Firmware Over-the-Air: From Hype to Market Reality

The mobile phone has undergone explosive growth in the amount of software embedded on the device and updating this software monolith is enormously challenging once a handset has shipped. Firmware updating Over-The-Air (FOTA) represents a powerful tool for addressing bug fixes within the software and enabling new services after the phone has passed into the hands of the consumer.

FOTA is the technology and process allowing embedded software (firmware) to be updated wirelessly, anywhere, and at any time. FOTA is normally associated with bug fixes, and with the typical handset containing as many as 10,000 software defects (most of them latent), FOTA can help accelerate time-to-market by allowing manufacturers to address non-critical software defects after the handset has shipped. Longer-term, FOTA holds the promise of allowing operators to install new revenue channels by updating their customers' handsets with new features and mobile services, post sale.

This research paper is based on interviews with 16 key industry players, including the leading FOTA client and server vendors: Bitfone, InnoPath, Insignia, mFormation, Red Bend, Sicap / Swapcom, SmartTrust and Synchronica.

ARCchart finds that firmware updates have been practiced commercially for some time in Japan and the US. In Europe, BenQ Siemens reports 12,000 firmware OTA updates per month and an Asian operator recently delivered 300,000 FOTA updates in one month to two handsets in the field with no reported failures.

Manufacturers are actively deploying FOTA technology direct-to-consumer; Nokia, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and BenQ Siemens all offer firmware updates through their website.

Operator use of FOTA updates varies widely. FOTA update capability has been deployed in Japan by DoCoMo, KDDI and Vodafone KK (now SoftBank Mobile) starting in 2003, and in the US with Sprint since January 2005. In Europe, Telefonica and Three are planning to deploy FOTA update capability by early 2007. Operators are not deploying over-the-cable updates due to the complexity of support.

ARCchart estimates that globally, at least 230 handset models have been released between 2003 and October 2006 that include FOTA support. By 2008, ARCchart forecast that 50% of all handsets shipping will be FOTA-enabled.

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