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Mobile Comes to the New World

I just got off a phone briefing with a technology company that will go unnamed, because its VP of marketing was telling me about a product not publicly announced yet. He mentioned that his company's technology is in a significant percentage of the nearly 1 billion mobile phones sold around the world in 2006. I asked him if most of those advanced-technology phones were sold outside North America.

"Well, yes," he said, chuckling, his tone implying, Of course.

This, of course, is a common phenomenon in the mobile and wireless industry: Stuff gets rolled out in East Asia and Western Europe, then at some point 12 or 18 or 24 months down the road, like a boatload of Pilgrims arriving in the wilderness, it reaches the New World.

Beyond the relative slowness of most Americans (those who don't live in Seattle, Silicon Valley, or Manhattan, in other words) in adopting new technology, and the resistance of American democracy to top-down public infrastructure build-outs (the Interstate Highway System being the most prominent exception), there's a simple geographical reason for this: Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and the countries of the European Union are far more densely populated than the U.S. It's a lot easier to blanket the island of Honshu, which includes Tokyo, with broadband wireless coverage than it is the state of Texas, for instance.

Twenty-seven percent of the U.S. population has no connection to the Internet whatsoever, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And while the North American market for mobile phones is nearing saturation, most of the devices sold in the U.S. are a generation or two behind those being carried by teenagers in Tokyo or Berlin.

Slowly, though, this is changing. As a result of a few key trends, North America is catching up to East Asia and Western Europe when it comes to mobile networks and devices. Partly this is because of the smartphone phenomenon. A large percentage of BlackBerries are in the hands of mobile U.S. professionals, and as new smartphones aimed at a wider circle of professionals and consumers hit the market, they're appearing in North America simultaneously with Asian and European launches.

The other trend hastening the mobile revolution in this country is the explosion in municipal WiFi networks. Ironically, it may be the tendency of these networks to be slow and spotty that drives new innovation. Witness the startup Meraki Networks Inc. , which is developing miniature "mesh routers" that broadcast Internet access from residential cable or DSL connections to surrounding buildings. The spread of city networks, along with 3G cellular networks and, eventually, WiMax, will help spread mobile Web access to most big and medium-sized cities in the U.S. -- if not the wide-open spaces of the West.

These developments notwithstanding, Western Europe remains a hotbed of innovation and marketing in mobile and wireless. That's why I'm very pleased to welcome aboard Light Reading's new senior editor, Michelle Donegan, who's based in London and will be contributing regularly to Unstrung as well.

Michelle's arrival brings to three the number of time zones inhabited by writers for Unstrung. Stay tuned for announcements about our Asian correspondent.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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