Cell Phone Makers Need to Look beyond Phones, Tablets

By Doug Mohney August 17, 2012

The cellular handset industry is a cut throat business. All you have to do is look at Nokia's woes, Motorola Mobility's fall from grace, RIM's downward spiral, Apple vs. Samsung's patent battles, and HTC's recent streak of bad financial news to realize that it's a brutal world when you have lots of companies competing for the same sets of diversified markets around the globe. Survival may depend on getting out of the cell phone and tablet mindset and moving into a more open business model of single board computers.

A number of space projects are tapping into the combination of open-source programming, sensors and computing power Android cell phones bring to the table. UK-based Surry Satellite Technologies (SSTL) has integrated a relatively un-modified off-the-shelf Google Nexus One phone into its STRaND-1 four kilogram (about nine pounds) nanosatellite, with engineers contributing free time to assemble it. It will take pictures from orbit, test Wi-Fi communications with a second onboard computer and to a ground station, and given a workout to control the vehicle.  

The Google Nexus One phone has proven to be remarkably tough. SSTL has put it is a vacuum jar to simulate being outside of earth's atmosphere, heated to 65 degrees C and frozen to minus 5 degrees C.

While SSTL looks for a ride to orbit, NASA will put three "PhoneSats" into orbit this fall as ride-share passengers onboard the first test flight of Orbital's Antares rocket from Wallops Island, Virginia this fall. Two PhoneSat 1s and one PhoneSat 2 will go up on the launch. 

PhoneSat 1.0 cost about $3500 in parts and basically puts together a minimal satellite with a Google Nexus One phone, some external batteries, an external radio beacon, and a "watchdog" circuit using an open-source Arduino board to reboot the Nexus if it crashes due to a radiation event. Everything is housed in a 1-U (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm) cubesat shell and weighs less than four pounds.   NASA has extensively tested the PhoneSat 1.0 design with thermal-vacuum chambers, vibration and shock tables, sub-orbital rocket flights and high altitude bloons.

The PhoneSat 2.0 design is more ambitious. For under $8000, NASA plans to test a fully functional satellite bus design, including a S-band two-way radio to send up commands from the ground, solar arrays for extended power and some attitude control with a low-cost reaction wheel and magnetorquer coils. A Samsung Nexus S will provide satellite control.

Skeptics will rightly point out any market for cubesats is small, but once you start adding in aviation projects, ground military applications and thousands of hobbyist ideas, the potential beyond "just phones" starts to look significant. Simply adding a very consumer-friendly feature such as waterproofing boards/phones with a technology like Liquipel or HzO WaterBlock adds utility for both end-users and direct applications -- as well as opening up a lot of off-the-shelf nautical, environmental, and remote-sensing/machine-to-machine applications.

If HTC and other smart phone manufacturers want to continue to thrive, they need to start zig-zagging instead of trying to follow the crowd. Adding more rugged/hardening to benefit consumers and direct applications outside of the traditional "phone" form factor is one way to open up new markets and offer differentiators from the rest of the pack.

Edited by Rich Steeves

Contributing Editor

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