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The Year in Mobile

Apple invented a new category of mobile device, consumers want faster connections, and the spectrum is more crowded than ever.
December 30, 2010

Insanely Popular

Companies have introduced tablet computers before, but the technology never took off until 2010, with Apple’s launch of its iPad in April (Review: Apple’s iPad). The device runs the operating system that Apple uses for its smart phones but has much more computing power. It’s lighter than a laptop and less capable, but consumers love it all the same. The technology research firm ABI Research has predicted that Apple would sell up to 12 million of the devices by year’s end.

The key to the success of the device is its easy connectivity. Though Apple offers a Wi-Fi-only version of the iPad, the 3G device is the star. It contains little in the way of new technology, but it has integrated existing technologies to create a compelling mobile-computing experience (Hack: iPad 3G).

Other companies scrambled to keep up. Early products based on Google’s competing mobile operating system, Android, were disappointing (The FlatPad A10: A Flawed iPad Competitor). By September, larger companies such as Samsung were in the game, making credible efforts to compete (Can Samsung’s Tablet Hold Its Own?). No matter how good the alternate mobile devices, however, Apple retained a commanding lead (Insanely Late).

Regardless of which devices fail or succeed, the tablet craze has forced Web developers to adapt websites so that they can be easily accessed by mobile devices, which often lack keyboards and have relatively unreliable connections (Redesigning the Web for Touch Screens).

Working Better

As most service providers introduced usage-based pricing plans for fast 3G connections, Wi-Fi became important as a supplementary way to pull down data on a device. But connecting to a Wi-Fi access point uses up power quickly, and researchers have sought fixes that could extend battery life (How Wi-Fi Drains Your Cell Phone). In fact, cell-phone antennas are a battery drain no matter what they connect to. New antenna designs could work better, reduce dropped calls, and extend battery life (Dual Antennas Would Boost Cell-Phone Signals).

Meanwhile, service providers such as Sprint and Verizon began to roll out faster 4G networks, aiming to meet the ever-increasing demand for data (An Early Look at Faster Cell-Phone Speeds).

To solve problems common to many cell phones, however, some researchers and companies believe they need to do more monitoring to get a better idea of how people use their phones and where exactly the problems lie. AT&T, for example, is mining data from Twitter (Using Twitter to Track Dropped Calls). And researchers are testing software that tracks every action on a phone to gather data about battery drains and dead spots (Improving Phones through Surveillance).

Tracking Devices

Not all tracking is intended to improve service to consumers. Cell phones already provide wireless companies with a trove of location data that can be used to determine people’s habits. This analysis could lead to targeted advertising and yield more sophisticated information on when and how local businesses become popular (Follow the Smart Phones). Companies are also seeking marketing insights from the social networks that calling habits reveal (Wireless Companies Could Use Your Friends).

That’s only the beginning of what could be done with data mined from cell phones. Academics and industry professionals alike are looking to phones not only for information to help them with advertising and marketing but also to learn about commuting habits, how far people are willing to travel to public events, and social trends (Mobile Data: A Gold Mine for Telcos). The information is perceived to be so valuable that some are looking into enhancing cell phones’ ability to track location indoors (Bringing Cell-Phone Location Sensing Indoors).

Widening the Spectrum

The uses for mobile devices continue to multiply, and as a result, the connectivity they need is increasingly difficult to come by. Increasing numbers of devices and applications are competing for a limited and heavily regulated amount of bandwidth (Spectrum of Issues).

Researchers are looking for ways to access more of the spectrum and more efficient ways to use what’s available. One approach is to use “white spaces”—unused patches of the spectrum (New Spectrum from Old). But there could be problems with this approach. Researchers have found that not all locations have the same amount of available white space, complicating plans to rely on this method to scrounge up more bandwidth (Study Shows Inequalities in “White Spaces” Wireless). So companies continue to test ways to cram more signals into the increasingly crowded portions of the spectrum already in use (A Cell-Phone Network without a License).

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