This year was a good one for the wireless industry despite the ongoing economic downturn, thanks to the success of the smart phone. But lots of other wireless products, services, and technologies emerged as well, heralding even greater achievements next year.

Smart Phones Pop

Smart phones have been the smallest handset category for years with only a few real devices on the market, including some RIM BlackBerry and Nokia models, the Palm products, and the Apple iPhone. Yet this year, we saw a huge range of new products and a serious increase in smart-phone sales. The new products included Apple’s 3G and 3GS iPhones, the BlackBerry Storm, the Palm Pre and Pixi, the Motorola Cliq and Droid, and a whole batch of phones based on the Android operating system.

It was good to see Motorola and Palm back in this business and I hope they both do well. The Pre and Droid seem to be great products in a tough segment. And let’s hope Nokia gets back on track. Throw in the big app movement, and we have a major growth sector and a very interesting future. The smart phone is the product of the hour and everybody’s “don’t leave home without it” accessory. Expect more to come in 2010.

Other 2009 Highlights

  • New cell-phone players: Everyone wants to get into the billion-plus handset market. Even Dell and ZTE now have or will have new products, especially in the huge and growing Chinese market.
  • Netbooks: These small PCs represented another big surge in 2009. They’re actually more like communications devices than productive office PCs with their Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity. We will see more netbooks next year too, and their massive presence will mean lots of activity on Wi-Fi and 3G networks.
  • Rollout of 3G: The operators have continued to build out their 3G networks. Verizon is probably in the lead here, but AT&T has been very active in adding HSPA networks in major markets. AT&T will continue its HSPA push, while Verizon will get to Long-Term Evolution (LTE) first.
  • Final 802.11n Wi-Fi: Yes, it’s true. The IEEE 802.11n standard got ratified this year. It took so long I lost track, but it was many years, which is way too long. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop manufacturers from going ahead with “Draft” products that have been very successful. All of those companies waiting for the final standard now can comfortably move ahead with 11n rollouts. Higher speeds and improved reliability thanks to multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) should greatly improve wireless local-area network (WLAN) performance. What’s the next big thing for Wi-Fi?
  • Wireless broadband: We have been talking about wireless broadband for years, but we finally saw results with the introduction of Clearwire’s WiMAX network. The initial performance is encouraging, and we will see more wireless broadband in the coming year. Stimulus money and the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) broadband initiatives should move this forward nicely.
  • White space: This year, we also got white space when analog TV switched off in June with lots of spectrum available for unlicensed wireless projects. So far, we’ve only seen some demo projects that have worked well. We should see some real products in the coming year, unless the FCC changes its mind and takes that spectrum away to auction it off for broadband efforts, as some parties want.
  • The femtocell enigma: The femtocell movement has been in the works for years, but there have been few adoptions and even fewer actual customers. Operators are still testing femtos, and lots of reference designs are available. Analysts have cut back their projections drastically. Is there a real need and benefit, or is this just a technology looking for a market? Maybe we will see next year.
  • E-readers: Last year saw a growth spurt for e-readers. Amazon’s Kindle did well and spurred interest with consumers as well as other e-reader manufacturers. Now we have another consumer mobile device category. Expect more e-readers like the Barnes & Noble nook and Sony Reader Touch Edition to come. Some will even have embedded cell phones.
  • Mobile TV: This movement is gaining strength. More operators are offering broadcast TV service thanks to the MediaFLO effort. Look for more down the line as more handsets get TV receivers.

2010 Forecast

My crystal ball is a bit cloudy, but here are a few things I see coming.

  • LTE: Long-Term Evolution is almost upon us. Trials continue, but service is expected to be available in select areas of Europe and maybe even here in the U.S. Handsets are scarce, and nobody knows what kind of battery life they will have. LTE will see gradual adoption as some carriers try to get a head start over others while some will continue to roll out improved 3G networks and extend their investment a year or so more.
  • More and better smart phones: Look for an amazing array of these devices as consumers come to accept them and the amazing variety of features they offer. On the design side, maybe we should prepare for a power-management crisis. The wide availability of a huge number of apps is really helping to drive the growth of this market.
  • More WiMAX: The growth of Clearwire’s broadband network should continue making wireless broadband available more widely around the country. We may even begin to see laptops and netbooks with embedded WiMAX.
  • Backhaul overhaul: The operators are widening their efforts to fix the backhaul bottleneck that will surely limit wireless 3G and 4G data services, especially due to the video explosion.
  • M2M, the silent cellular giant: The machine-to-machine (M2M) cellular movement did well in 2009 and is expected to grow massively in the years to come. 2010 should be a good year as the big guns like AT&T and Verizon are starting to get involved. We should see more goods and services. The embedded cell phone is also taking off thanks to its inclusion in the Kindle and other E-readers and similar devices. Expect more similar products to come.
  • Lots more regulation: Under the Obama administration, the FCC is gearing up to regulate all sorts of wireless and communications services. Net neutrality will go into effect after a short battle that the carriers and operators will probably lose. It will impact wireless network plans—not to mention pricing of broadband services. The FCC will also implement broadband rules to better serve rural areas and regions that lack high-speed Internet service for all. This could affect spectrum allocations, helping a few and hurting others. There’s no telling what else the FCC has in store for us. Pray for leniency.

Overall for the mobile and wireless space, 2010 should be another good year. We wish a happy and prosperous 2010 to you all.