To each his own

Highly customized devices produced for a mass market, coupled with technology that melds into the background, will drive the proliferation of personal wireless technology.

by Weiyee In, UBS Warburg

Over the past few years, the computer, consumer electronics and media industries have all struggled with the convergence of a multitude of technologies and media. As convergence pushes each of the established technology platforms toward a convergence focal point, companies within the different segments develop new platforms and approaches that they hope will be adopted as the convergent platform. This has resulted in the emergence of new disruptive technologies for the interaction, delivery, storage and consumption of media.

The common driver for all convergence strategies is the development of new human user interfaces (HUI). HUIs are the means by which end users input and output data. User-friendliness is critical if complex technologies are to gain mass acceptance, because HUIs are also the catalysts in user selection of the products they adopt or assimilate into their environments.

As user interfaces mature - becoming increasingly more stable and affordable, to the point of becoming more intuitive - consumers will begin to demand and expect products and interfaces that are particularly suited for their task at hand. Consumers no longer expect the same exact user interface across all devices and applications. Eventually, today's technologies will mature to the point where they will become pervasive and optimized to the applications' needs and scenarios, leading to mass customization.

Mass customization involves the development, manufacture and sale of individualized products on a large scale. Empowered customers determine the specific features of the products and services they wish to buy based on how they want to use those products.

Bringing this idea to fruition involves close collaboration between the buyer and the seller, facilitated by communications. Technology vendors that can facilitate the trends of convergence, mass customization and technology penetration through pervasive computing will be beneficiaries. Longer term, the suppliers that can offer finer granularity in their ability to segment and personalize their products or services while maintaining economies of scale and global leverage will succeed.

At its most basic level, the increase in selection of more segmented products is no different from the segmentation of more traditional products such as sports balls. At one time, there was only a single ball - maybe it was a rock. As new games were invented, the ball fragmented and new user interfaces were developed for the specific task at hand. Consequently, today we have golf balls that are hit with a club, baseballs that are hit with a bat, volleyballs that are hit with bare hands and tennis balls that are hit with a racket. With each form of the ball motif, the ball became more pervasive.

One example of how technologies can enable pervasive computing is IXI Mobile's Personal Mobile Gateway (PMG) technology, which integrates and bridges wide-area network technologies such as GSM/GPRS with personal- or local-area network technologies such as Bluetooth or 802.11 (see figure, page 19). IXI micro router and micro server solutions within the PMG allow for the development of application-specific devices with optimal user interfaces. This satisfies users' needs by giving them a variety of sleek devices to choose from, while offering significant cost and time-to-market advantages for the equipment and service vendors.

IXI's technology approach represents a paradigm shift that allows traditional industry sectors to absorb technology in a simpler and faster way. Whereas integrating connectivity and processing capabilities into more traditional products, such as luggage, would have been unimaginable because of wireless technology barriers to entry and time and cost constraints, this is now feasible with the IXI model.

Technology today is focused on extending computing and processing in a manner that can most efficiently and comfortably deliver to the end user solutions that are optimized to their specific needs. At the same time, processing and connectivity technologies are effectively disappearing into the background. These enabling technologies, while becoming more complex, simplify the human experience and make the optimal user interface a possibility.

Through the mass customization of form factors, features and user interfaces, personal wireless technology becomes pervasive. As the technology penetrates into the human experience and melds into the background, the winners will be those that enable connectivity to the Internet and the world through location-based features and embedded intelligence within processors. What will drive technology penetration and proliferation will be the fading of technology into human user interfaces that end users will find easy to adopt and assimilate.

Weiyee In is a director in the technology group of UBS Warburg Equity Research, covering the global technology universe.