Do you surf? No? Well perhaps you are a skier? We?re having a drink in the local, what about going to Bordeaux this weekend to catch the surf, or maybe to the mountains. But is the surf up? Is there snow? Let?s check it out on the internet.
Via the internet you can plug into a camera on the beach in Bordeaux or on the slopes at Gstaad. And you can check out the surf, the sun and the pistes while you talk about them over a pint. All thanks to digital mobile communications.
This is possible today, although no one has the time to do any real surfing or skiing of course. Most users will want to use the mobile datacoms for a more serious purpose ? making money. And if resellers play their cards right, they might also make enough to take a trip to the coast of France and the heart of Switzerland.
According to figures quoted at a recent seminar held by Orange, the take-up of mobile datacoms among GSM phone users is about two per cent. That doesn?t sound like a lot, but when you consider that there are almost 500,000 users of GSM phones in Europe, it?s not a bad start.
This means that 10,000 users have already bought GSM mobile data, and with 6.5 million users anticipated by 2000, and 10 per cent penetration by that stage, it?s not hard to see the potential. If these estimates are right then there will be 650,000 users of GSM by the end of the century. That makes it worth about #250 million over the next three years. This is taking into account only the basic hardware, not the software or the consultancy, support or any additional work.
So is that a big market? If the calculations are right, it is not enormous, but the figures may be on the conservative side. This year we have already seen British Gas order 6,000 units from UK producer Grey Cell. That will add over 50 per cent to the population of users. Another supplier told PC Dealer of separate prospective orders of 400 and 900 cards.
Corporate interest in GSM mobile data is high, and it is estimated that by 2002 the penetration of mobile data among GSM users will be 50 per cent. This is almost certainly going to be a much bigger market sooner than the estimates suggest.
According to John Nolan, MD of portable add-on products distributor PPCP, the interest is coming from companies that need to move fast. ?More and more people are talking about going in, getting that order and getting it back to base fast. Take it on a bit more and you can dial into Orange, gateway, into the ISDN network and you?ll be transmitting your file back to the office within seconds.?
With a normal PSTN line connection the handshaking would take about 30 seconds; with the GSM ISDN connection, it would take less than five seconds and, half a minute later, the transmission would be finished. GSM suppliers are now starting to make ISDN connections available, and with compression, this can speed up data transmission considerably and cut costs.
But GSM data on its own is a revelation and it is quickly becoming very popular. About 60 per cent of Grey Cell?s product sales include the GSM option, but this is perhaps because the company has come late to the fax/modem market, having focused on network connections for the first few years of its life.
Marsden says two types of user buy GSM data products. The first is the user who has already got a notebook and a GSM mobile, perhaps working for a consultancy or an accountancy practice, and who has the authority to go out and buy the product required to do the job. Priced between #300 and #500, GSM cards are not bank-breaking investments for high-earning users, especially if they offer time-saving and convenience.
The second group of buyers are project managers in the corporate accounts who are looking to equip mobile sales forces, engineers and other remote workers with highly flexible communications.
We are moving, Marsden says, from the early-adopter to the real applications stage, but he does not see a massive surge in sales in the near future.
?I don?t think we are at the stage where everyone wants or needs to have mobile data,? he says. ?There is a big education process to go through, and not everyone realises what is possible. There?s also the issue of the convenience of the products available.?
One of Grey Cell?s main selling points is that it has the ability to offer a GSM card for all the popular cellular phones on the market. It is not tied to anyone else?s chipset (it designs and develops its own technology) and it is developing a type of interface that allows its card to be used with a wide range of mobile phones.
When the European Telecommunications Specifications Institution (ETSI) developed the standards for data on cellular phones, it put all the circuitry in the telephone.
This approach was deemed too expensive to be provided by the phone developers, so they turned to the PCMCIA standard instead. The trouble is that they have all developed a different data interface, so you have to buy a specific card for a specific phone and you take the card with you when you change the phone unit.
Grey Cell?s GSM 400 product combines an analogue fax/ modem with GSM data. The company has developed its own interface standard for the card. This means that all it needs to do is provide a different cable for each different make of cellular phone.
The identity of the phone is sensed by the card and the appropriate driver is called into use. This means the card can be used by any number of users, with any number of supported cellular phones, and swapped between phones ? providing that a user has all the right cables available.
With an RRP of #349, the GSM 400 is much cheaper than the proprietary cards which the cellular phone manufacturers were offering a year ago.
The card is available today for Nokia, Orange and Panasonic phones. Other popular brands are set to follow in the next few weeks.
It may sound as though the complexity of making PC cards work for every type of cellular phone on the market is holding everyone up, but this is not really the case. Despite its claims, Grey Cell is not the only manufacturer that is offering GSM across a range of phones.
COM1 ? a European developer which makes cards for, among others, Toshiba in France (Psion is Toshiba?s supplier in the UK) ? has licensed the handset connectivity interfaces from all the major phone suppliers. This is not easy or cheap to do: Nokia has licensed its interface to only three firms and Motorola to only two.
The COM1 GSM card, which is distributed in the UK by PPCP, can also connect to Panasonic, Siemens, Sony and a range of other popular cellular phones, mostly from European manufacturers. To change phones, all you need is a separate cable and a flash memory upgrade. Prices are about the same as the Grey Cell product.
Mobile phones, of course, are usually supplied by mobile phone dealers. So who will supply the GSM data card? Nolan says it will almost always be PC dealers because of their understanding of the data.
If Nolan is right, then dealers can look forward to a great number of money-making opportunities in the mobile data market in the years ahead.
Cellular data is what some vendors are betting on as the driving force for sale of the crop of pocket PCs which run the Windows-CE product that are now being launched. Compaq?s alliance with Ericsson, for example, may be a move to put the GSM data function onto the pocket PC.
Marsden thinks CE products have a good chance of success, but only if they have decent communications.
He claims that the Rockwell chipset ? which will be used for communications in most of the products ? will drain the battery of the machine.
?Soft? GSM would be the way to go, he suggests, and Grey Cell has produced a software product that will run on the host processor.
But it is unlikely that vendors such as Compaq and Hewlett Packard will be quite so naive as to release a pocket product that runs CE and won?t stay online for more than a few minutes. If CE is going to be a success, it will be partly because of its extended battery life and the freedom and flexibility it affords the user.
If these products have a long enough battery life, they could be the making of GSM data, and GSM data could be the key to success for the pocket PC.
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