Q&A: Mobile Standards Made Simple

REDMOND, Wash., July 14, 2004 — Mobile phones are the most common digital devices in the world, and they’re about to get more popular. Mobile phone sales in 2004 are expected to exceed 600 million units worldwide, according to projections in June from Gartner, Inc., meaning that one person in 10 worldwide will acquire a new mobile phone this year (see Related Links, right).

Beyond the brisk sales of mobile phones in emerging markets, the Gartner report also finds robust growth in established markets in Europe and North America, where consumers are replacing aging handsets with new mobile phones with increased functionality and the latest features.

The apparent ease with which new mobile phone capabilities such as text messaging, and the ability to take and send digital photos can be seamlessly deployed across the earth, are largely due to the behind-the-scenes dedication of dozens of mobile standards organizations. These standards bodies work to establish specifications to ensure that the world’s 1.5 billion mobile phones are able to connect with each other and provide consistent levels of service around the globe.

Mike Wehrs, Director of Technology and Standards

PressPass asked Mike Wehrs , Microsoft’s director of Technology and Standards, to provide an introduction to mobile standards, and to explain the importance and value of standards and the role they play in the development of new mobile services and devices.

PressPass: What are mobile standards and why are they important?

Wehrs: First of all, standards are part of any industry. At the simplest level, industry standards define an agreed-upon set of specifications that, if followed, will ensure that products will operate as expected. For instance, if you go to the store and buy a blender, you expect to bring it home, plug it in and find that it works. However, behind the scenes a number of standards exist to guarantee that the blender will function in your home — for instance, that the plug will fit the electrical outlet and the electricity is the correct voltage to run the appliance. There are sets of standards interacting here that were agreed upon long ago by appliance manufacturers, electrical utilities and the people who make electrical outlets. Because of them, you can buy a new appliance, plug it in and find that it works just as anticipated.

With products as sophisticated as mobile phones and wireless devices, standards are very complex. When you turn on a mobile phone, link to your wireless network and place a simple phone call, this series of actions requires that over one hundred standards be in place. Standards not only determine the phone’s basic functionality — that the battery powers the circuitry, the components turn on and off, and the keypad lights up — but also how the phone interoperates in a network of other phones and mobile services.

PressPass: Why are mobile standards so complex?

Wehrs: Think about something as basic as how humans greet each other and how culturally specific these rituals are. I may approach a stranger, extend my hand and expect a handshake in return. That person may approach me, bow and expect me to bow in return. For each of us, the expected interchange of greeting does not happen even though each of us uses what seems to be standard greeting behavior. The same thing happens with mobile standards if one company uses one standard and a second company uses another. An otherwise well-designed mobile phone that can’t recognize the signal from a broadcast network won’t do anyone much good. The handshake doesn’t happen.

To be effective, standards also need to be sufficiently specific. Going back to my handshake-bow example, if a standard for human greeting merely specified, “Upon meeting, you will greet,” then we could both follow our own standard but not connect as desired. To be effective, the standard would need to specify, “Upon meeting, you will shake hands.” That standard should be sufficiently specific to allow the expected level of communication to take place.

Mobile standards are sets of precise directions that seek to guarantee that the basic functionality of devices and networks in the mobile world will work together. So let’s say when you turn on the phone, you decide to call a friend who has a mobile phone made by a different manufacturer and who gets phone service from a different wireless network than you do — to make that phone call requires a great many standards to already be in place. When you add new functionality, such as sending and receiving text messages or digital photos using a mobile phone, you begin to realize how complex device interoperability is and why mobile standards are so important for the mobile device industry.

PressPass: How are mobile standards determined?

Wehrs: There are several types of standards. Some are determined by an official standards body, which has near-legal authority to mandate that certain standards be followed; these usually have to do with public safety and security. In the mobile devices industry, most of the newer standards are established by trade association standards bodies. In these groups, representatives of companies within an industry get together to agree upon the specifications of components and protocols that go into a device so that it will operate consistently and to expectations. A trade association standards group for mobile devices may include representatives from battery makers, manufacturers of radio receiver and liquid crystal display (LCD), and microwave tower network representatives — all the players involved in making sure that a device will work dependably. This group will establish the individual specifications, or protocols, that will determine how elements of the device must be built to ensure that it will work together in the device. Individual protocols are grouped into standards, and the standards become a kind of compendium that defines aspects of how the device must support certain features or capabilities. Standards also exist at the higher levels as well and define how data is passed within a network, such as sending text messages from one device to another.

Because mobile devices operate within a larger heterogeneous network, there is another aspect to mobile standards. Because customers expect to be able to make a mobile phone call and reach friends or family members who own different brands of mobile phones and subscribe to different mobile networks, it is necessary for companies that otherwise compete to agree upon standards so their devices can interoperate and services can flow seamlessly between networks. For instance, if you have a Motorola phone that operates on a Verizon network and you want to be able to call someone using a Samsung phone on a Sprint network, representatives of all these companies will need to agree to a shared set of standards.

PressPass: Can I add new standards to my phone to enable new services?

Wehrs: Most mobile phones can’t be updated in terms of new capabilities, so you should plan carefully when you purchase a new phone. For instance, if you think you will want the ability to send text messages from your mobile phone in the future, you should be certain that the phone you purchase supports Short Message Service (SMS) standards. You can always add the service from your mobile operator later, but it’s rarely possible to add the capability to the handset after it is manufactured.

However, one type of mobile phone is able to accept and evolve new functionality. Called smartphones, these devices operate as phones but are otherwise like small computers to which you can add new programs. So, just like you can add a new application to the operating system of your home PC, you can add new capabilities to your smartphone. When you purchase a smartphone, you are also purchasing the ability to add and evolve new functionality for the lifetime of the device.

PressPass: What mobile standards bodies and what industry forums is Microsoft involved in?

Wehrs: Microsoft is involved in over 50 IT and mobile industry standards organizations, including the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA). Microsoft participates in these organizations to ensure that standards evolve in such a way that innovation is encouraged, while still enabling backwards compatibility and interoperability. That is to say, we welcome the fact that standards-based development encourages healthy competition, but we also want to ensure that new or evolving standards do not leave behind consumers with older devices and that emerging standards enlarge the pool of devices that can communicate fully with each other. We also seek to ensure that standards do not get so specific as to limit innovation and reduce the opportunity that exists in the industry for new devices with new capabilities built on these standards

PressPass: What are Microsoft’s priorities when participating in mobile standards organizations?

Wehrs: One of Microsoft’s biggest concerns in the standards space is that “a person remains a person” in the sometimes fragmented world of mobile standards — that a normal human usage model is supported by wireless standards. That is to say, one person may have wireless devices and also have a set of standard wired or fixed devices. But that doesn’t mean that you’re either a wireless person or a fixed person — sometimes you’re on the go, other times you are at your desk. You shouldn’t be required to have two sets of digital content and systems, one mobile and one fixed, in order to interact with your devices. You should be able to access one system of information and content no matter how you access the network.

PressPass: What kind of mobile standards and services are Microsoft and the mobile industry working on presently?

Wehrs: One area we are working on is the evolution of standards for instant messaging while mobile so that mobile phones interoperate not only with one another (sending mobile to mobile) but also with the existing messaging architectures of the Internet (sending mobile to a PC and vice versa). Enabling this kind of interoperability goes back to my point earlier about sensible usage models: sometimes you’re mobile, sometimes you’re at your desk. Regardless, your messaging experience should be consistent, natural, and independent from the type of network you are using. As an industry, we’ve worked hard to improve the related standards, and you will see the fruit of this labor over the next year or two.

PressPass: What kind of standards evolution can we anticipate in the next five years and what mobile services will it enable?

Wehrs: You will see a continued blurring of distinctions between mobile and fixed devices. For instance, we will work to improve the standards that allow content to be passed between mobile devices and desktop PCs. Currently, you can’t send a photo stored on your PC to a mobile phone, and you can’t download a Windows Media or MP3 music file to your desktop PC and then upload it to your cell phone. The current standards for mobile and fixed devices don’t allow for this kind of cross-device transfer, and this will be one area that the industry will address in the near future.

PressPass: How will mobile devices themselves evolve in the coming years?

Wehrs: Today, the mobile phone is still primarily a phone, though, you can already use it to send text messages and take photos. The cell phone is poised to become even more of a universal digital tool as standards evolve. Soon, what’s now your cell phone will also be a Windows Media player and music storage device, and it will become an always-on calendaring tool. For instance, because your cell phone will have access to your personal digital calendar, it will be able to help anticipate your needs and behavior as your plans change. If you have a scheduled air flight, your cell phone could automatically go out onto the Internet and check the status of your flight. If your flight is delayed, then the phone could alert you to the delay, contact your rental car company to reschedule your reservation, and automatically send an e-mail to the person you are meeting to let them know of your changed schedule. Our devices will act in our stead to plan and schedule. In fact, devices like this will be a kind of remote control for your personal networks and your electronic life.

PressPass: What would happen if individuals like you and companies like Microsoft were to stop engaging in standards forums?

Wehrs: It would mean that you would make phone calls that don’t ring on the other end; you’d send text messages that aren’t delivered. It would mean fewer choices and less interoperability between devices.

PressPass: How does the evolution of mobile standards affect other Microsoft initiatives?

Wehrs: Microsoft has a set of criteria that we use to determine our involvement with new standards: The proposed standard needs to solve a real problem, not resolve an already solved one; tie into business or technology strategies, and ultimately bring value to the end user. We don’t get involved in standards organizations just for fun. However, when standards are set correctly, they make everyone in the industry stronger. Because they define aspects of the playing field, standards enable companies to compete creatively and come up with new ideas and functionality. That’s great for the consumer and for our industry.

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