes to sound quality.
Rebtel - Rebtel has two different ways to route calls. It can either function as a normal VoIP client that routes calls through Wi-Fi or 3G and then through a local exchange in the country the call is ending up in (like SkypeOut). The other option is to set up a dedicated local number routed over IP to an international number. Basically, what this means is that you can get a local number for each of your int’l friends that you are calling often.
The upside of that option is that the IP portion of the call can be transferred using a connection which is under Rebtel’s control which is not the case when making a call over a random Wi-FI connection.
I have a few people in different countries whom I call often. For them I’ve set up one local number each. This works absolutely fantastic, great sound quality and no delays.
For “random” intl calls where you don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a new number, Rebtel provides an app. The Android app is absolutely amazing as the app can detect when a call is about to be made to an int’l number and allows the user to decide if this should be turned into a VoIP call instead. Having Rebtel installed should be a no brainer.
Viber - I tried Viber when it came out and was disappointed. But when I recently tested it again the sound quality had improved radically. It’s still not Skype quality, but it’s hard to say if their codec is actually worse, it might just be that they are different. Personally I prefer Skype’s but YMMW.
3G networks around the world are still not good enough to support VoIP which means that Viber works best when you’re both on a good Wi-Fi connection. And if that’s the case you might just as well use Skype to get the better voice codec (again, IMHO).
But still, it’s very appealing not to have to login before making a call. There are definitely many times when a Viber call just feels so much more “lightweight” than a Skype-call. I also get the feeling Viber is more optimized for low bandwidth situations than Skype but I don’t have any data to prove it.
Your operator’s VoIP app - Some operators are already providing their own wifi calling apps. I have Tele2 in Sweden and am using their VoIP app developed by Optimobile.
The Tele2 app is pretty neat. It allows me to set it up so that if I’m connected over wifi while roaming, all calls are routed over a VoIP connection and I don’t have to pay to receive an expensive int’l call. The app also allows me to make VoIP calls using my normal price plan just as if I was at home.
Unfortunately I experienced a lot of cut calls and loss of sound while using it, but I’m sure this will improve over time. If your operator have one of these apps you should definitely be using it.
Wifi - Not really an app but a tip. There’s free wifi almost everywhere these days - use it. Wifi has moved from being a payed for service to being free. Airports, buses, trains and hotels all have free wifi.
Summary: there’s is no killer VoIP app yet but a few apps can significantly reduce calling costs. On an Android phone all that is required is to install all of the apps and the apps will automatically go into effect whenever they can help. If you are serious about using these apps Android is the way to go, at least until iOS provides hooks that allows apps to “hijack” calls.
(You can and probably should stop reading here, below are just random thoughts).
The killer app would be Viber married with Skype (no login and the codec from Skype) and with the dedicated numbers provided by Rebtel. In an ideal scenario this app would be integrated with my operator so that I can still use my own price plan whenever that is cheapest. Basically we’re already here - it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.
Looking at it from the outside it seems like a great idea to make this magical VoIP app, make it popular (I didn’t say this was going to be easy) and then go cut deals with operators to get a share of their revenue when the app places a call using the user’s price plan.
Another app/service that would be extremely valuable is to check the configuration settings of a normal home wifi router. Most routers are inproperly configured to handle VoIP, ie too large buffers or QoS not activated. If there was an app the could diagnose and possibly also change the settings directly on a router to accomodate VoIP that would be a huge win for the VoIP community.
I’m extremely excited about some of the stuff that we’re doing at Instabridge - both technically and commercially. There’s a long way left for us to travel, but I’m looking forward to the journey.
This the fourth start-up that I have the privilegie of being part of. It’s pretty clear to all of us involved in Instabridge what needs to happen for us to be successful. I won’t bore you with the details, but essentially, there are a list of milestones that we need to reach and we can see roughly the path we need to take to reach those milestones. On one hand I’m happy that we all can see the road ahead so clearly. But at the same time it’s daunting to know how much work that is left.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to the naïve entrepreneur I once was that was part of building Fabset.com in evenings and weekends. Had I known everything I know today about startups today I would never have tried to build Fabset. But I’m happy that I did. Without it, we would never have seen the sort of success we’re seeing with Instabridge.