Device Boundaries are Blurring

David Chamberlain, Principal Analyst, Wireless, In-Stat

David Chamberlain

For the past dozen years or so, In-Stat, and many other firms, have wrestled with the increasing overlap among consumer electronic devices: cell phones include the functions of portable media players; music players now include cell phones; personal computers get smaller and more portable, while personal digital assistants (PDAs) get more capable.

The three device types crashing together are cell phones, ultra-mobile computing devices and personal entertainment devices. Even though the word "convergence" has been overused to the point that it has lost its meaning, the lines among these devices are blurring as they add similar capabilities and functions.

What is most important, though, is that more and more devices are going to require data connections across a wireless network.

Devices No Longer Differentiated by Applications

It used to be easy for us analysts. Cell phones had phone numbers, computers had keyboards and entertainment devices required a PC to add multimedia files. As an example, the iPhone and its cousin the iPod Touch cut across all those definitions. We’re still arguing about whether to count them with media players, mobile Internet browsers or cell phones.

One of the characteristics of the cell phone market in the last 3 years has been the addition of devices and applications, such as the camera, camcorder, music players, video players, GPS-based navigation applications, gaming, and other entertainment and communication features.

That is not to say that a single converged device will dominate the consumer electronics market; quite to the contrary, In-Stat research has consistently found that many consumers carry both multi-function cell phones and single-purpose entertainment devices, such as digital cameras and music players. However, In-Stat believes that there will be new classes of devices emerging as well.

As a result of the distinctions among device categories becoming blurred, In-Stat is now considering these devices on a continuum based on various functions and capabilities. Figure 1 shows the placement of a number of devices on the continuum shared by cellular devices, portable entertainment devices and ultra-mobile devices.

Figure 1: Mobile Device Positioning

Multiple Networks

A key characteristic of the new mobile devices will be their connections to the Internet.

Along with cellular networks, more devices, including cell phones, are adding Wi-Fi radios, which permits high-speed, low-cost Internet access for additional applications on smartphones and other devices.

The presence of multiple network access is a defining feature of the devices that are breaking out of their categories. Among the networks that are finding their way into personal and mobile devices are:

  • Cellular in its various forms, including voice networks, as well as UMTS, HSPA, and EV-DO data networks.
  • Wi-Fi radios that can access business and personal networks, as well public hotspots and metro-area Wi-Fi systems. Wi-Fi can be used for Internet access, voice over IP (VoIP) using an application such as Skype, and for unlicensed mobile access (UMA) of cellular services over a Wi-Fi gateway.
  • Broadcast receivers, such as FM radio, and mobile video receivers for a variety of video broadcasting technologies, such as ISDBT, DVB-H and MediaFLO.
  • WiMAX radios are expected to appear in a number of devices, starting with laptop-sized personal computers and eventually appearing in smaller devices.
  • Local connectivity, such as Bluetooth, WiMedia, Zigbee and others permit devices to send or receive content from other devices.


Multiple networks in a single device will require a change design starting at the chip level with multiple radios and software stacks. However, form factor and chip/bus connections are a real challenge today. Software defined radios, such as Gobi, are one approach to try and solve such dilemmas hardware manufacturers face.

Embedded processors commonly used solely by cell phones and PDAs are also evolving to incorporate a complete development ecosystem, such as SDKs that allow software applications developers to write one piece of code that is compatible across all embedded processors regardless of manufacturer/licensee. They are also developing capabilities to run “the full Internet,” including Flash and Java.

Conversely, general-purpose computing processors, such as those seen in computers or servers, are adding low-voltage, low-current and improved user-interface capabilities.

Applications and Operating Systems

As devices add features, processing power and connectivity, they can also change and improve the types of applications they offer. Cellular devices and personal entertainment devices generally operate with embedded operating systems that do not permit modification or installation of new applications. Smartphone and PDA operating systems, such as Windows Mobile and Windows CE, Symbian, PalmOS and Linux are becoming more common as the devices migrate toward the computing realm. Execution environments, such as Java and BREW, are also expanding the function of these devices.

Operating system and application developers, however, will need to accommodate differences in capabilities of various devices. For example, due to their small size, cell-phone-based devices have limited battery capacity and users who rely on them for safety reasons; services designed for intermittent Internet connections should have greater capability when continuously connected through a wireless wide area network. Other changes required by the evolution of personal and mobile devices include:

  • Hosted data support, where the data is stored on a server rather than the local device.
  • Hosted software support, where the application itself is stored and loaded from the Internet rather than the local device.
  • Improved browser support, so the “full Internet” and all of its rich content may be accessed on any device without the limitations of WAP or WML content.

Service Providers

Along with the consumer electronics world, evolution in the personal and mobile device world will have an effect on a range of network service providers:

  • Cellular operators must accommodate devices they no longer control. Unlike the current telco-centric handset vendors, so-called “open access” will open the cellular networks to a variety of new devices .
  • ISP business models may change as consumers look to reduce their monthly connectivity bills by combining access bills for several devices.
  • Wi-Fi operators will find a wider range of devices attempting to connect, including devices that cannot use current authentication, authorization and accounting methods.
  • WiMAX, even as its business models develop, may be the mobile network of choice as new devices and capabilities start to emerge.

Even though it’s been coming for years, it took the release of the iPhone to reveal the incredible range of possibilities device designers have available as data networks improve in speed and coverage while processing and storage gets more compact and mobile-friendly. Most important, though, will be the public expectation that connectivity will be available everywhere. And when it is, they will expect their mobile devices to make use of it.

Scottsdale, AZ
(480) 483-4440

Author Bio:
David Chamberlain is principal analyst, wireless, with In-Stat (Phoenix, AZ). Along with handset forecasts, Chamberlain covers mobile devices such as smartphones, the iPhone and connected devices used for navigation, video, financial transactions, messaging and other specialized services. He also contributes research and analysis on mobile consumer applications including mobile advertising, mobile video and dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi services

This article first appeared in the March/April, 2009 issue of Portable Design. Reprinted with permission.

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