Uncommon Wisdom

Nov 4 2010   5:11PM GMT

The handwriting on the tablet: Users, mobility and wireless networks

Tom Nolle Tom Nolle Profile: Tom Nolle

One of the prime areas of focus for tech recently has been the tablet PC space. Tablets are far from new — in fact, some of the “new” models are more like reprises of earlier tablets, in that they’re little more than a keyboard-less notebook. The iPad, of course, created an alternative vision of a tablet as a kind of overfed smartphone, an all-display device designed to be a conduit of information to the user with a relatively sparse capability to move data the other way. Some see tablets as consumer devices, while some like the model of enterprise tablet use. The vendors are struggling with which model to support; ViewSonic expects to offer both 7-inch and 10-inch forms, and both Android and Windows 7 (even dual-boot, so the rumor goes).

However the tablet goes, the big news will be the network and the impact of tablets on user behavior. Movement to tablets on a large scale means movement to ubiquitous wireless, but we’ll need to look hard at just what “ubiquitous” means. As I’ve noted, there’s an opportunity for hospitality-Fi networks to play an enormous role in future tablet networking. I think wireless providers and equipment vendors realize that and are trying to figure out how to promote a truly compelling case for 3G/4G wireless versus Wi-Fi. The problem is that it’s going to be an uphill battle, because device vendors have everything to gain by pushing Wi-Fi versions of their devices to get a larger near-term market share.

Behavior, mobility and devices all create interdependence. Consumers aren’t set on tablet use, wireless models or behavioral patterns at this point. That means giving them support for a specific usage model can condition them to consume that model, whatever form that support may take. An explosion in tablet competition could empower a host of competitors, create a hospitality-Fi wave and erode the business model for 4G. It could foster a different model for mobility that focuses on roaming data sessions between Wi-Fi hot spots, independent of traditional mobility tools of the past and of IMS. It could even erode the operators’ positions in the service layer, because Wi-Fi is traditionally an over-the-top framework tied to no operator in a technical sense.

Alcatel-Lucent, whose quarter showed some real promise for growth, seems to recognize that. They announced a program with Eurozone provider KPN that demonstrates the exposure of provider network assets through Alcatel-Lucent’s Application Enablement and Open API program. This is the first large-scale success of a provider API program to deliver premium network features up the stack to the service layer. The application itself is still a bit simplistic, focusing again on QoS and bandwidth rather than on the more complex areas of identity, federation, content delivery networks and application-service feature creation, but it’s a convincing demonstration that operators do have a path to monetize their underlying network assets either by offering high-level services that exploit them or by wholesaling them to somebody else. This kind of capability may be critical if things like tablets and hospitality-Fi start to erode the traditional mobile opportunity.

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