The Wild and Wonderful Future of Wireless

The wireless industry is in the middle of a transformation. That means there are many new opportunities going forward, but there are many new challenges as well. Which ideas, companies and sectors will win is the question.

I have been a wireless and technology industry analyst for more than 25 years. I have followed and worked with many companies as they changed the industry — and change continues. The annual CTIA conference is coming in May, and the technology and ideas demonstrated will be simply incredible.

The wireless industry looks very different from several years ago. What will it look like several years ahead?

Wireless Today

Even though the industry is growing, some handset makers and networks have succeeded, while others have struggled.

Apple has both the iOS operating system and the iPhone. Google is primarily concerned with the Android operating system. It works with various handset makers like Samsung. I’ve heard that Apple and Google dominate roughly 90 percent of the mobile OS market so far. Not bad for an idea that’s only a few years old.

Then there are numerous companies fighting to lead among handset manufacturers. Who will be No. 3? Two possibilities are past leaders like Nokia, which is partnering with Microsoft on a series of devices, and BlackBerry. Currently, both the Nokia Lumia 920 and the new BlackBerry Z10 are excellent devices. I have used both and like them.

These are very different in design. However, they have not yet broken through to compete successfully with Apple, Google and Samsung and take big market share — not yet, anyway.

Other companies also want to break into a leadership position with handsets, like Sony with its Xperia, Huawei, HTC, ZTE, LG and others.

On the carrier side, AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless are the strongest national networks in the U.S. They are also busy expanding into new markets, helping other industries reinvent themselves. As they grow, they are helping other industries grow through wireless as well.

Sprint Nextel is once again becoming a good carrier. It has put up a valiant fight over recent years to regain market share, but it is still struggling for growth. Now it wants to merge with Softbank. If this deal is approved, it may indeed help Sprint, but with new ownership, it may also become a very different competitor. Stay tuned.

T-Mobile has been struggling for growth for years. It is trying to reinvent itself with a new CEO at the helm. It has introduced innovative new billing plans and is now selling the iPhone. It is expected to close a merger deal with MetroPCS soon.

Let’s hope it can turn things around, because the industry needs large, strong, national competitors. Its performance has been disappointing in recent years. Are things getting ready to change?

C Spire Wireless is a strong regional wireless carrier with high speeds, popular phones like the iPhone, and very attractive pricing, which customers love.

U.S. Cellular is currently struggling. It is a good company in a weakened position. The question is will it get back on track in 2013?

On the prepaid side, companies like Tracfone have a strong wireless business but compete for a different segment of the marketplace and do it differently.

As you can see, wireless is winning and growing, but that’s not true for every competitor. Remember, however, these companies can change position over the next few years. There have already been many changes over the last few years and I expect that to continue.

So that’s where we are today. What about tomorrow? What will change?

Wireless Tomorrow

This is the exciting part of what I do. I get to talk with and follow the senior executives of the carriers and gain a pretty good understanding of the direction of companies and the industry in general.

I have talked with quite a few executives for various wireless networks, handset makers and app makers — as well as people from other industries, like automotive, healthcare and more — who are using wireless to reinvent the way they do business.

Today there are three things we don’t leave the house without: our wallet, our keys and our smartphone. Tomorrow we will just have to take the smartphone. That’s right, it will act as our wallet, storing credit card information, driver’s license, photos and the like.

As for our keys, the automotive industry has already given us the ability to have a FOB in our pocket and a push button on the dash to start, so why not just have that technology in our smartphone? It’s coming.

Leaders in the smartphone sector are changing. It’s not just about the technology any longer. It’s also about show business. It’s about marketing, advertising and public relations. It should be interesting to watch things develop.

One recent example: A few weeks ago, Samsung introduced its Galaxy 4 at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in what may have been the largest, show-biz type introductory event of all time for the wireless industry. This event raised Samsung in the mind of the marketplace.

That’s good — but how will it top that show next time? How will other companies compete? The bar is continually being raised. How do we top that?!

Another example is Facebook, which — like the Apple of six years ago — is not a wireless company. Yet it wants to reinvent the wireless business as well. It recently announced Facebook Home, attracting the kind of media attention that was unheard of a few short years ago. Check Google for how many stories were written. You’ll be amazed.

Like Apple, Facebook could indeed change the industry in new and uncertain ways. Be on the lookout for new opportunities.

Facebook is using wireless launchers to change the marketplace and grow its future. If successful, this will open the door to many other companies doing the same thing. This is a brand new sector in wireless — just like smartphones were a half dozen years ago.

I expect many other companies to jump into this space going forward. This goes far beyond this one company and this one launcher — even beyond more launchers from more companies.

Some customers will like Facebook Home, but others may like it just once in a while. Some users might like several different launcher home screens from different companies.

That means as a next step we have to come up with a way to manage multiple launchers or customized home screens. Who will develop that? Plus, think about developing your own personalized launcher. There will be lots of new competitors in this new segment.

There are other industries that want to use wireless to get a competitive advantage in the marketplace. All it takes is one established company to come up with an idea. After a short while, competitors will do the same thing — until all competitors have to offer it just to stay in business.

Then pull the camera back as industry after industry will start to use the wireless industry to update the business practices. Walk into a retail store, and technology will greet you and offer you personalized coupons based on past visits.

Healthcare also is being transformed. You can test your diabetes blood sugar numbers and send the results directly to your doctor for ongoing management, skipping a doctor’s appointment, thank you, yet getting better care.

New smartphone apps developed at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center are helping stroke survivors walk again. Imagine what else the healthcare industry has in store.

The same thing is happening in the automotive industry. Starting with companies like Lexus, Cadillac and Mercedes Benz, then Ford and now Chevrolet, this technology is new and exciting and will change our lives. The innovation wheel is just starting in industry after industry.

This is an opportunity for every industry and also a big-time opportunity for the wireless industry, which will be at the center of this new universe with handsets, apps and networks.

That’s why networks like AT&T Mobility and Verizon Wireless are plowing the road in this area. Helping every other industry is a huge growth opportunity for the wireless industry.

The big challenge today is bridging the gap — getting wireless executives and other industry executives to be able to communicate and understand each other so they can make these dreams come true. This is harder than you can imagine.

So today we are surrounded by plenty of challenges as well as opportunities. Expect new technologies that we haven’t even thought of yet as well.

Wireless will continue to grow, delivering new and innovative services to customers, and working with other industries. Some companies will win and others will struggle, but wireless in general will grow and remain healthy.

I look forward to learning and writing about the innovators and the companies taking leadership roles going forward. What ideas and technologies will emerge tomorrow? That’s an exciting question. There will be challenges and opportunities. The race is on whether you are a customer, investor or worker — so enjoy.

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is an industry analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

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