WISMO shortens development cycles

A wireless module maker from France says its upcoming “quadband” chip solves the conundrum of short life cycles and long development times for handset manufacturers, although one industry observer says the device would appeal primarily to niche players.

Wavecom SA in September unveiled plans for its latest Wireless Standard Module (WISMO), a sliver of silicon designed to make mobile handsets operating on general packet radio service-enhanced global system for mobile communications networks (GPRS/GSM) more globally minded.

Wavecom says the newest WISMO makes phones work on any of the four flavours of GPRS/GSM the world over, adding it’s the first of its kind. The module, due for launch in early 2003, lets phones connect on 850MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 1900MHz systems.

The time is right for just such functionality, said David McCartney, Wavecom’s vice-president, marketing and business development at the company’s San Diego office.

“Design cycles are actually longer than life cycles,” he said, explaining that if it takes 18 months to develop a new handset, the device is obsolete within a year. McCartney said WISMO, with its own protocol stack, could shorten the time manufacturers spend designing new phones.

Rather than build completely new handsets for each market, manufacturers could use WISMO to enhance current offerings.

Let’s say a handset builder wants to make a phone for 850MHz networks, but doesn’t have the research and development money to explore this new market. Rather than build a handset from scratch, the manufacturer could purchase WISMO, build it into an existing model, et voila, instant global GPRS/GSM connectivity, Wavecom says.

The new WISMO plays on current and future GPRS/GSM architecture, Wavecom says. For example, in the U.S. the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently opened the 850MHz spectrum for GPRS/GSM carriers. Meanwhile, in South America, many countries only offer the 850MHz band for wireless connections. WISMO allows manufacturers to design products for these markets, as well as areas where 900MHz, 1800MHz and 1900MHz systems come into play.

McCartney said manufacturers could program WISMO to search for service on any GPRS/GSM networks, thereby providing worldwide roaming for users.

Wavecom is targeting young handset manufacturers such as Handspring Inc., which already employs a dual-band WISMO in its mobile phone-PDA Treo product, McCartney said.

Still, “even the tier-one players are looking at this,” he said, noting that established companies like Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia would benefit from the shorter development time WISMO affords.

Warren Chaisatien, however, isn’t so sure that’s the case. The IDC Canada Ltd. analyst said well-known mobile players likely have the resources in house to create quadband functionality – and considering the heavy investment the big boys have in at-home R&D, they are less likely to consider WISMO.

“It would benefit the smaller players who do not have the deep pockets to develop dual-band and tri-band to compete with the Nokias and Ericssons of the world,” Chaisatien said.

McCartney said although Wavecom is discussing WISMO with potential customers, it’s too soon for the company to suggest client contacts for comment.

Wavecom is not out of the running with the market leaders, Chaisatien said. If the company could prove to the likes of Ericsson that WISMO is less expensive than in-house efforts, the handset builder might consider the module.

He also said Wavecom’s argument concerning short life cycles and long development times “makes sense. I think people change their handsets every 18 to 24 months.”

McCartney said it takes 45 to 80 engineers 12 to 18 months to develop a new handset.

But for handset manufacturer Nokia Corp., nothing beats building handset circuitry and software in house, said the company’s spokesman Keith Nowak in Irving, Tex. He added that by employing developers, Nokia more effectively integrates handset hardware and software than it would with third-party equipment.

Nonetheless, “We always look at what’s out there,” Nowak said. In time – after a proper evaluation – Nokia might consider WISMO for its phones.

Chaisatien pointed out that WISMO’s very existence exemplifies the state of the wireless world. Although some suggest GSM and competing code division multiple access (CDMA) networks will converge in the future, WISMO proves it won’t happen soon.

“This confirms that that vision is pretty far off,” Chaisatien said of CDMA-GSM convergence. “Even among GSM systems there are so many subsystems that don’t talk to one another.”

Handset manufacturers have plenty of time to decide whether or not WISMO is right for them. Wavecom’s latest isn’t due to hit the market until early next year. McCartney said pricing varies according to quantity. For more information, consult Wavecom’s Web site, www.wavecom.com.