At last week's 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona, several big names in the communications sector, including Microsoft, Nokia, and Skype, announced mobile phone-based VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) products and services that could radically change how cellular customers use their handsets in the future.
If, until now, most users have associated mobile Internet with writing e-mail, sending the occasional picture message, or even making an exotic video phone call, many could easily get hooked on cheap VoIP calls or instant messaging chats.
The technology, as Microsoft demonstrated in Barcelona, is becoming quickly available.
Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer, first saying how much he loves the mobile industry and his operator partners, then proceeded to show how the soon-to-be-released Microsoft Office Communicator Mobile software can be used to make a VoIP call over a mobile handset.
The reaction from the global audience of mobile phone executives was reserved, to say the least. This is, after all, technology that will eat into their cash-cow voice business and could, potentially, wipe billions of dollars off of their market value.
That news was followed an hour later by an equally noteworthy VoIP development. European 3G (third-generation) operator Hutchison 3 Group, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa, announced a partnership to provide what could become the world's first commercial VoIP service for mobile phones.
Hutchison will provide Skype's software in a range of high-end smart phones running the Microsoft Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system and offer a flat-rate VoIP service, to become available later this year.
"We don't view VoIP as something that will cannibalize our voice business; users will have to pay a fee for access," said Christian Salbaing, managing director of European Telecommunications at Hutchison 3G. "We view VoIP as a way to create greater customer choice and expect the service to increase their usage."
Salbaing sticks out in a crowd of mobile phone executives who, for the most part, prefer to dodge the VoIP debate. Many, including Hamid Akhavan, chief technology officer at T-Mobile International, point to technical challenges that hinder a quick rollout of the Internet telephony service over mobile networks.
"There are issues, such as quality of service and security," said Akhavan. "We believe VoIP over mobile networks is still a few years away. And then we will need to look at the additional benefits of VoIP. If they're there, we'll offer the service."
As for VoIP-enabled handsets, Nokia used the 3GSM event to announce a new mobile phone capable of working on cellular networks and wireless LANs. The 6136 phone, scheduled to hit the market in the second quarter of this year, is based on the UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access) industry standard, which enables the hand-off of voice and data connections between GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) networks and WLANs.
Motorola announced an agreement to supply a UMA-based handset that supports voice over both WLANs and cellular networks for British Telecommunications' Fusion service.