Guest blogger: Wireless Communications is Way More Than Just Handsets

Guest blogger: Manish Gupta, Ph.D., Associate Director, IBM India Research Laboratory

With the banking crisis, we've become a little numb to just how much $100 million really is, but believe me when I tell you that it's a lot of "spare change." That's the amount of money IBM announced this week that we are allocating over the course of five years toward telecommunications R&D. These are for technologies that will help telcos better serve their business and consumer customers, especially when it comes to shopping, health care, travel and entertainment. We're calling it one of the seven big technological "bets" that our Research laboratories are "doubling down" on, but it's not a particularly risky bet. More of a sure thing, I'd say, and here's why:

The majority of the world uses a cellphone -- not a PC -- to stay in touch with one another, or to conduct business. And that's a trend that's going to accelerate. So the cell networks will have to change with the times. For the folks that just use cellphones to place calls, there's a lot of untapped potential. And for those that use it to tap into the Internet, there's a lot of wasted potential. That's got to change, we think. Telecommunications providers need a way to take their subscribers to the next level, right?

And many of these subscribers, especially in developing nations, are not privileged with easy access to technology, such as the Internet. For example, India currently has more than 415 million mobile users; whereas the broadband subscriber base stands at a relatively paltry 6.4 million. How do we bring the benefits of the Internet, the largest and most easily available source of information, to these people? Mobile phone is a great medium and a technology like Spoken Web, developed by IBM Research, can potentially change the game. By creating a network of VoiceSites, analogous to the World Wide Web, Spoken Web opens up a completely new avenue for content creation and sharing. And interestingly, it uses one of the fundamental instincts of human beings -– speech.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have folks in more industrialized corners of the world that use the Web on their smartphones, but haven't begun to scratch the surface when it comes to taking advantage of the potential of the cellphone network. I know people have been saying this for a few years now, but we're really not far from a day when your smartphone will sit at the heart of, say, an entire retail transaction. We already know about the growing number places where you can buy a soda from a vending machine or paying for parking space using a cellphone. But very soon, it will go way beyond that.

For instance, we're helping telecommunications providers and retailers become more useful to their customers. For example, we're helping them reach out to customers in a timely way, offering them special offers based on purchase histories, weather, schedule and proximity to stores. The customer, whose curiosity is (hopefully) piqued, will be able to try on the merchandise and take pictures for friends' input on social network sites. They might also scan the bar code and read ratings on consumer review sites. And then they might conduct a credit card transaction with the phone. This isn't science fiction. Our Researchers, particularly in our labs in India and Israel, are working with companies right now to help make this stuff happen.

Bet on it.