UMA Mobile Thoughts


PhoneScoop has the lowdown on a "UMA" phone from a company called Chi Mei. UMA stands for "Unlicensed Mobile Access", i.e. VoIP over WiFi. Though I've heard of this coming for a while, the acronym is new for me, and the form factor - a normal flip phone style - was surprising. I expected WiFi phones to be more like Nokia's communicator or a Treo than a normal phone.

Here it is! The holy grail of mobile data access that many people in Silicon Valley have been waiting for! :-) Well, that may be the case, but I don't see it making a big impact on the market any time soon. Here's why: Who are the customers of the handset manufacturers? It's not you or I, it's the carriers, and most have invested countless billions of dollars into expensive Voice and 3G networks world wide. Buying this phone and reselling them to their customers would be like shooting themselves in the head (they still get 90% of their revenues from voice). They're just not going to buy those phones, and if the carriers aren't selling them, consumers probably aren't going to have them either.

Look at Nokia's webcast from 3GSM and you see they are falling over themselves to get back into the good graces of the carriers. The 6101 flip phone and the 6680 smart phone were both born to be customized and branded by the carriers, from the OS to the packaging to the model numbers. I've already seen 6680, 6681, and 6682 models announced, all which are slightly different at targeted at specific carriers. The big N forgot who their real customer was a year or so ago, and paid the price for their hubris. Do you see a UMA phone coming from them any time soon? Maybe, but not in any real numbers.

I'm assuming that UMA phones will also have data access as well, no? That's fine, but I honestly, I don't think WiFi phones will really be able to compete against a fully rolled-out 3G network. I was house hunting today with my laptop in the passenger seat, continually connected to IM, Craig's List and Yahoo Maps via Bluetooth to my phone's cellular data connection. I would pull over, get a new listing and directions, and take off for my new destination. My WiFi card was there plugged in as well, but there just weren't enough hotspots to actually be useful. But with EDGE cellular data, I had a 120kbps connection everywhere. This will be even a better experience when 3G connection speeds arrive sometime in the next year.

Now, yes. If you read PhoneScoop's article it talks about the promise of VoIP over WiFi as the main selling point and Moto is doing something with Skype, etc. Everyone wants to do an end-run around the telcos. I can see it happening... there's too many companies competing and too many ways to do it for some big attempts not to be made very soon. But I think everyone will be hedging their bets and limiting these phones is severe ways. There just won't be an "open" UMA platform which works like you'd want it to: i.e. "An open OS phone computing device which uses voice and data via standard IP protocols with broadband speeds charged at a flat rate." I mean, I'd love to see it as the next guy, I hope I'm wrong, but I don't thinks so.

All that said, there could be some spoilers out there no? T-Mobile is really behind when it comes to both rolling out 3G here in the U.S. and also have the lowest number of subscribers. They might very well decide to stick it to the Verizon's and Cingulars by rolling out UMA phones to the masses and seeing what happens. They don't have much to lose, do they?


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