Nintendo Direct E3 2021 Beats Studio Buds review Windows 10 support ends in 2025 All the E3 2021 trailers Chrissy Teigen apologizes Pre-Prime Day deals

A beginner's guide to telecom jargon, part 6

When telecommunications experts say ecosystem, they aren't talking about shrubbery and animals. CNET explains why.

Sold out
Android's ecosystem is enjoying some momentum. The 5,000 tickets available for Google I/O 2011 sold out in just 59 minutes in February. James Martin/CNET

The mobile world moves at a breakneck pace, and it's difficult to keep up--even without the technical jargon most industry insiders throw around. And they do love to toss those terms around.

This week, I explain why everyone keeps talking about ecosystems, and why the heck they're so important to the wireless industry now.

So for some light reading, here are a few terms (and definitions) commonly used by telecommunications experts who assume everyone understands them.

Ecosystem: We're not talking about nature or biology 101. Ecosystem is actually a broad term roughly defined as any group of interlinked organisms, or in the tech sense individuals or companies. Specific to the wireless world, there's more attention placed on a mobile operating system's application ecosystem.

When it comes to ecosystems, the bigger it is, the better off you are. There's a reason why iOS and the iPhone and iPad dominate--beyond the marketing hype machine that is Apple--it's the apps. As with nature, you have to foster the growth of the ecosystem, either by attracting developers through your large customer base, or in some cases paying for developers to get key apps on your platform.

It's also partly why BlackBerry, which has a much smaller ecosystem of developers, has struggled over the past year. Developers had found Research In Motion to be one of the least friendly companies to work with until it changed its tune over the last year.

For Google's Android, a free open-source operating system, an ecosystem means more than just developers. It also includes the ranks of handset manufacturers and consumer electronics vendors that build Android phones and tablets. As HTC's chief executive, Peter Chou, said recently, "It's not the operating system, it's the ecosystem."

The consequences of a small ecosystem can be dire. Hewlett-Packard had a tiny following for its WebOS platform, leading to its demise.

T-Mobile's BlackBerry Bold 9900
It's unclear how big of a subsidy RIM got for its new BlackBerry Bold. T-Mobile

Subsidy: In the wireless world, it is the amount of money a carrier is willing to eat when selling a smartphone to consumers. Carriers such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless buy the iPhone from Apple at one rate--a significantly higher one--and resell it to consumers at a discount.

Why would the carriers be so generous? It's certainly not because they're feeling charitable. These subsidized phones come with strings in the form of a service contract. In exchange for the discounted phone, you are typically locked into a one- to three-year contract. Carriers make back their subsidies--and more--over the life of that contract.

The carriers' willingness to subsidize a phone is one factor that determines the price you see in the stores. It's partly one reason why RIM's BlackBerry Bold is selling for $249.99 at some retailers, and a head-scratching $299.99 at T-Mobile.

MiFi: Some marketing genius slapped together the popular terms "mobile" and "WiFi" and came up with MiFi. MiFis are small cards that are able to tap into a cellular network and create a portable WiFi hot spot.

The hot spots are growing increasingly common, and are handy because they can connect multiple devices to one network. While 3G is an option, the slower connection means they aren't ideal for data-intensive activities. But that's changed with the introduction of 4G-capable MiFis.

AT&T is set to begin selling its first 4G LTE MiFi today, though its network isn't up and running. I guess it pays to be prepared.

"Explore options": This is another bit of corporate jargon that has found itself increasingly in the wireless world. It's code for wanting to sell the business.

Most recently, HP used the term when talking about the future of WebOS. I wouldn't hold my breath. That operating system, despite getting a lot of critical love, isn't going to find any buyers.

Motorola Mobility recently used a variation of the term regarding its patent portfolio, saying it is would look at its "strategic opportunities." Of course, it found a much bigger opportunity when Google agreed to buy the whole company for $12.5 billion.