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Yesterday I played with tomorrow’s phones. Things like that happen as a futurist.
I went to see a company called Qualcomm, a name you may not know today but that will likely be as familiar as Intel in years to come. Qualcomm has been a key player in the mobile industry pretty much since its inception — certainly as far back as my direct experience goes (2000). Only now is it considering communicating more with the public, rather than with the Samsungs, and LGs of the world who rely on its technology.
The product I was looking at yesterday is the latest iteration of its mobile phone platform, the Snapdragon 800. In a single package this provides all of the major components you need to build a smartphone or tablet: networking, processing, video, and voice. Stick a screen, a camera, a case, a battery, ports and an aerial on it and you pretty much have a phone: everything else is software.
One thing that caught my attention yesterday was the chip’s ability to both capture and display 4K video. If you’re not familiar with 4K, it’s four times the resolution of HD. That means super-sharp, super-rich images with lots of depth too them, even without any 3D technology. 4K TVs are already on the market, albeit wallet-crushingly expensive.
The device can also capture and play back surround sound. Add amp and TV and you have a very high-end home cinema system, as was demonstrated with exclusive clips of Pacific Rim (prepared for the recent E3 show — yes, I was geeking out).
All very cool.
Stuff Drives Storage
Another meeting I had yesterday was with Richard Lee, president and CEO of QNAP Systems, a company I have written about here before. QNAP makes network attached storage (NAS) devices. These are small, efficient computers with lots of hard disk capacity designed to be a repository for all your digital goodies: music, photos, videos, documents etc.
Richard is delighted that the next generation of phones will have better cameras. Why? Because more megapixels means more megabytes are required to store your digital creations. The incredible amount of content that we are consumers are creating is what is driving the NAS market, predicted to grow at over 20% a year.
Richard pointed out though that it is not just the ability to capture content that is driving the desire for storage. It is the ability to share it; the availability of bandwidth needed to stream new photos and videos back to a central storage hub, access them across a variety of devices and share them with friends and family. We now have cameras with us all the time, and these cameras can — and do — instantly stream the images we capture off to our personal clouds.
And here is where it gets tricky…
Every time a new generation of mobile network comes along, everyone gets very excited about the speed of the connection between the phone and the mast. 2.5G, 3G, 4G — the conversation is always the same. Likewise with the advent of new home broadband services: you always hear about how many megabits per second your cable or DSL line will deliver from the exchange to your home.
What you never hear about is the link between the exchange and the rest of the world — what is known as ‘backhaul’. This is where it all starts to fall down.
In February this year, Tellabs — an old client of mine — sponsored some research that identified a $9.2bninvestment gap in backhaul networks. Based on a five to six times increase in the volume of data carried over mobile networks, at current investment levels, operators will be 16 petabytes short of capacity.
That’s quite a lot. Despite Tellabs clear interest in there being an investment gap (the company provides — surprise surprise — backhaul network gear), I don’t have trouble believing these figures. If anything they feel intuitively a little conservative: we know that there are bottlenecks in the UK’s mobile networks today, and data consumption is increasing incredibly fast.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch
When demand for data outstrips supply capacity like this it has become known in the telecoms industry as a capacity crunch. Backhaul looks likely to be the latest in a series of crunches that have happened at different points throughout the communications networks over the years. There will be more: there are already rumours about a coming crunch in fixed-line (i.e. your home and business broadband) networks in the near future.
It’s not surprising that networks don’t scale evenly to meet demand. Nor that there’s sometimes a lag between demand and the supply to meet it. This is the nature of the market, particularly in an industry where demand is scaling so rapidly.
The alternative is to build based on forecast capacity. But we’ve been through that before too: it happened across the world during the dotcom boom. One client of mine bought and built itself a global network on the basis of forecasts of demand for internet services. At its height in 2000 the company was valued at $37billion. By the end of the following year it had been through Chapter 11, a form of voluntary bankruptcy, and acquired by Cable & Wireless for just $800m.
The company was called Exodus Communications. No-one wants to risk being the next Exodus.
CES has been the subject of much debate in the tech media the last few days. For the first time I can remember it has not just been geeks salivating at the prospect of more shiny stuff to play with. Some have been genuinely questioning the point of a hardware-focused show in a social, software-driven age.
While some nice gadgets have been announced, there’s no new revolutions appearing that weren’t already in progress. Just about the only major stories from CES so far seem to be about TVs.
This spurred a quick chat I had with BBC Merseyside tonight about growing TVs: with the advent of 84 inch TVs at CES, the presenter wanted to know how big you really need your TV to be. Like any good analyst, I answered his question with a question: what is a television for?
What IS a Television For?
‘Television’ combines two words: ‘tele’ meaning distant and ‘vision’ meaning, well, vision. You can’t say this is inaccurate based on current usage, but the word ‘television’ conjures up very specific ideas for me. Families crowding around a flickering set for appointment viewing like Corrie or the FA Cup final. Dodgy aerials that always needed adjusting. Constant fiddling to get a better picture. That for me was ‘television’. The name describes not just the box in the corner but the programming it carried and the over-the-airwaves means by which that programming was delivered.
The modern television is very different. Appointment viewing is limited to live events and the big reality shows (though even those seem to be declining). Increasingly what we watch through our screens it is not broadcast over the airwaves and it is not watched synchronously with the rest of the nation. It is piped through an internet connection and watched at our leisure. It is interactive content fed from a games console. And increasingly it will be information and applications delivered from the cloud.
For me what was the ‘television’ is really today just another screen. An interactive interface to the morass of applications and content in the cloud that increasingly hosts and defines our day-to-day lives. Less and less will the TV be restricted to video content: more and more it will be a means of accessing calendars, shopping lists, news, games and communications.
The Future Will Be Televised
So what is going to change to enable this?
One interesting development at CES was the multi-user TV, that enables two people to simultaneously watch different programmes on the same TV in high definition. Today this uses glasses but you can imagine some form of micro-mirror based system that enables pixels to be restricted to a narrow field of vision focused on individuals whose head position is tracked around the room.
Motion and voice control is already here in high-end TVs, and combined with the smartphone and tablet these herald the end of the remote control. Not a decade too soon either. Finer gesture control will give us the slickness of tablet-style touch on wall-sized screens.
And these are very much a reality. Once manufacturers nail down how to mass print OLED screens on flexible substrates, 84in screens will fast become normal and even small. Why not have a fully interactive wall if it can be shipped like wallpaper, doubles as room lighting and costs little to run?
Content will not come over the airwaves. Why have a dedicated chunk of the spectrum devoted to TV when any kind of content can be delivered more efficiently over the internet? The only kind of aerial you may find on a TV will be for Wi-Fi or whatever has replaced it.
None of this is far away. Around ten years ago I bought myself a top of the range TV. One of the last CRT models, the Panasonic TX-36PD30. Plasma panels were available but they were expensive and didn’t yet deliver the best picture. It had a 36in screen and a list price of over £2000. But by today’s standards it was a relic: enormous body and bezel, small screen, all analogue connections, and totally dumb compared to the smart, svelte, internet-connected digital panels that seem to grace most homes now. Jump ten or twenty years into the future and the ‘smart’ TVs of today will look equally Neanderthal.
The challenge for the TV industry is finding successful ways to make revenue from this newly diversified pattern of watchingRead More