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Five Questions for 2007

I returned from the holiday break this morning to find 942 unread emails in my inbox. Among many other things, they dealt with the Colorado blizzards, a friend who is spending the first month of 2007 digging wells for destitute villages in sub-Saharan Africa, the new Thomas Pynchon novel, my nephew's swimming times, and, oh yeah, the usual new product announcements from wireless companies.

Of the latter there was surprisingly little. Given the build-up of various pending industry developments in the fourth quarter of 2006, I was expecting a larger flood of New Year's news.

I've been a tech/business journalist long enough to know, however, that this is just an illusion, a temporary trickle before the real deluge. Over the past week on Unstrung we did a thorough job of wrapping up the year and looking ahead to 2007. But here, on the second day of the new year, are the questions that I'm looking forward to answering – or at least gaining some glimpses of answers to – in the coming months. (See 2006: Reality Sets In.)

  • What will the big carriers do? Facing the ongoing slide in average revenue per user for wireless minutes, and the onslaught of threats from non-traditional competitors, from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) to Comcast, the Big 4 carriers (Big 5 if you include regional power Alltel Corp. (NYSE: AT)) are busy realigning or even directly changing their business models. Cingular Wireless and Verizon are far enough ahead in the subscriber chase that they are less subject to being buffeted by new forces; Sprint and T-Mobile cannot afford to be complacent. Alltel, meanwhile, blessed with a strong balance sheet, is now the subject of buyout rumors in the private equity market. It'll be an interesting year, to say the least, for the big carriers.

  • Will BlackBerry's dominance be threatened? Like a U.S. inspector searching Iraq for evidence of WMDs, I wrote several stories over the last year that suggested that the supremacy of BlackBerry in the mobile email field could not continue unchallenged. As RIM's earnings report last week demonstrated, however, the Waterloo, Ontario, maker of BlackBerry continues to pile on its rivals. I continue to believe that in a burgeoning market RIM's market share will inevitably dwindle; but can Good Technology Inc. (now a part of Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)), Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT), Palm Inc. , or the open-source providers make a serious push at slowing down the BlackBerry juggernaut?

  • Is this the year of WiMax? 2006 was in some ways the coming out party for the wireless broadband technology, as a long period of hype was followed by real deployments to real users. What needs to follow is the finalization of the 802.16e standard for "mobile WiMax" and the accumulation of significant revenues for this promising technology. I'm not convinced that will happen yet.

  • Will mobile advertising take off? I've been a consistent skeptic of ads on mobile phones; users in general guard their cellphone screens more zealously than the Internet sites they view on their laptops and PCs, and it took a good five years for Internet advertising to start producing enough revenue for corporate America to really take notice. I'm also aware, however, that tastes and habits change rapidly in the mobile world. The comments of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) CEO Ed Whitacre to The Wall Street Journal, in which he said that wireless ads will be a "key revenue stream" for the reconstituted company, are another sign that service providers will make a big push in wireless marketing in 2007.

  • Finally, what will be the next big thing in wireless? Will it be mobile games, or mobile video? Mobile email for soccer moms? Location-based services? Converged WiFi/cellular devices, or the long-predicted iPod/phone combo device from Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL)? If there's one thing I've learned covering wireless and mobile, it's that, as William Goldman said of Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything." I don't think we've ever seen such creative ferment in the mobile arena, and there's a lot of stuff being thrown against a lot of walls to see what sticks. We've already made our predictions for 2007; now we'd like to hear yours. Send your off-the-wall ideas to [email protected] or post them on our home-page message board.


— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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