Lugging too many devices? Time we revisited the personal network idea

The notion that we'd end up carrying less tech has proved false. So now that we're hauling around so many devices, perhaps it's the moment to revive the concept of a personal-area network.

As well as connectivity, what else do users of several gadgets need and be willing to pay for in a personal hub? Photo: Shutterstock

At one time for some in the telecoms industry, personal-area networks (PANs) were the futuristic counterpoint to POTS - plain old telephone systems.

However for the IT industry, PANs were a slightly different concept. There was a local-area network or LAN in the office, the wide-area network or WAN to connect across the world - so why not have a short-range network that a person could carry?

Apart from the wireless connection of ancillary gadgets using technologies such as Bluetooth, the idea faded in the early days of PDAs and mobile phones as hopes rose that there would eventually be a universal mobile device superseding the need to carry several.

So much for that idea. Most people now carry even more devices, and since they also expect universal connectivity, they all want to be on a wireless network.

Enter the mobile operators and wireless-card providers with embedded cellular modules for laptops and then tablets: but try getting a unified contract for one person that covers a range of cellular devices they might happen to be carrying.

However, the mix of sales of Apple's iPad reveals an interesting statistic. Only around a tenth of iPads sold appear to have a cellular connection. It should be no surprise that the preference is towards wi-fi as after all, many will be used as a casual device while roaming around the home or office.

But so low a ratio might also have something to do with the difficulty of getting the right sort of cellular data deal as well as the high-price hike for cellular connectivity in the iPad.

Personal wireless access points

The low cost and availability of personal wireless access points that have sprung up might also have something to do with it. With a 3G or 4G backhaul link and the opportunity to link several devices via a wi-fi hub, they are a simple and useable proposition.

In theory, mobile phones that support wi-fi and offer personal hotspot functionality are attractive, too - until you realise how much the mobile operator charges for personal hotspot usage. It would seem that mobile operators do not like the idea of a cellular connection being shared across several devices, even if they belong to the same user, unless they can charge directly for it.

Added value of personal-area network

Rather than sticking with this bill-by-the-minute-and-megabyte mentality, is it possible to think of the different aspects of added value that a PAN might be able to deliver?

In addition to connectivity, what else do the users of several devices need and what might they be willing to pay for in a personal hub?

Some common physical hub ideas have been tried over the years - such as storage or unified messaging - but today most would rightly expect these to be common services delivered by the cloud.

Some services that make use of the physical attributes of a mobile hub might add value to the user - for example, using it as a store of power, a shared battery, or a shared ID or authentication token - but it is difficult to tie this into what it might do for an operator.

One thing is clear, there is little or no money to be made from operators marketing and selling the basic communications hardware - not when companies such as Huawei can make 3G USB dongle or wi-fi routers that can be retailed so cheaply.

Over time, charging extra for multiple device connections by one user is more likely to create frustration, rather than loyalty and extra use, so there needs to be an alternative.

The femtocell option

Some think that another form of fixed cellular hub, the femtocell, might also have other functionality and applications beyond simply being a communication relay.

After all, such an access point knows when mobile users arrive home or leave it and could be used for external connections in, say, remote monitoring or control, as well as regular use indoors.

While this femtocell-as-an-application-platform idea still has further to go to bear real fruit, it could form the basis for how to add value for its mobile cousin - an open software platform for applications, running on a PAN hub device or femtoserver.

A device such as this needs to prove its value to the user to be carried when more than a mobile phone connection is required.

But a portable resource for connectivity, power, secure storage or ID that runs local network applications across an individual's collection of gadgets might not only appeal to the individual, but also operators and, if opened up, application developers too.


Rob Bamforth is a principal analyst at user-facing analyst house Quocirca. As part of the Quocirca team, which focuses on technology and its business implications, Bamforth specialises in communication, collaboration and convergence.

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