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2006: Top Ten Stories

Dan Jones
LR Mobile News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor
12/28/2006

This year has seen more than its share of big wireless stories. 2006 will be remembered as a year where wireless vendors such as Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT) and Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) got wholeheartedly into the big money M&A games that had largely been the preserve of carriers in the previous year. BlackBerry 's legal disputes kept users on their toes. While much-feted technologies such as WiMax and 802.11n provided little more than heat for the hype machine.

Here is Unstrung's rundown of the stories that mattered over the last twelve months:

The Big Buy-Up: Cash-rich Motorola was a wireless sugar daddy for startups and established firms in 2006. A trend that shows no signs of stopping in 2007. The firm made two major wireless acquisitions in 2006. It announced plans to buy number two enterprise WiFi player Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL) for $3.9 billion and well-respected wireless email player Good Technology Inc. for an undisclosed sum. Both acquisitions are due to close soon. Furthermore, the massive vendor could be far from finished with its wireless buyouts, Motorola had $10.5 billion in cash reserves on its books at the end of the third quarter. (See Motorola Gets Good, What Will Moto Buy Next?, and Motorola Confirms Symbol Buyout.)

RIM's Legal Eagles: The big enterprise story for much of the early part of the year concerned the legal battle between BlackBerry , Canadian maker of the world-beating BlackBerry mobile email device, and NTP, which claimed to hold patents to the mobile messaging technology. The acrimonious dispute even saw threats of the RIM service being shut down before it was resolved in March. NTP went to the offensive again later in the year, this time going after Treo-maker Palm Inc. , while RIM once again found itself slapped with a patent suit, this time from Visto Corp. (See Feds Hit NTP Patents, Again, Supreme Court Rejects RIM, Judge to Blackberry Users: Drop Dead, Final NTP Patent Struck Down, RIM Trumpets Workaround, RIM Wins Reprieve, RIM, NTP Come to Terms, Here We Go Again, and NTP Takes Another Shot.)

WiMax Wakes Up: 2006 is the year that large U.S. operators started to get serious about mobile WiMax potentially being the next generation of wireless data and communications technology. Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) said in August that it will start to roll out mobile WiMax at the end of next year. In December, Craig McCaw's Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) threw its hat in as the hot new contender in the mobile market, saying it would roll out services as suitable infrastructure became available. (See Sprint Goes WiMax and Clearwire Takes Another Cut at IPO.)

Municipal Mesh Mess: 2006 was a very mixed year for supporters of WiFi-based municipal mesh networks. The good news -- a huge number of new deployments worldwide -- has tended to be overshadowed by the bad, which includes a power struggle over the Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)-backed deployment in San Francisco; questions over WiFi coverage and interference for the hapless user; and a looming shakeout of the smaller vendors in the market. 2007 is going to be nothing if not interesting. (See Mesh Mess Sinks Sacramento Net, Protect Your Mesh, Reality Bites Muni WiFi, Re-Boot in Yuma, Mesh: Interference in the City?, Philly CIO Under Scrutiny, Imbroglio by the Bay, Mesh Shakeout Looms, WiFi Outlook Cloudy in Mountain View, SF Muni Deal 'Near', and Google Invests in Indoor Mesh.)

Spectrum is the Question: Bandwidth was the big issue for many of the more established operators in the U.S. this year with another round of spectrum auctions opening up more airwaves for 3G services. Some initially predicted that the auctions could fundamentally change the nature of the cellular market in the U.S. The $13.7 billion spectrum sell-off ended up, however, being crucial to maintaining the status quo, as T-Mobile US Inc. got the bandwidth it needed for its 3G expansion and a cable consortium grabbed some waves for possible future services. (See Industry Prepares For RF Auctions, The Auctions Endeth, T-Mobile 3G Is Imminent, and T-Mobile Gets Tax Bump.)

A Strained Alliance: In a year of massive vendor mergers, the creation of a huge new wireless infrastructure player was called into question in December, as a potential joint venture between Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) and Siemens AG (NYSE: SI; Frankfurt: SIE) was postponed because of corruption investigations at the German firm. The launch of the world's second largest cellular gear provider has been pushed back to the first quarter of 2007. Nokia insists the delay is merely a "timetable change" but this story looks to have plenty of road left to run. (See Nokia, Siemens Create Networks Giant and Nokia Siemens JV in Jeopardy.)

Palmed Off: The slow decline of the once all-conquering Palm Inc. brand has been a big part of the enterprise mobility picture in the second half of 2006. Where once Palm was the only name that mattered, the vendor has been tested with buyout questions, operating system issues, and market share mumblings this year. (See Treo Delay Hits Palm Earnings, Palm Gets Its OS Back, It's Not Easy Being Palm, and Palm: Struggles Ahead.)

The 'n' Time is Near: The new 802.11n high-speed WiFi standard had vendors going to the mat over the tetchy details of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) standard while consumers happily snapped up "pre-n" products without a care in the world. Tussles over the MIMO (multiple input, multiple output)-based technology have stalled the specification's progress all year. Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s acquisition of Airgo Networks Inc. in December, however, could remove the last stumbling block for the standard in 2007. (See Qualcomm Buys Airgo, RFMD Assets, No Rush to High-Speed WiFi, 802.11n Draft Confirmed, Draft What?, Dot-N Delayed Again, WiFi's High-Speed Compromise, 802.11: Fatally Flawed?, and Enterprise WLAN Market Up 19%.) Wireless Floats: IPOs, that chimera of the telecom bubble, are back in vogue as 2006 draws to a close. Clearwire LLC (Nasdaq: CLWR) helped to sum up the changing attitudes to initial public offerings in the wireless sector through the last 12 months. The company initially filed for a $400 million float in May, backed off as it got a massive VC bump, then filed again in December. Enterprise WiFi player Aruba Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: ARUN) also sealed its flirtation with the market this month, filing for a $100 million IPO sometime next year. (See Aruba Files for IPO and Wireless IPOs Are Like Buses.)

Pod People: The biggest non-story of the year has been the resolute absence of an iPhone device from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) All year round, magazines, news sites, and blogs have been filled with speculation about Apple's imminent entry into the wireless market. Only to see the iPod vendor trumped by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) in the twilight of 2006, which -- it turns out -- owned the "iPhone" name all along. (See iDon't Care, iPhone Prepares for Launch, Apple as Mobile Operator?, and You Say iPhone, I Say...?)

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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