Think Big - Wireless versus Mobile

Today, we are inundated on a daily basis with information and news about Smartphones and Tablets, the Mobile Internet, and 4G Wireless.   In particular, the terms wireless and mobile seem to be used interchangeably without much thought.  So are we in the mobile wave or the wireless wave and what’s the difference?

Early wireless solutions provided a means for making calls or sending bits between two stationary users through the air instead of over wires.  Then came cellular or mobile networks, with a new set of user devices, that allowed people to communicate from almost anywhere on the move.  Today, those same mobile networks are allowing us to do everything from accessing the internet and watching a movie, to navigating our way to a store and checking the status of our pets.  And just to make somewhat confusing, many of the things we will connect to via these networks are not mobile, like our refrigerators, electric meters, or TV sets.

While the mobile device and smartphone revolution has been remarkable by empowering users with broadband and computing anywhere they go, the more transformative revolution is just emerging, the “Internet of Things”.  There will be nearly 10 billion things connected by the end of 2012 and only about half of them will be people.  By some estimates (like the Word Wireless Research Forum), this could grow into the trillions by 2020.  Yet up until the present, the hundreds of millions of connected objects such as truck fleets, environmental sensors, and smart meters were considered part of the closed “Machine-to-Machine” or M2M world, virtually inaccessible from standard consumer devices.  (Even the term "Machine-to-Machine is intimidating to the average person!) This is changing.  Fueled by the integration of technologies such as WiFi, Bluetooth, QR Codes, NFC, and Zigbee into mobile devices, we are lowering the barrier for people to interact with objects and open up a new category of innovations we call P2M or “People to Machines”.

With a few touches on your smartphone or tablet, you can check for an open parking spot from a meter, text your oven to preheat before you get home, turn the air conditioner on or off, get a tweet from your pet’s collar when they eat, or view the ingredients of a product when you scan it.  Wireless is the pervasive cloud that ties all of these things together to enable new forms of interaction.  The figure below illustrates how mobile is just a subset of the broader ecosystem that wireless ties together.


It is important to note that Mobile users have some very unique needs and expectations that differentiate them from fixed wireless users.  While Mobility REQUIRES wireless as the medium (since people would not want to walk around with a long cord attached to them), Mobility implies immediacy, or communications and applications within "arms reach".  It also increases the value of location, context, and proximity as critical to understanding the users needs, much more so than with fixed wireless users or things.  For instance, serving a mobile coupon up to a customer 1 hour after he has left the store probably has a lot less value than serving it up just as the customer walks out the door to shop. It would also be nice to know that a Mother is shopping with her daughter and son (based on proximity) versus alone to decide what type of offer to send her.  Lastly, mobile is implicitly social as you tend to want to share or get feedback at the instant you are experiencing something.  In fact social media is now the most used application on mobile devices, even more than web browsing. 

Mobile and Wireless are inextricably linked, with wireless being the enabler for mobile, and mobile having its own unique characteristics versus fixed wireless users or objects.    And while the “Mobile Wave” in itself has driven incredible innovation and is the hot term du jour for analysts to talk about, we need to think more broadly to unlock the full potential of the Wireless Wave which will include many more “things” than just those that are mobile.  Because the innovations around people connecting to things, or “P2M”, could be bigger than anything we have ever seen.  Think Trillions.  Think Big.

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This page contains a single entry by Scott A. Snyder published on January 28, 2012 3:14 PM.

Microsoft's Potential "End-around" in Smartphones was the previous entry in this blog.

Thousands of Eyes: Using the Digital Swarm to Find Things is the next entry in this blog.

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