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MWC 2013: The hard truth of wireless innovation

Posted by admin on 29th January 2013

In his blog on this year’s CES, our own @benfieldtown surmised that too much emphasis is being placed on the importance of software, and suggestions of the growing irrelevance of a hardware exhibition were missing the point. “What is all this software running on exactly?”, says it all. The discussion about the source of innovation, and the question of whether the real innovations now come from the virtual (software) or physical (hardware) world, seems to be cropping up more and more often.

Wireless communications is now truly embedded in the entire technology industry and with that in mind, Mobile World Congress 2013, the most significant event in the wireless industry calendar is just around the corner. One of the conference sessions at MWC 13 will see a panel of future innovators pitch to a panel of investors whose job it will be to identify which business plan is likely to have the greatest impact on the communications industry in 2023. So: what is the source of innovations that define the wireless industry?

The pace of hard and soft innovation

To cut to the chase, the pace of innovation in a virtual software world will always leave the physical world behind, there is no debating this. But, it is the hardware-orientated world which gives rise to the most significant innovations. It is the hardware innovations which change the face of the industry and it’s only on the back of these hardware innovations that software or cloud-based innovation is even feasible.

Until there is an iPad, there won’t be all those iPad applications
Until there is GPS hardware (including the satellites!) there won’t be location based services on phones and tablets
Until there is Wi-Fi technology embedded in a mobile phone, MNOs’ innovative HetNet or Wi-Fi offload strategies won’t exist.
Until higher speed network architectures exist, cloud-based data storage and access will remain a pipe dream

At MWC it is always easy to see the bias of innovation in the wireless industry, first-hand. The success of the thousands of amazing apps we will see in the Apps Planet at MWC 2013 will ultimately be dependent on what’s coming out of the IP/IC leaders such as ARM, Samsung, Imagination Technologies, Qualcomm, Broadcom, which are designed into handset or systems and ultimately used on mobile networks. Feel free to disagree. Please.

Social networks and Skype are software or cloud based innovations which change how we use technology, but guess what: users of Facebook and Skype need appropriately specced hardware devices to interact; Facebook itself needs constantly-upgraded server farms and internet architecture to deliver its service.

Many of the underlying hardware innovations will have been around for a long time and perhaps gone through multiple stages of evolution before the software engineers make full use of them with clever software. But when these physical hardware innovations happen it is these that change the face and the future of the wireless industry.

Cost of failure: not so cheap as chips

I mentioned there is no debating that virtual innovation will always outpace innovation in wireless hardware. It’s worth adding some colour to this: The rate of companies that launch and fail is higher in the virtual world. Also, dare I say that to try and to fail (and then try again) is more acceptable and more realistic in the virtual software world.

The development of hardware requires significant upfront investment costs to convert an idea into a chip, or a phone, or even a new network architecture based on small cells. The time, the costs and the commitment required are all far more significant to achieve true innovation in wireless hardware.As long as I’m on this planet, I believe the boldest, game-changing innovators will be designing hardware. Software innovations will continue to come and go by the truck-load. A handful will be Facebook level successes which will change how we use wireless technology.

For the seventh year out of eight, I will be at MWC again this year, looking out for the real innovations in the wireless industry – odds are, you’ll see me around the hardware stands.

(Photo: Inventor Dean Kamen’s lightbulb moment).


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