Too Many Standards?

With AT&T Wireless announcing the launch of its 3G UMTS network last week, NTT DoCoMo discussing plans for 4G, Wi-Fi use spreading nationwide, and WiMax on the way, the growing number of wireless standards threatens to become increasingly confusing both for consumers and for the industry as a whole.

A new report by ABI Research entitled Broadband Wireless — Last Mile Solutions contends that the success or failure of these standards will depend entirely upon consumer demand.

It’s a pretty straightforward concept: assess standards based on their real value in response to a clear need in the marketplace, not in response to hype. Lance Wilson, senior wireless analyst at ABI, says consumers have to be able to see past the hype in order to choose the solution that best fits their needs.

“All these different services overlap each other to a certain extent,” he says. “What’s going to ultimately drive the marketplace is demand from a quantity standpoint, and a qualitative demand in terms of what a customer’s looking for.”

One good example of that need for clear customer demand, Wilson says, is the relatively slow adoption of 3G. “There were technical issues there, of course, and lack of handsets, but really there still hasn’t been a compelling case made for data within the context of cellular,” he says. “The biggest data thing right now is downloading ringtones and SMS messaging.”

Still, Wilson says, that certainly doesn’t mean that 3G will never be an appropriate solution, particularly for situations in which consumers want access to streaming video while mobile. “Consumers as a group are pretty smart, and they generally find out rather fast what works, what’s the cheapest, and what’s the best technology for any particular task that they’re trying to do,” he says.

The lesson for the industry, Wilson says, is to keep in mind that each technology has its purpose. “Right now, we’re in danger of WiMax being horrendously over-hyped,” he says. “It is a wireless technology, one among many, and it’s going to have its place, but I think to cavalierly say that it’s going to in a wholesale sense replace cable and DSL is a bit of a stretch–but that actually is happening.”

Each technology seems to go through that period of over-hyping, but Wilson says it’s crucial to keep the target audience in mind. “Go and explain to your wife or your next door neighbor why she would want WiMax or 4G,” he says. “They don’t care what it is. All they care about is, what can it do in a given instance for them? We tend to over-hype ourselves, and I think it does the industry great damage.”

Instead, Wilson suggests, keep in mind that each technology has its strengths. “All of these different services are going to find their niche,” he says. “I don’t think one is going to necessarily replace all of the others, which is what the hype would have you believe. The marketplace, the need, and the state of the technology at any given time is going to determine which of these services to use when.”

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