As wireless broadband continues to manifest in various forms - and as operators feel around in the dark for a killer business case - the evidence is mounting that the business case is going to be defined in no small part by the devices themselves. 3G services and content were initially developed with handsets in mind, but now HSPA and EV-DO are increasingly aimed at laptop users via USB modems. Wi-Fi found initial success with laptops but is now finding its way into smartphones and, more recently, consumer electronics, opening up new service possibilities such as home networks and gaming services aimed at portable game consoles.
The Wimax camp is banking heavily on devices to define its own business case. With no legacy circuit-switched voice base to look after, Wimax has a unique opportunity to offer wide-area IP connectivity for whatever mobile device you like, from gaming consoles to portable navigation devices and "&brkbar; well, name it (especially if it already has Wi-Fi in it).
Even form factors are morphing to accommodate wireless broadband. The rise of so-called mobile internet devices (MIDs) - also known as ultra mobile PCs (UMPCs), ultra mobile devices (UMDs) or, as Qualcomm calls them, PCDs (pocketable computing devices) - came about in part to offer users a portable device that bridges the gap between bulky, costly laptops and smartphones that simply don't offer a familiar internet experience.
This latter point is hard to overstate - for all the hype over the mobile internet as a killer 3G app and efforts by big-name Web 2.0 brands like Google, Yahoo, MySpace and YouTube to go mobile, the physical limitations of handsets has made it difficult for 3G to provide users the internet experience they've come to expect (at least in markets where users first experience the Internet via a desktop PC).
"For a mobile device to really succeed, it has to provide a no-compromise web browsing experience," says Seshu Madhavapeddy, GM of MIDs at Texas Instruments. "Even a device like the iPhone, which has encouraged people to surf the web via a cellular network, cannot support things like viewing videos embedded on the CNN site. This is not good enough."
Users who do get "proper" web access via 3G tend to get it via USB modems plugged into laptops, but while laptops are technically portable, they don't exactly lend themselves to mobility. They're also to pricey for emerging markets, says Sunil Kumar, marketing director for Beceem Communications.
"That's why we will see more MIDs coming out as a way to bridge the gap between iPhones and UMPCs," he says.
Which explains some of the recent buzz over MIDs, especially on the analyst front. In-Stat expects sales growth for MIDs to top 72% this year. Strategy Analytics says a million MIDs will be sold in 2008, and growth will continue at an average annual rate of 102% to reach 69 million units by 2014.
To be sure, that's a drop in the ocean compared to how many mobile phones and laptops will be sold in that time. But MIDs do arguably represent the front wave of a movement to break out of the stalwart form factors for what we think of as wireless devices, which only makes sense in a world where an increasing number of consumer electronics are coming with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.