5 Great Communications Innovations – 2008 Edition

In 2008 communications went truly mobile and truly global, extending a trend that’s been building for several years, to be sure – but in the great tradition of year-end list making, I’m making the call on 5 innovations that pushed the boundaries, set the bar and served to point the way toward the future of how people will stay in touch tomorrow.

1. iPhone 3G
Some might say the Apple smartphone was a 2007 innovation, but the 2nd iteration supporting the 3G network protocol rocked the mobile handset world upon its release in July as much or even more than the original iPhone did last year. Factor in Apple’s steady growth opening retail stores worldwide, add a rolling global introduction of iPhone 3G that saw the phone debut this year in nearly 80 countries – and it remains the single most groundbreaking innovation in communication technology for the second year running.

While not strictly a communications product, Apple’s iTunes App Store, which also appeared in July, is quietly re-defining the software distribution model in ways that are only just beginning to become apparent. An entire industry of software development for Apple’s mobile platform has exploded on the scene and promises to both ensure the propagation of the iPhone as a handset and lead the way for development and distribution of application software for other devices and hardware manufacturers in much the same way that iTunes remade the landscape for music distribution.

2. Wireless chipsets
How not-sexy can you get, right? Well, two things are true – the drop-off in sexy after you talk about iPhone is inevitable; and wireless chipsets, believe it or not, are among the most vital components of every piece of communication gear that’s going to mean anything in years to come.

The people at Electronic Design magazine know this, which is why they named wireless chipsets from Quantenna Communications one of their picks for the best communications/wireless innovations in 2008. These chips are what make things like data-intensive multimedia over Wi-Fi possible. You should be thankful for them.

The judges at the European Wireless Technology Conference understand this, too, which is why they named a paper describing a method for wirelessly connecting the circuits of a mobile device to its antenna using micro antennae embedded in chip circuits themselves one of the most promising inventions of the year.

3. High Fidelity Bluetooth Headsets
OK, back to sexy. Not. But if you have to walk around with a piece of eclectronica on the side of your head, it ought to at least provide a pleasurable listening experience. Couple that with new laws in many states requiring either headsets or a speakerphone for using a mobile phone while driving, and it really helps to have access to products with good sound.

Enter Sennheiser. The company known for its history of high-end music recording and reproduction leveraged sound perception and noise reduction technologies originally developed for digital hearing aids to produce the VMX 100 wireless mobile headset. Priced at around $160, it’s not setting any records for bargains in mobile Bluetooth connectivity, but market leaders Plantronics and GN Netcom have certainly got their work cut out to match Sennheiser’s audio quality.

4. Hosted VoIP/PBX Services
I can hear you groaning about this one all the way over here. Yes, hosted IP/PBXs have been around for a while. No there haven’t been any earth-shattering additions to or improvements in the feature set. But the fact is adoption of hosted VoIP services continues to grow, with projected year-over-year growth rates of more than 25% in the SMB market into 2011. In a declining economy, with the largest telcos wary of taking on large new projects, this space has seen more and more smaller carriers jump in the game, making it still one of the most active, if also treacherous, segments of the communications industry. On the consumer side, as increasing numbers of US phone subscribers ditch their land lines in favor of mobile services, Voice over Broadband looks be a dependable driver in the development of communication innovations for years to come.

5. WAN Acceleration
As the world of communications grows, making the physical world smaller and smaller in terms of distances between places on the globe and in the lengths of time we expect our communications to take between them, another not-so-sexy but very vital innovation to note is WAN Acceleration. Engineers have been working for years to optimize the transmission of data across Wide Area Networks, a task over which victory has been at times elusive as the number of networks and the numbers of people using them – as well as the kinds of applications and types of data running across them – have grown.

Recent advances in the ability to cache large data blocks and cut down on the number of redundant transmissions across a network have been encouraging, however, and appliances that can significantly reduce bandwidth consumption and – after the first transfer – dramatically decrease the response time for file transfers and applications that rely on files that get transferred over the WAN deserve a lot of IT love. The market leader in this space is Riverbed.

So there you have it, 5 things I believe anyone interested in communications ought to understand and be grateful for as 2008 comes to a close. Some things for the consumer, some things for business, some things for the person on the street, and some for the unsung heroes in the IT department – in the end, really, all things for everyone.