A few months of using the Nokia E61 has got me musing about the role of Wi-Fi in a phone. Do you need or want Wi-Fi in your phone? On the face of it, being able to surf the web, download music, make free VOIP phone calls etc at no cost from your own or other free hotspots sounds too good to be true. I've been using Wi-Fi on my phone for a while, and the old adage "if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" can apply.
Here are the perceived advantages that Wi-Fi on a phone might allow you to take advantage of:
1. Faster data speeds
On the face of it, yes, 54 Mbps is faster than the fastest 3G technology currently deployed. But, that's just the maximum possible speed between your phone and the Wi-Fi router, if that router is sharing a 500 kbps dsl line with a load of other users you'd actually be better off using 3G. There's also the issue of range and coverage, the frequency band that Wi-Fi uses is quite congested and is easily blocked by walls, I actually have coverage in more of my house from my telco's 3G masts than my own Wi-Fi router.
Still, on those rare events when you have a nice fat Wi-Fi signal and you need to copy some big files like music, videos or podcasts to your phone, Wi-Fi can be handy. But, for general web surfing the speed advantages of Wi-Fi over a 3G signal are barely perceptable.
2. Use of free hotspots
Do these really exist in sufficient quantity to make use of Wi-Fi when you're out and about worthwhile? That's not what I've found, sure I know a couple of bars and coffee shops with free Wi-Fi, but I know far far more places that don't have free Wi-Fi, but do have good 3G coverage. Frankly if you're not in a basement, you're likely to have usable phone coverage pretty much anywhere in Europe.
3. Free phone calls with VOIP
If you use a service like Gizmo or Truphone with your Wi-Fi phone you can get free or very cheap phone calls, but whilst you're making these calls you're not using a "mobile" phone. If you walk too far away from the Wi-Fi hotspot you're using the call will just drop. Technologies like handing over a call to the next cell just don't exist in the world of Wi-Fi. Plus, when you're not connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot incoming calls to your VOIP phone number will be diverted or sent to voicemail (possibly at a cost to you). What good is a mobile phone that can't take incoming calls?
4. Free data
I can't dispute this one, if you're connected to a free Wi-Fi hotspot, you can download content onto your phone with no data costs. But, most mobile phones don't have a hard disk or the battery life to really take full advantage of this "free data", and unlimited usage data tariffs effectively give you free data over your 3G connection anyway.
So are there other downsides to having Wi-Fi on your phone? Unfortunately yes, battery life is probably the main one, Steve Jobs might try to kid you that 3G is a real battery hog, but Europe has had 3G phones for years, and all the evidence points to Wi-Fi chipsets being far thirstier in power usage than 3G. The only case when 3G chipsets are power hungry is in very poor coverage when the phone is hunting for available signals on both 2G and 3G bands, which frankly is a rare occurence in Europe.
Wi-Fi configuration can also be a pain on some phones, connecting to open Wi-Fi access points is an easy enough task, but entering the 16 or so digits and letter of a WEP or WPA key to access a closed access point on a phone's keypad can be rather trying.
So, would I demand Wi-Fi on my next phone? No, but if it was there, I'd certainly use it. There are other more important features for me on a mobile phone, but Wi-Fi can be useful.