SiliconFilter

For Qualcomm, Making Mobile Browsing Better Starts at the Chip Level

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When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).

Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.

The difference between an optimized version of Android and the reference version from Google can often be quite dramatic. In Qualcomm's tests, for example, web pages render 20-30% faster in the optimized version and JavaScript programs are executed 70% faster. Qualcomm also optimized its processors to decode pictures faster, which leads to about a 25% improvement in rendering speed for JPEG images.

As Choudhury told me, this optimization happens at virtually all of the levels of the experience, most of which most users never think about. This ranges from how the browser talks to the network, to how it uses your phone's graphics hardware to make sure video plays without stuttering and all the way up to how your browser interprets JavaScript, the language most complex web pages today are written in.

Qualcomm browser web speed html5

Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.

With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption

All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.

Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?

Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.

Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative
 


7:30 am


Small Cells: Not Just for Getting 5 Bars at Home Anymore

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Small cells and especially the so-called femtocells that are currently used by mobile phone carriers to give their customers an option to fix bad reception in their homes. Slowly, though, it's becoming clear that these devices, which basically put a little cell phone antenna and base station in your house and then route data and calls through your wired Internet connection, will be able to do quite a bit more than just ensure that you get five bars on your cell phone when you are home. At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Alcatel-Lucent and other infrastructure providers to the carriers are now looking at other features that these cells can enable as well.

Today, I had a chance to talk to David Swift, Alcatel-Lucent's senior manager for product marketing small cell solutions, about the additional features that small cells and especially femtocells can enable.

What Are Femtocells Anyway?

When the telecom industry talks about small cells, it generally refers to two different kind of small base stations. The first are metro cells, which can cover small areas like a town square or a football stadium and provide cell-phone users there with enough coverage and bandwidth. The other group covers small femtocells which can be used in homes or businesses to provide better coverage and to offload traffic from the wider network. As Swift pointed out, the best way to think of these cells is as layers that are part of the general cell-phone network. The smallest of these devices is no larger than a small router and can be plugged right into any power outlet (see picture below). Some manufacturers like Netgear are also working on combining cable modems, wireless routers and femtocells into one device.

According to some analysts, the number of these cells in use will grow to somewhere around 62 million within the next three years.

Going Beyond 5 Bars

One advantage of these small cells, said Swift, is that they can now be used to provide location-based services. Your house could automatically turn on the lights or open the garage door for you, for example, when your phone is close enough to connect to the local network. Shopping malls and other venues could provide you with incentives or extra services when they sense that you are close.

On its stand here in Barcelona, Alcatel-Lucent is showing an augmented reality app, for example, that can alert users of deals and then point them to the right stores. This system would use the local small cells to triangulate your position with better accuracy than GPS, which doesn't work reliably indoors. This is somewhat similar to how others are doing indoor navigation today with the help of WiFi signals and there is no reason why developers couldn't combine both data sources to provide even more accurate indoor navigation.

With these small cells in place, carriers could also offer their customers additional services as well. Say you download a lot of podcasts, for example. Chances are, you don't want to download all of this data on the regular mobile network, but what if you could initiate the download on the go and then your phone would know when you are home and just download all the data later. You could do the same for large videos or apps, too.

Payments

Outside of the home, there are also interesting applications for this. A very low-power cell, for example, could enable an NFC payment solution without the need for special chips inside a phone and mobile carriers could enable you to use the equivalent of carrier billing to pay your groceries by just holding your phone against a very low-powered cell that only has a range of a centimeter or so.

Small cells were one of the hot topics at the Mobile World Congress this year. While at first it may seem like this technology is just about ensuring better reception for your phone, these little base stations and their larger brethren, the metro cells, could actually enable quite a few new applications and services in the very near future.

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8:15 am


The Future According to Eric Schmidt

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Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt took the stage at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this afternoon to talk about the role of technology in the “world we live in today” and how it will shape the societies of the future. Schmidt, for example, noted that the number of people who use smartphones is still very small, but “think how amazing the web is today with just 2 billion people” and what will happen when another 5 billion get online.

The Future According to Eric Schmidt

In Schmidt’s vision, societies will be split into three strata in the future and will be divided by how they use technology and how much access to it they have.

The privileged few, the hyper-connected, are likely to face a future that will only be limited by what technology can do. They will have access to unlimited processing power and high-speed networks in most major cities.

In Schmidt’s vision, this group will soon be represented by robots at multiple events at the same time while sitting in your office. For them, technologies that once looked like science fiction, will soon be available. Driverless cars, for example, will soon reduce accidents. At the same time, though, technology will actually become much easier to use and ideally just disappear.

Besides these high-connected folks, though, another group, which will also be well-connected but less so than the first group, will form the new global middle class in Schmidt’s future. This group, though, will use cheaper technologies for its work – though its members will focus less on building new services and products – and maybe use simpler technologies for telepresence, but still use technology effectively to do their jobs. This group, in Schmidt’s view, will also be made up of more sophisticated consumers and those who will be smart about using the Internet to organize politically.

A third group, though, will have no or only limited access to the Internet. This “aspiring majority,” as Schmidt calls them, will likely have some form of access to technology, but it will look different from what we expect today. Maybe, though, they will use mesh networks to create local networks that isn’t even connected to the wider Internet. For Schmidt, it seems, mesh networks represent the easiest and cheapest way to get these underprivileged users at least partly online.

What this will make possible, too, is for these users to share their experiences with the rest of the world, whether that’s a political uprising or a famine.

There will, however, in Schmidt’s view, still be elites and this digital divide will likely exist for quite a while. Technology, however will enable “the weak to get stronger and those with nothing will have something.”

Technologists will have to act now, though, to ensure that everybody will be able to participate in this future where everybody will be connected.

Ice Cream Sandwich and Chrome for Android

Very little about today’s keynote was focused on specific technologies, with the exception of Chrome for Android and the latest version of Android.

Talking about Ice Cream Sandwich, the most recent version of Android, Schmidt noted that he thought Google finally got the user interface right ‘for a global audience’ and stressed that most reviewers agreed with him. Implicit in this, of course, is an acknowledgement that earlier versions of Android weren’t quite as polished.

Schmidt was joined on stage by Hugo Barra of the Android development team at Google. Barra provided a demo of Chrome for Android, the mobile version of Chrome the company announced a few weeks ago. Schmidt used this opportunity to take a brief jab at other mobile operating system by calling Android “a real mobile operating system.” Barra demoed a number of the browser’s top features, including pre-loading, link preview, syncing between mobile and desktop, as well as the fact that Chrome doesn’t limit how many tabs you can have open at the same time.

 



10:14 am


MWC: Where Cutting Through the Wireless Noise is Hard for Even the Most Advanced Devices

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No doubt, LTE is among the hottest topics at the Mobile World Congress this year. For the Congress, Spanish wireless carrier Telefonica expanded its network to 64 cell sectors across the conference center and at strategic points around the city. Our friends at Alcate Lucent just gave a chance to test out a Quanta MiFi hotspot on this network. Sadly, though, the fact that there are probably more wireless devices per square foot here than anywhere else in the world right now makes for an interesting experience that ranges somewhere from amazing to absolutely frustrating.

While there are a number of dedicated small LTE base stations around the conference center, the sheer number of other devices, including at least one phone and laptop for every attendee, combined with the presence of numerous untested wireless devices on the conference grounds (many of which currently operate under a special license), makes for some interesting results.

At best, we got a nice 16 megabits of download speed and around 5 megabits for our uploads. That rivals what many of us get from our broadband connections and in combination with some of the iPad and iPhone apps that Telefonica and its partner Alcatel Lucent are showcasing here in Barcelona (including augmented reality apps and video conferencing), it is obvious that this shows the way of where mobile networking is going.

In this noisy environment, though, we often got very low results as well, though, which at times barely got to 0.2 megabits. The Mobile World Congress, though, is a special place. Even though it's the world's largest conference focused on mobile technology, it's actually surprisingly hard to get a decent WiFi connection over the conference network. Even the dedicated network for the press room here is often barely working…



4:37 am


Report: Femtocells Will Soon Make Up 90% of All Base Stations

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As our voracious appetite for mobile data services grows, the traditional cell phone infrastructure is reaching its limits, even with the ongoing deployments of faster networks and higher capacities on the backend. Femtocells and other small base stations then, which are basically small cellphone base stations that can be installed in homes and businesses, will continue to grow in importance, as they can offload a lot of the wireless demand onto existing wired connections. Accord to a new study by Informa Telecoms & Media, these small cells will grow from 3.2 million this year to over 62.4 million by 2012.

This staggering growth, says the report, will largely be driven by femtocells, whose installed base is projected to grow from 2.5 million this year to 59 million in 2016. While most consumers – assuming they are aware of this trend – tend to think of femtocells as ways to mediate bad cell phone connections inside a house or business, this report argues that they will likely become an important backbone of how we use wireless networks in the future.

Besides these femtocells, the study also projects that slightly larger base stations for larger businesses and public areas will also continue to got rapidly, though their projected install base (around 500,000 in 2016) is dwarfed by the projected demand for femtocells.

Currently, small cells are being used in 23 countries and there are already more 3G femtocells in use today than there are traditional large base stations.



1:31 am


Facebook Launches New Mobile Web Standards Initiative, Easier Payments for the Mobile Web

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During a special lunch-time event at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Facebook's CTO Bret Taylor introduced a number of new industry-wide initiatives for the mobile web. Facebook is also working with a number of other vendors to define better web standards that can be implemented across devices to ensure that users can get a consistent mobile web app experience across devices. The Core Mobile Web Platform, as this new group is called, will work to ensure that there are very specific mobile web standards that developers can expect to be available across devices and mobile browers.

As a part of this initiative, Facebook is also launching a test suite called Ringmark that will measure how well mobile browsers handle these new standards.

Mobile Web Payments

In addition, Facebook is also working with a number of large telecom companies to make payments on the mobile web easier. This, said Taylor, will give developers new ways to monetize their apps and hopefully drive innovation in the mobile web space. Instead of having to go through carrier billing and SMS-based confirmations, developers will be able to tap into Facebook's payment system and quickly confirm purchases.

More from Bret Taylor at MWC

Taylor, who was the co-creator of Google Maps and co-founder of FriendFeed prior to joining Facebook, noted that "Facebook and mobile phones were made for each other." As Taylor also noted, the features in your phone are interesting specs, but their real goal is to connect people. For Facebook then, mobile is a natural platform to be on. Taylor today argued that Mark Zuckerberg would probably have developed the mobile app first if he were starting Facebook today.

Taylor also announced that Facebook now has over 425 million users, many of which don't use smartphones, but still use feature phones. What's especially important to Facebook is that its OpenGraph API enables "anyone to share from any platform," no matter what phone they use. This also means, says Facebook, that its becoming easier to find interesting apps. Today, Facebook drives 60 million users to mobile apps and Taylor specifically noted how Facebook drives millions of people to Pinterest every day.

You can find more of our coverage of the MWC here and on live.orange.com.

Disclosure: Orange, which is a partner in some of these initiatives, sponsored my trip to Barcelona.



4:44 am


Opera Launches Opera Mobile 12 Browser for Android and Symbian, Opera Mini 7 For iOS

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Opera just announced the next version of its mobile browser for Android and Symbian, as well as a developer version of its more stripped-down Opera Mini browser. While the update doesn't feature any major changes in the user interface, the Opera team has made numerous changes underneath the surface. Most importantly, Opera added support for its advanced HTML5 parser Ragnarok, which should make running web apps on your mobile phone quite a bit faster. This will also allow developers to create more sophisticated web applications that can run in your phone's browser.

Another feature that should speed up the browsing experience is Opera's newly announced support for using your phone's or tablet's graphics hardware to accelerate 3D content in your browser.

In addition, Opera added support for using an Android device's camera in the browser, as well as support for web standards like CSS3 and CORS.

Even if you don't own an Android or Symbian phone, you will soon be able to use Opera's web-based and desktop emulators to try it out yourself. If you have Opera 12 installed on your phone or tablet, also have a look at the company's demo site.

Opera Mini: Version 7 for iOS and a New Developer Version

As for Opera Mini, Opera today launched the final version of Opera Mini 7 for iOS, as well as a developer version – Opera calls these 'Opera Next.' The Next version is Opera's way of beta testing new features before they are officially released. So if you want to get an early look at some of the browser's features (this version brings smoother scrolling and a new bookmarking interface, for example, give Opera Mini Next a try. It's available for feature phones using Java, as well as Android, Blackberry and S60 phones.

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3:44 am


Ford brings SYNC and AppLink to Europe

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At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona today, Ford announced that it is bringing its SYNC and AppLink platforms to Europe. After selling close to 4 million cars with its voice-activated hands-free platform in the U.S., Ford now plans to sell more than 3.5 million SYNC-enabled cars in Europe by 2015. SYNC will speak nine European languages and also feature Ford's Emergency alert system (that's SYNC 911 Assist in the U.S.). The first car to feature SYNC in Europe will be the also newly announced B-Max vehicle, but Ford plans to quickly bring it to other cars as well.

SYNC and AppLink

In addition to SYNC, Ford is also launching AppLink, its platform for connecting mobile apps to the car and controlling them by voice, in Europe. The company is actively looking for local partners here that will enable their mobile apps for Ford's system.

SYNC, which had been available in the U.S. for a few years now, will now also speak nine European languages. Given the multitude of countries SYNC has to work in, one of the most important features of SYNC here will be the new emergency assist feature, which will automatically detect where you are and call the right emergency service for the country you are in and then talk to the emergency services in the appropriate language.

Looking ahead, Ford noted that it wants to bring more cloud-based services to the car as well. In Ford's vision, you next car would automatically shut down the lights in your house when you leave your garage, for example, tell you about road-work and traffic jams and also find a parking spot for you.

 



1:37 am


Nokia at MWC: Lumia 900 Going Global, a 41MP Camera Phone & Smarter Asha Feature Phones

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Nokia today announced that its Lumia 900 Windows Phone flagship device is going beyond the U.S. and will soon be available as an HSPA+ phone worldwide. The company also introduced its new Lumia 610 phone, as well as its new 808 PureView camera phone with a 41MP resolution (though it's worth noting that this is achieved through interpolation).

The company also announced three new Asha feature phones at the Mobile World Congress today. In addition to the HSPA+ version, Nokia also announced that the Lumia 900 is coming to Canada as an LTE phone. During the press conference, Microsoft also announced that it has now made Windows Phone compatible for the Chinese market and Nokia will soon introduce these phones in China. The new Lumia 900 phones will cost about 480 Euros that's without carrier subsidies).

The Lumia will also now feature Nokia Reading, a new hub for finding and reading news, eBooks, feeds and other content. Microsoft also today announced its first beta of Skype for Windows.

In addition to its new hardware, Nokia also announced a new partnership with Groupon, that will bring daily deals to the company's phones.

Lumia 610

Nokia also today announced the Lumia 610. Nokia called it the "prefect introduction to Windows Phone for younger users" and highlighted its "generous curves" and "confident feel." The phone will come with the usual Windows Phone features, including support for social networking and gaming though Xbox Live. It will come preloaded with the standard Nokia feature (Nokia Maps, Drive, etc.), but it will also feature Nokia's new Transport tool for finding public transport options in about 500 cities.

The phone will retail for around 189 Euros and come in four colors.

808 PureView

Also announced today was the S40-based 808 PureView – a camera phone with a 41MP Carl Zeiss sensor and high performance optics. To deal with the massive size of these pictures, Nokia will make it easy for users to zoom in and share just parts of a picture.

The phone will also feature 5.1 channel Dolby Digital Plus surround sound.

Smarter Feature Phones

As Nokia noted, there are still billions of users out there that don't have feature phones and/or don't have data plans. In addition to these new feature phones, Nokia also announced its Nokia Life suite of products for these feature phones, though it's worth noting that the company is also making three free games from EA (Bejeweled, Need for Speed, and Tetris) available for these phones. Two of these phones, the Asha 202 and 203, will retail for around 60 Euros. Another, more high-end and social media-focused device, the Asah 302 (with a 1GHz processor) will also be available soon and retail for just under $100.

The Asha phones will also support Microsoft Exchange for the Asha 302 and the previously announced 303, making it "well equipped for business use."

Nokia Life

Nokia Life is focused on education, financial information and other services that can be delivered over SMS or through phone calls. Nokia Life also includes a sharing feature With this service, the company is clearly aiming at the developing world.

During the press conference, Nokia's CEO Stephen Elop noted that there is a major growth opportunity of the company in developing countries. Looking back to Nokia's last year, Elop noted how the company radically shifted its strategy just one year ago. In his view, Nokia has "radically changed [its] clock speed." He also cited the fact that Lumia sales have "exceeded Nokia's expectations," especially in Asia and the U.S., as signs of Nokia's turn-around.

Elop also stressed Nokia's move towards location-based services. In the Windows store, developer submissions are up 3x from last year, he said, and downloads from S40 devices, too, are growing.

Note: this post was cross-posted from live.orange.com.

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11:46 pm


Mobile World Congress: SiliconFilter Goes to Barcelona

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Things are going to look a bit different on SiliconFilter this week. Instead of posting the usual stream of news and reviews, I will be in Barcelona to cover the Mobile World Congress (MWC). Chances are then, you will mostly find news about new gadgets, apps and other mobile technologies here. Over the course of the week, I will also be contributing to live.orange.com, which is run be European telecom giant Orange. In addition to posting here, I will also be writing there a few times a day, together with 10 other bloggers from around the world, for most of the week.

Full disclosure: Orange paid for my transportation to Barcelona, as well as my accommodations here.

MWC, of course, is the world's largest trade show for anything mobile, so chances are we'll find far more interesting stuff there than we can even write about. Just to give you a feel for the size of this show: there were about 60,000 people here last year and there will probably be quite a few more this time around. 

I should note that we don't plan to focus on breaking news about the latest phones as much (The Verge, Engadget and co. are probably the places to go to for that). Instead, our posts will be more about the cool little things we find and the big overall trends we see.



10:38 am