The first week of a new year may seem a rather unsociable time to hold a major trade show, but the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas has become established as a showcase for the new product developments that will shape the immediate future of the consumer electronics market. In recent years wireless technology, and wireless-enabled IT products, have increased to become a dominant part of this market. The first days of a new year are also the traditional time for looking forward to what the future will bring, so the conjunction is timely.
So what will the new decade bring for the wireless and RF industry?
Back at the turn of the last decade in 2000 we were looking forward to the launch of 3G networks which was to be spearheaded by the 2001 debut of NTT DoCoMo's FOMA W-CDMA network in Japan – as well as speculating whether Bluetooth would ever be successful in the face of opposition from the US, and wondering whether the recent spectacular failure of wireless local loop (WLL) provider Ionica meant that wireless would never replace copper (or fibre) as the main medium for telecommunications to the home or office. The Wi-Fi Alliance was newly formed to promote IEEE802.11 technology, but with many people still accessing the Internet via dial-up or ISDN we thought its (then) 5Mb/s speed was probably a bit of an overkill. Incredibly, wireless itself was then barely 100 years old, as it was not until 2001 that we celebrated the centenary of Marconi's historic first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission.
At the turn of 2010 we now know that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, as well as 3G and its later HSPA enhancements, have been outstandingly successful, and will continue to evolve and play a large part in communications during this decade too. WiMAX has emerged (and to a certain extent receded again) during the decade, but Wi-Fi in particular is set for a second life as a technology for offloading capacity for overworked 3G networks (see earlier Blog posts 'Wi-Fi demand still booming' and 'Ruckus Wireless managed Wi-Fi system challenges WiMAX business model'). A whole new category of devices, not even thought of in 2000, has emerged in the form of femtocells, which have transformed the concept of fixed-mobile convergence and provided a potential new business model for mobile operators. And we are once again looking forward to a new generation of mobile technology, in this case LTE – which succeeded in sending its first network live in the final days of the last decade ('TeliaSonera launches world’s first LTE networks in Stockholm and Oslo', 15 December 2009). Opinion is still divided on whether LTE is truly 4th Generation – the word 'evolution' in its acronym being the main point of contention but it certainly merits the description of 'next generation network'. Such has been the growth in mobile data traffic over the first decade of the 21st Century that voice will be an add-on for LTE, which is primarily a data-oriented standard, and 3G and/or 2G networks are forecast to be around for many years to come in order to carry the bulk of voice traffic.
But back to CES and its portents for the future. One of the big stories this year is the launch of a new form factor of mobile terminal – larger than an iPhone but smaller than a conventional tablet PC. Freescale is among the pioneers of this 'smartbook' technology, and has this week launched a tablet reference design based on an ARM-cored processor and featuring a 175mm touch screen (approximately one-third the size and volume of a typical netbook, but 4x larger than a smartphone). Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity are standard, with 3G and ZigBee RF4CE interfaces available as options. End products based on Freescale's SABRE design are forecast to be commercially available as early as the summer of 2010. Apple is rumoured to be not far behind, with a tablet design due to be announced towards the end of January. And though there is a lot of hype this week centred on the Google Nexus One 'superphone', of more significance for the longer term will be the Chrome-based tablet PC, also likely to be based on an ARM processor, that it is said to be developing with Nexus One partner HTC.
The use of the mobile phone as a personal wallet - using Near Field Communications which up to now has been slow to take off because of shortcomings in software useability – is set to become much more commonplace over the early part of the new decade. New applications are emerging, and security doubts are being addressed.
The trend for mobile broadband-enabled consumer electronics will escalate: ABI Research forecast this week that such devices will increase by a factor of 55 between 2008 and 2014. This class of devices includes eBook readers, mobile digital cameras and camcorders, personal media players (PMPs), personal navigation devices (PNDs) and mobile gaming devices, and total annual shipments are forecast to reach 58 million by 2014. The canny reader may observe that all these devices are currently, or potentially, being integrated into mobile phone platforms, so the boundaries between the device types may have all but disappeared by the end of the decade.
Another key trend will be the growing demand for HD video on the move – probably set to become a major application for the new smartbooks - and the advent of 3D video, which will almost certainly filter through to the mobile arena sooner or later. Social networking (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube etc.), which wasn't even thought of 10 years ago, will also be a significant influencer on the design of future wireless devices.
With the pace of development continuing to increase exponentially, there is no doubt that the new decade will also bring breakthroughs that are not even a glimmer of an idea at the moment, and that by 2020 this overview will look just as dated as those of 2000 are looking today. It's an exciting thought.