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Uplinq: T-Mobile’s Director of Device Technology, Kathy Barnes

Kathy Barnes arrived into the presentation suite at Qualcomm HQ clutching a variety of next generation devices.

I spotted a few tablets, some handsets and one or two other gizmos as she arranged them on the table.

As Director of Device Technology for T-Mobile USA, Kathy holds sway over the device choices of tens of millions of Americans. Indeed, given the fact the company tends to closely manage the end-to-end delivery of devices into customer hands (over 90% of customers use TMO-supplied and specified devices), she really is an influential figure in the marketplace.

You never know with senior executives in the mobile industry. There are a lot of pretenders in high-up positions which is why the industry often finds itself on the backfoot or entirely behind. There’s nothing worse than receiving a presentation from one of those hollow-eyed don’t-actually-care executives. Thankfully, Kathy’s passion for technology was clear to see. She most certainly knew her stuff and I think I’m right in saying, every journalist in the room was impressed with her candour, enthusiasm and knowledge.

“I’ll talk about these later on,” said Kathy, gesturing to the pile of devices as she plugged in her laptop and flipped up her slides.

Amongst other things, one of Kathy’s key projects back-in-the-day was the Google G1. Do you remember that? I do. What an exciting time that was.

She popped up a slide and immediately began discussing the challenges of working with such fluid technology. She obviously couldn’t talk in direct terms about the project, but she was able to give some numbers and describe — roughly — the process.

It was back in early 2008 that the concept of the G1 device was first muted to T-Mobile. Google was obviously heavily pushing the introduction of the device. HTC was the manufacturer, already known to T-Mobile. Qualcomm was going to take care of the chipsets. Ordinarily, getting such a new device on to market requires a nice long runway. Lots of serious people need to be given serious amounts of time to consider the implications, issues and logistics involved.

However, as Kathy began explaining, there wasn’t a lot of time to get the G1 out the door. It had to be ready for the 2008 ‘Holiday Season’. Which means October 2008. Quite a challenge, especially when the lead partner — Google — is regularly changing entire facets of the platform during the planning. No one had any experience with Android at all — which must have been slightly unsettling for an organisation like a mobile operator, accustomed to operating in a certain and predictable manner.

However T-Mobile put a substantial amount of resource in place to make sure that the G1 Android project got everything it needed to succeed.

And succeed it did. Rather dramatically. Kathy points out that Qualcomm’s “hugely stabilising influence [during the project],” helped make the process easier. I assume this may well be down to Qualcomm insisting upon and delivering some fixed design standards or fixed reference designs, making the planning of basic (but important) features easy, whilst Google danced with all manner of UI and OS-level updates.

When the G1 came to market, it was T-Mobile USA’s fastest and most popular selling device. Kathy pointed out that the record has since been eclipsed by other devices, however she was able to give some figures.

How many folk do you think pre-ordered the G1 in the United States?

111,997 units.

That’s pretty remarkable.

If you need any indication as to the strength and popularity of Android in the United States, that figure alone is illuminating.

T-Mobile went on to sell 300,000 units of the G1 in the first week of launch. Shocking.

I’m not sure when the decision was made, but at some point after this launch, T-Mobile USA began to focus almost exclusively on Android devices.

Kathy then discussed the follow-up to the G1 was the HTC Magic (rebranded by T-Mobile as the “myTouch” in early 2009.

Then a year later in 2010, the T-Mobile myTouch 4G hit the market as the first device to offer data speeds of up to 14.4Mbps and the first device to offer on-network video-chat capabilities (to answer Apple’s newly introduced FaceTime service).

For 2011, Kathy highlighted some new product innovations recently launched by T-Mobile:
– 42Mbps USB stick. I kid ye not. In supported areas, you can use one of these to get some phenomenal download speeds.
– MiFi — yes, finally! T-Mobile has gone MiFi (with the unit itself available on a prepaid basis for just over $100)
– LG Slate Tablet or the ‘G-Slate‘ (at first glance rather similar to the Motorola XOOM)

In terms of 2011 priorities, Kathy pointed out that T-Mobile is working toward 4G network leadership. I did smile quietly at this — wondering how accurate a statement this could be.

Rather accurate, as it happens.

Kathy hinted that there ‘may well’ be a 42Mbps-capable mobile handset hitting the T-Mobile catalogue toward the end of this year — for the Holiday Season? She pointed out that after having upgraded many parts of the network to 42Mbps HSPA+ and launching other devices such as the USB stick, a handset would be a natural next step.

But 42Mbps? What is anyone going to do with that?

“Use it,” exclaimed Kathy, “For whatever you want to!”

“Tablets and devices are really changing the way we live work and play. So much so that we’ll probably see more than one tablet per household, one for home, one for taking out.”

One of the journalists at the front of the conference room took exception to this statement. I rolled my eyes. I could see Kathy staring at him.

I’m paraphrasing, but the chap explained that he really liked his ultra-light laptop.

“Right, but next year, you’ll most probably be using a tablet, perhaps with a keyboard addition, to type faster,” responded Kathy.

“No,” replied the journalist.

“Oh I don’t know about that,” said Kathy, “Come back next year and we’ll see who’s right.”

I smiled to myself. Kathy wasn’t finished.

“A year from now, there won’t be anyone in the room without a tablet.”

I’m sure there will still be hard headed journalists who really like their laptops. But I think the prediction Kathy was trying to make was that tablets are about to become absolutely ubiquitous. By all accounts they’re already eating into PC sales and with downward price pressure from competition and from innovation, I think Kathy’s entirely right.

Once you’ve got the tablet though, you’ll want it connected.

Kathy was particularly unimpressed with a chap in the audience — another journalist — who was using a PlayBook to take notes. Her problem? The chap’s PlayBook had no built-in connectivity (his was the WiFi-only version).

And speaking of connectivity, that’s where things got interesting from a network viewpoint. Kathy flipped up a slide documenting the company’s release of HSPA/HSPA+/Adanced technologies.

T-Mobile has heavily invested in the HSPA+ standard to the point that by the end of the year and into early 2012, Kathy predicts we’ll soon be seeing 84Mbps connectivity in many areas, followed by 168Mbps and then a whopping 672Mbps by 2013.

You’ll need some mighty backhaul to make sense of any of those speeds. Which is why, Kathy explained, that T-Mobile typically operates a fibre-optic backhaul network.

What about LTE?

“HSPA+ is definitely hear to stay,” said Kathy.

“We can give the consumer everything they need with fibre backhaul and HSPA+ — for a much lower cost. This is why it’s got a very long ramp [toward 672Mbps]. LTE will arrive but it’s going to be a small portion of the market for a long time. I expect other carriers to jump on to HSPA+ after they’ve seen what we’ve done with it.”

I don’t doubt it, especially with all the money that many Western carriers have invested in their initial HSPA roll-outs.

Here’s an incredibly burry shot of Kathy’s slide on HSPA+ evolution at T-Mobile (sorry abou the blur, I was sitting at the back and had to snap it quickly):

Kathy finished her presentation by looking at devices. T-Mobile has been pushing the sub $100 smartphone concept for their customers for a long time. The company’s strategy, focusing around Android, has been to ensure they can offer as many devices as possible around the magic $100 price level. Kathy explained that (taking into account a service plan agreement is necessary) it’s now eminently possible to pick up a fairly decent Android handset for under $100 up-front.

The strategy is working. In Q1 2011, T-Mobile’s smartphone sales rose 15% higher than in the last quarter.

The company has clearly got the Android message and is thoroughly pushing it. This year along they’re expecting to launch 25 4G handsets and tablets. Twenty-five!

As for the T-Mobile G-Slate from LG, Kathy had some interesting statistics to share there:

– 35% of tablet owners who also owned a desktop computer reported using their desktop less often or not at all
– 32% of those who also owned laptops said they used their laptop less often or never since acquiring a tablet

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Laptop Fan.

Once Kathy finished her presentation, I decided to ask her a question about Nokia. The company has been in the media today after issuing an altogether unsurprising profits warning.

“Is Nokia dead,” I asked (referring to the legions of people on Twitter discussing the company today), “Or is the company just sleeping?”

Kathy did a good job of avoiding direct commentary on the matter, but did go on to explain that T-Mobile USA was surprised by the amount of latent demand for Symbian phones when they eventually worked with Nokia to supply handsets customised to T-Mobile’s 3G network frequences. (See the Nokia Astound)

What’s clear from Kathy’s presentation is that there’s little room for other platforms in T-Mobile’s current approach. There was no mention of Windows Phone or BlackBerry. Indeed, if you visit the company’s storefront on the web, there’s even a dedicated ‘All About Android‘ section.

I’m not sure if one of the other journalists posed the question but I do distinctly remember Kathy finishing her Q&A with this comment:

“If Nokia offered us an Android phone? Would we be out there buying it? I would say absolutely.”

Food for thought, especially for all those hoping Nokia chose Google’s Android over Microsoft’s Windows Phone.

On a related note, Kathy’s presentation resulted in at least one sale for the company: I’m going to go out tomorrow and see if I can get myself one of T-Mobile’s all new 4G MiFi units. At just $129 on a prepaid basis (plus some kind of data costs — I’m sure they’ll be reasonably competitive), it’s utterly ideal for regular visitors to the US like me.

Thank you to Qualcomm, T-Mobile and to Kathy Barnes for taking the time to come and talk to us today.

I’m doing a lot of filming over the next few days so standby for the videos!

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

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