Differentiating Crummy Handsets from Great Networks
KDDI’s 3G network is a success (3,293,300 subscribers as of Oct. 31) because the network is great, there is nationwide coverage (due to backwards compatibility), and the handsets are **really** terrific – not because W-CDMA is bad. I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Asia’s 3G edge in mobile-phone market” on the Straits Times’ site yesterday; it may be this week’s news of most lasting significance. The authors state this regions’ advanced handsets – with color displays, data capabilities, and long battery life – give Asian makers like Sharp, NEC, Panasonic, and Samsung a clear technological advantage over rivals in Europe and the US.
Consequently, European makers are facing the risk that Asian manufacturers will steal the handset and terminal lead.
There is some good evidence to support this. The authors point out that Vodafone, “traditionally a major buyer of equipment from the likes of Nokia, Motorola, and previously Ericsson,” has chosen two Asian makers (as well as Nokia) to provide terminals for Vodafone Live!, the magacarrier’s new flagship data service.
The authors credit this reversal in fortune with the Europeans’ choice in underlying bearer technology: W-CDMA. Euro carriers are “still experiencing technical hitches including ‘dropped calls’ when users move between 2G and 3G network-coverage areas.” As a result, it does not appear that Europe will see widespread commercial deployment of 3G until much later in 2003.
The Asians, meanwhile, have rolled out CDMA2000 1X- and CDMA2000 1X EV-DO-based networks, which provide full backward compatibility and suffer from no interoperability problems (Euro handset makers like Nokia produce few CDMA handsets and no ・er-cool clamshell design models).
Thus, “In Korea, operators are already starting to reap the rewards of 3G with higher customer spending on the latest data services. Users with colour-screen 3G phones spend around US$7.50 a month on data services, over seven times more than the amount spent by other users.”
In a similar vein, I was recently told by a WWJ visitor that, “CDMA technology is superior to DoCoMo’s W-CDMA,” and “The surprise would be if W-CDMA would ever be competitive with CDMA. DoCoMo has made a serious error in the technology they have chosen.”
I believe that the authors of the Straits Times’ story and the WWJ visitor are getting a couple of points discombobulated.
First, there is no doubt that DoCoMo’s difficulties in trying to make W-CDMA work in Japan and the Euro carriers’ forced wait until W-CDMA infrastructure can be built (and paid for) are allowing CDMA-using carriers to leap ahead in the 3G race; that doesn’t mean that W-CDMA is dead or “bad.”
Ironically, many of FOMA’s tribulations to date (in addition to the lack of coverage pending base station build-out) can be blamed squarely on the clunky handsets (with ultra-short battery life).
When will this improve? When the Japanese makers start turning out much-improved W-CDMA models (like the much-improved already existing CDMA models), as is due to happen around year’s end, and not when DoCoMo decides to switch to CDMA. 😉
In the meantime, I think it is disingenuous to claim that 3G (whether CDMA 3G or W-CDMA 3G or two tin-cans-on-a-string 3G) has boosted data usage in Korea and Japan. In fact it’s the other way around: the mobile Internet began ‘way back in 1999 with i-mode on 2G PDC cellular – slow, tired, old 2G – and conversely the strong usage of mobile data in Japan has helped to establish a thirst for the expanded bandwidth that 3G provides.
In the meantime, Japan’s CDMA operator, KDDI/au, has yet to offer any new 3G-bandwidth-optimized data services. The data services that exist now – GPS, EZmovie, movie mail, nado, nado – existed prior to the launch of CDMA2000 1X in March this year (a new CD-music service was announced this week – see news item below). Isn’t this an odd situation if we are to believe that 3G data services are the driver of CDMA success?
KDDI’s 3G network is a success (3,293,300 subscribers as of Oct. 31) because the network is great, there is nationwide coverage (due to backwards compatibility), and the handsets are **really** terrific (see wireless notes section below) – not because W-CDMA is bad.
My time spent working on WWJ over the past year has taught me one salient lesson: For subscribers, the handset – and its voice communication ability – is everything. It is the alpha and the omega, the start and the finish, the embodiment of the network (whatever the bearer architecture), and the porta-portal for all those data services.
If the handset is crummy, so is the network (Did someone shout “FOMA?”); if the handset is great, and can provide useful voice and data services, then it doesn’t matter what the bearer network is. Ironically, making the bearer network immaterial is one of the biggest (and so far unclaimed and little-touted) success of CDMA to date.
When all is said and done, however, don’t credit the Japanese celly makers with **too** much glory. My wife has had her Panasonic P209iS for about two years now, and she still hands it over to me whenever she wants to capture a received call number into the address book. She’s a professional, extremely clever woman (she married me, after all… ;-)) who uses IT every day in her work, but has never had the time to devote a weekend to learning all the input screens and access menus. Can’t these dang things be made simpler?