Wednesday, October 8, 2003

Cell phone makers get the message

Users expect devices to provide a multitude of tasks, from taking photos to playing games

By Gil Kaufman
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Sara Gartman of Rockaway, N.J., is an avid user of text messaging.
(Associated Press photo)
Over the past year, the utilitarian cell phone has grown more appendages than a Swiss Army knife, morphing from a tool of convenience into a pocket-sized entertainment center.

Light-up antennas, interchangeable face plates and personalized ring tones were cute at first, but today's cell phone junkie craves a James Bond-style device, one that lets you check in on dinner, play video games, e-mail pictures, listen to and trade music and send text messages.

Within the next few years, you can add printing e-mails and photos, sending video clips and perhaps even watching your favorite broadcast TV program to the list.

Kris Haney is what is known as an "early adopter." The 27-year-old Eastgate resident was wandering around the remodeled Hyde Park Kroger recently snapping photos with his T-Mobile cell phone.

"I take pictures with my phone and e-mail them to my company so they can see the finished job," said Haney, who works for Fairfield-based retail design firm CIP. Ignoring sidelong glances from shoppers, frequent traveler Haney said his phone has uncluttered his life and helped him stay in touch with his family.

"I bought it last year and before (that) I had to carry a regular digital camera, Walkman and pager with me," Haney said. "Now I text message with my bosses and my girlfriend, and we e-mail pictures of the kids back and forth."

Haney said he also downloads music and ring tones to his phone when he's on the road.

"It pretty much takes care of everything for me now."

The latest cell phone revolution began late last year with the introduction of affordable, easy-to-use camera phones and enhanced music-enabled handsets.

The multiuse phones mean businesspeople and casual users no longer have to juggle a laptop, PDA, phone, pager, MP3 player and digital camera, but could get most of their work and play done on one device that fits into a shirt pocket.

Thanks to government action decreeing that all 911 calls made from cell phones must be able to be pinpointed by operators, your mobile may soon also act as a mini Global Positioning Device (GPS). The government has set a 2005 deadline for carriers to equip their systems to locate such calls, though it may take the local emergency response teams several more years after that to upgrade their systems, says Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

In the meantime, a world of new commercial possibilities soon will open up thanks to the GPS functionality, allowing for location-based phone gaming similar to popular geocaching treasure hunts. As with spam e-mail, though, Larson said the new GPS functions also could allow Starbucks to ring your phone with a coupon as you walk by, or alert you when an Instant Message buddy is in the vicinity.

And while plenty of new products are available stateside, trends continue to be set in Japan, the world's leader in cell phone innovation. Japan's NEC Corp. announced in July that it had built a prototype phone that could receive digital broadcast TV signals in addition to taking photos and making calls. The phone is at least a couple of years away from the U.S. market.

While you wait, there are plenty of other distractions to keep you occupied.

Newest gaming system

Most phones now come loaded with a few rudimentary games, but Sprint has upped the ante with a snap-on game controller, the PCS Game Pad ($40). The add-on to the Samsung A600 phone (which, of course, already snaps pictures and has a 180-degree swiveling screen) allows you to play full-color, arcade-style games with a controller similar to a home gaming system.

Nokia's new N-Gage is primarily a full-color portable gaming system that happens also to make phone calls, take pictures and play MP3s, according to spokesperson Keith Nowak. The N-Gage also uses wireless technology to download new game levels, upload high scores and is Bluetooth-enabled to allow for five players to go head-to-head.

If games seem like child's play, other phone downloading options include on-the-fly golf lessons from GolfAntix, which helps track scores, analyze states and suggest areas that might need some work.

And, if gizmos don't float your boat, you can always go for flash over functionality, starting with the Vertu, the world's first $20,000 cell phone.

The high-end phone available in platinum or gold, with ruby and sapphire detailing, is reportedly a favorite of Madonna and comes with a high-end concierge service.

It was recently joined in celebrity circles by the Xelibri, marketed as a "designer phone." Like clothing collections, the Xelibri's manufacturer, Siemens, plans to issue the fashionably shaped phones to department stores and fashion retailers across the world in both spring/summer and fall/winter editions.

Sadly, even for that price, you still have to do the dialing yourself.

Text messaging

Text messaging on phones has exploded within the past year, with several billion being exchanged annually.

Eliminating the need for a cell phone plus a two-way messaging pager, texting on cells has been a blessing for some, a curse for others and just plain fun for pranksters.

The latest social application for cell texting is the street theater phenomenon, flashmobbing. Strangers use text-enabled phones to spread the word and meet to engage in bizarre behaviors, like bowing down en masse to a giant dinosaur at a Toys R Us in New York.

Get on the list

Formerly the provenance of emergency workers and kids playing ghost in the graveyard, one of the latest additions to phones is the walkie-talkie, or "push to talk" feature. The extra, which allows users to push a button and reach out to someone on a predetermined list without dialing, is fast becoming popular among families on outings, concertgoers and teenagers at the mall, as it allows for shorter calls and cuts down on dialing costs.

Nextel is the first carrier to offer the service on a nationwide basis, but most major carriers are expected to roll it out by year's end.

Photo phones

Since their roll-out in the United States last year, "picture phones have been a surprising success in a very short time," according to Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association. He said their popularity ranks them second only to text messaging in terms of new phone applications.

According to a recent industry analysis, by the end of this year, more than 55 million users will own camera handsets, doubling the amount of photo units sold last year. By early August, Verizon said its customers had shared more than one million pictures in the first month of the company's imaging service, despite a somewhat steep cost of 25 cents per photo sent, plus air time.

The increasingly sophisticated devices are fast approaching the high quality of megapixel digital cameras. Samsung's A600 is loaded with a 4X zoom, built-in flash, timer and adjustable resolution settings, with space to store up to 128 low-resolution images.

Nokia is working with Hewlett-Packard to develop a system to print documents, pictures and e-mails from its handsets using the much-hyped Bluetooth system, which allows devices within 30 feet of each other to wirelessly interact.

Nokia is also leading the way with video on cell phones with its 3650 handset, which shoots 10-second video clips. With expanded bandwidth on the horizon, a Nokia spokesperson predicted phones will soon be able to send crystal-clear 30 second to one-minute video clips..


If downloading and trading songs on your phone isn't enough, Berkeley, Calif., Gracenote is developing a program that makes your phone a music expert.

Its software will allow you to point your handset at the radio and find out the name of the song that is playing and, depending on your carrier, allow you to buy the album or instantly download a ring tone.

The system is six months from being commercially available, according to a Gracenote spokesperson, but a UK company called Shazam Entertainment already has started offering a similar service in England.

Because downloading sound effects and hit songs for your ring tones is old news to most teens, Nokia's back-to-school model 3300 phone not only plays MP3s, but gets an FM radio signal, and has a full messaging keypad.

The phone has a swappable memory card and enough battery power to allow up to 15 hours of music play, pausing music for incoming calls.

Musicians have been using ring tones and downloads for several years to promote their new albums, but the latest wrinkle came last month from Motorola, which partnered with some of the world's biggest DJs to turn phones into traveling DJ booths.

Such renowned DJs as Paul Van Dyk and Felix da Housecat recorded exclusive songs available for paid download on the Motorola C350 handset, which will be preloaded with ring tones supplied by the DJs. The new phone also comes with MotoMixer, software that allows aspiring DJS to remix tracks on their handsets and online, then download the new song onto their phone.

A recent breakthrough that raised the concerns of privacy advocates, DoCoMo and Texas Instruments announced that they are working on a device that could record cell phone calls with the touch of a button, raising the specter of privacy and legal concerns.

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