What I want, what I really, really want
What I want, what I really, really wantMobile phones are expected to owned by 200 millionsubscribers by the end of this year. It must be the most ‘gotta have’ product of the decade.David Manners reports.
What is the most successful electronics product of all time? The telephone? The TV? The digital watch? The electronic calculator? The PC?
It could be none of these. It could be that the most successful electronic product of all time is the mobile phone.
This year, for the first time, sales of mobile phones are expected to overtake the PC and, last year, sales of the PC, for the first time overtook the sales of TVs.
Whereas the TV has been around for 50 years, the PC has been around for only twenty years, and the mobile phone has been around for little more than a decade.
The rise of the mobile phone has been a phenomenon. Little more than a pricey fashion item ten years ago, mobile phones are expected to owned by 200m subscribers by the end of this year.
What’s more, the numbers of new subscribers to mobile phone networks are growing by 50 per cent a year and, at present rates, mobile phone subscribers will exceed the numbers of subscribers to fixed link networks (growing by only ten per cent a year) by 2003 or 2004.
By then, at current growth rates, the number of mobile phone subscribers in the world will be more than 1.3bn – not bad in a world which presently has five and a half billion people – and a the wonderful thing for mobile phone manufacturers when one third of all mobile phone subscribers change their phones every year. That’s the stuff of commercial gravy trains.
There are some golden markets for mobiles – like China – where the growth of mobile subscribers has already overtaken the growth of fixed link phone subscribers – and China is expected by the World Bank to be the world’s largest economy by 2020.
Even more heady growth for the mobile phone could come from the recent realisation by governments that there’s gold in them there frequencies.
The US government sold off frequencies to potential network operators of digital wireless networks for some $17bn in 1995 and 1996.
Governments, like the rest of us given the chance, simply love getting cash for selling fresh air. The success of the US government’s frequency auction has prompted the UKgovernment and others around the world to prepare their own plans for an airwaves sell-off.
And the great thing about governments’ greed is that they’ll try and sell as many frequencies as they can in order to make as much money as possible. That means – hopefully – there’ll be lots of operators, and lots of operators trying to cut each others’ throats means that prices for calls will tumble.
While prices for calls tumble, the costs of phones will tumble. Already the cost of phones is cheap because their prices are heavily subsidised by the network operators.
However in a new digital wireless world order of many operators competing at cut-throat prices for the available business, there may not be the same margins available to subsidise mobile phones.
Never fear. These will continue to get cheaper and cheaper. Whenever an electronic product gets reduced to a single chip, its cost tumbles. Look at electronic watchers and calculators. Single chip status reduces the cost of these products to give-aways.
And digital wireless telephones have already been reduced to two chips and will be down to single chip status within a few years.
As CMOS structures get made at the 0.35 micron and quarter micron level they are able to cope with the high frequencies – in the GHz range – needed for wireless communications.
That means that CMOS technology will be able to integrate radio frequency circuitry and baseband processing circuitry on the same chip.
And that means – with workhorse CMOS technology able to churn our mobile-phones-on-a-chip in vast quantities for ever-decreasing cost – consumers will be able to pay market prices for their phones.
And those prices should decline at the chip industry’s learning curve rate of 30 per cent a year.
That’s a heady prospect for the mobile phone – maybe the most successful electronics product in history.