Since 3 Hong Kong launched its third-generation mobile services in January this year and it has received overwhelming response from the market. It is expected the market penetration rate will grow exponentially when the three other licensed operators, including CSL, Smartone and Sunday, roll out their services and more 3G handsets become available.
It will take two years for 3G to become the mainstream in mobile communications. This is forecast by Cedric So, general manager of the Personal Communications Sector of Motorola Asia Pacific. He thinks the situation is similar to the replacement of first-generation analog technology by 2G, which first appeared in 1993 and dominated the market by 1995. "It takes time for new technology to stabilise and gain maturity," says Mr So. "Mobile users, on the other hand, are employing a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of a wider selection of 3G services and related handsets." Mr So believes that the strategy of network operators to include the price plan (for video and voice calls, text and multimedia messaging, data communications, etc.) and value-added services, is critical to development of the 3G market.
The major advantages of 3G are its high-speed communications and large bandwidth. It makes it possible for wireless multimedia communications, such as video calls or even multi-party video conferencing, with a mobile phone. As a multimedia device, a 3G handset should also support high-quality music and productivity functions, much the same as personal digital assistants (PDAs) with organiser, address book, calculator, e-mail and even web browsing features.
Compared with the Wi-Fi technology for mobile computing, 3G has the advantage of being truly mobile, says Mr So. Wireless communications with Wi-Fi had to be undertaken in dedicated hotspot locations, without the wide coverage offered by 3G. Nevertheless, the current speed of 3G equipment is still slower than Wi-Fi.
PDAs will be replaced by smart phones
Regarding 3G mobile telephones, there are two major directions of development, according to Mr So. Targeting ordinary users, one development focus is on the appearance, including the size, weight and housing, and the multimedia functions of mobile phones. The other trend concerns the development of so-called "smart phones", which have sophisticated communications and PDA functions. These target executive users, says Mr So, who thinks that PDAs, with declining sales, will be replaced by smart phones.
Currently, there are only four brands of 3G mobile phone available on the market. Suppliers include NEC, LG, Motorola and Sony Ericsson while 3G handsets from other major players such as Nokia are expected to come on stream soon. Motorola now offers two 3G mobile phone models in Hong Kong with another expected to be launched by year-end, according to Mr So. The major enhancements are on the product size, which will be more or less the same as a GSM phone, while the PDA functions including a mega-pixel digital camera that allows the user to shoot high-resolution pictures; they also boast video facilities and global satellite positioning (GSP) for location purposes. Battery life is also a concern as multimedia applications consume more power. Manufacturers therefore will keep on developing compact and energy-saving chipset components.
Convergence of IT and telecoms
Because most major mobile phone makers have their research and development (R&D) centres located outside Hong Kong, they do not look for local R&D talents. Instead, they seek field and test engineers, who are responsible for the empowerment of mobile phones on local 3G networks. There are both hardware and software field engineers. They, as well as radio engineers, have to fine-tune the new phones with local 3G networks in order to optimise performance. Testing engineers have to ensure delivery of anticipated results, such as data throughput.
Unlike a traditional voice network, 3G is an Internet Protocol technology that supports data as well as voice communications. In addition to understanding the logic of a mobile phone, engineers need related networking knowledge and experience in the IT industry, says Mr So. For example, they need to know the encryption technique for Digital Right Management (DRM), which restricts re-distribution of downloaded music.
It is the challenge of mobile phone makers and engineers to strive for a balance between power and performance, says Mr So. Unlike computers, mobile phones are subject to more constraints such as limited processing power, memory, electricity and size. On the other hand, Mr So thinks it is most satisfactory to be able to achieve the targeted results with limited resources. He says it is the common goal of all mobile phone manufacturers to create a mobile multimedia device for everyone that supports voice and video and serves a variety of functions, from communication and entertainment to productivity.
In order to support the engineering work of the technical team, Mr So says his company has sent its engineers to the US and Europe for training. In particular for 3G, he thinks the development should move even faster in Japan, where the first 3G mobile services in the world were launched in 2001. Regarding other continuous learning opportunities, Mr So believes there is nowhere else better than participating in on-job training with leading vendors, who can provide the latest trends in technology and market development.
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