Smart phones getting smarter

Wi-Fi may not be cutting-edge technology anymore, but iPhones, netbooks and other portable devices will put it in many more consumers' hands this year, according to figuresby the Wi-Fi Alliance and research company In-Stat.

Once associated mainly with laptop PCs, Wi-Fi is now embedded in many mobile phones, cameras and gaming consoles, and even some TVs. This lets users share data around a home and with friends on the Internet, as well as boost the data speeds of smartphones in certain locations.

Overall shipments of Wi-Fi chipsets rose 26 percent to 387 million in 2008, according In-Stat and the Alliance, an industry group. One reason Wi-Fi is going into so many products is that chipmakers are integrating it with other forms of networking in a single chipset, said In-Stat analyst Norm Bogen. Rather than beating out other forms of connectivity, such as WiMax or 3G (third-generation) mobile data, Wi-Fi is being included with them. For example, Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset for mini-notebooks includes Wi-Fi alongside 3G, Bluetooth, broadcast TV and GPS (Global Positioning System) capabilities.

Shipments of Wi-Fi chips in dual-mode mobile handsets grew 52 percent in 2008, to 56 million units, In-Stat and the Alliance said. The Apple iPhone, which was introduced in 2007 in the U.S. and expanded to more than 70 countries in 2008, helped drive that growth with shipments of more than 10 million units. It also helped set the tone for the industry, making Wi-Fi capability a standard feature on smartphones, available on Research In Motion BlackBerry models as well as the T-Mobile G1 Android phone. On Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, T-Mobile USA introduced the Shadow smartphone, a dual-mode device that can be used for making calls from Wi-Fi hotspots.

Wi-Fi also grew fast in stationary consumer electronics devices, such as printers, game consoles, set-top boxes and digital TVs. The number of Wi-Fi chips shipped in those types of products grew 51 percent to 48 million units. Consumers also bought more devices that gave them Wi-Fi connectivity on the run, such as cameras, portable music players and handheld game units, such as the popular Nintendo DS. Shipments in that category grew 33 percent in 2008, to 71 million units. In 2009, all handheld game devices will have Wi-Fi, according to In-Stat.

Wi-Fi's penetration of the laptop market grew more slowly, by just 23 percent, though from a larger base. There were 144 million Wi-Fi chips used in portable computers in 2008, counting laptops, mini-notebooks, ultramobile devices (UMDs) and mobile Internet devices (MIDs). The alphabet soup of small laptop alternatives, also including the emerging netbook category, will help drive a 12 percent increase in the PC arena this year. Almost all netbooks will have Wi-Fi, while many will also have 3G, Bogen said.

Most PCs are getting the latest Wi-Fi technology, according to In-Stat and the Alliance. They said more than half of the mobile PCs shipped in 2008 were equipped with 802.11n draft 2.0 equipment. The Alliance began certifying products using this interim standard, which can support speeds over 100Mb per second, in June 2007.

Home networking and smartphones will also be significant drivers of Wi-Fi growth in 2009, according to In-Stat and the Wi-Fi Alliance. Shipments of Wi-Fi-enabled smartphones should grow twice as fast as for smartphones as a whole, they said.

Multiple network modes are the growing trend, both because many consumers want a choice of connectivity and because the incremental cost of adding Wi-Fi is minor, according to In-Stat's Bogen. There are some users of laptops and other Wi-Fi devices who don't mind searching out a hotspot and in some cases paying to use it, but for relatively uninterrupted Internet access, cellular data is needed, with Wi-Fi for a speed boost in certain spots, he said.

Ongoing silicon development is also bringing another big benefit to Wi-Fi device users, Bogen said: Smaller, more integrated and more efficient chipsets are draining less battery power, and that will only get better over the course of this year, he said.

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