The billions of phones, tablets and other gadgets that connect to 3G and 4G cellular data networks aren’t as sophisticated as they look. They’re actually quite primitive, with electronics that consume too much power, software that’s vulnerable to infiltration, and radios that waste valuable bandwidth.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is aiming to change that with Thursday’s launch of a new research program. The MIT Center for Wireless Networks and Mobile Computing will bring together scientists and engineers from academia and the private sector to create the next generation of mobile devices, with tougher data security, longer battery life and faster download speeds.

“The unique thing about the center is it allows you to think about wireless systems holistically,” said Dina Katabi, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and co-director of the center. MIT will bring together people working on every aspect of mobile devices--the operating systems, apps, security software, radios, batteries, processor chips and more.

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“You can’t really solve these problems by looking at individual isolated components,” Katabi said.

The wireless industry’s biggest challenge is the sheer popularity of their products. According to center co-director and MIT computer science professor Hari Balakrishnan, 1.7 million new smartphones were activated worldwide each day during the second quarter of 2012. But Balakrishnan added, “it’s not just about smartphones. It’s about lots of embedded devices, in our cars, in our medical devices, in factory equipment, in things you have in your house.” Think of the millions of e-book readers, or automotive security services like OnStar, which transmit and receive data over cellular networks.

All this wireless activity is rapidly absorbing the limited radio spectrum licensed by the wireless carriers. The Obama administration warns of an impending “spectrum crunch” that could stifle the growth of wireless services because there won’t be enough network capacity to handle demand.