Wireless devices offer a digital smorgasbord

Weather reports, games, music added to traditional uses

October 26, 2003|By COX NEWS SERVICE

LAS VEGAS - Just getting used to the idea of using your cell phone to send text messages or take pictures?

Wait until you see what wireless companies are planning next.

Mobile phones are changing from mere communications tools into digital Swiss Army knives that can play games and music, get news and weather reports and still make an occasional call.

At the same time, wireless companies are setting themselves up to compete with traditional personal computers, handheld devices such as Palm Pilots and even video game consoles.

At the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association trade show here last week, companies promoted the emerging technologies:

Music: Several phone makers are making MP3 music players a big part of their newest handsets. Nokia is showing off its 3300 Music Phone, available only in foreign markets so far, that stores up to 11 hours of music and has a built-in FM radio.

Information: Companies can beam everything from news headlines to restaurant ads to your cell phone for a fee, and more services are coming. AccuWeather Inc. plans to debut detailed weather forecasts in major cities early next year, including tiny hurricane tracking maps and even UV index ratings. Other companies are rolling out video and audio news and sports clips.

Games: Forget that simple "snake" game that came with your phone. Some new handsets look more like Nintendo-style Game Boys than telephones, and games that once required a TV set soon can be played on a cell phone screen.

Few devices illustrate the potential future of the cell phone more than Nokia's new N-Gage gadget, which debuted internationally two weeks ago.

Billed as a game machine first and a telephone second, the $300 handheld is a hybrid that also functions as a MP3 music player, a FM radio, and a personal digital assistant that can sync with a PC's calendar, e-mail and other programs.

"It's not your father's car phone anymore," said Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

A patriarch of the phone business, Nokia recently underwent a major reorganization aimed at transforming itself from a cell phone company to a maker of cellular-based devices that do all sorts of things.

To reinforce the shift with employees, Nokia implemented a new in-house rule: Any employee who refers to N-Gage as simply a phone is fined a dollar or a euro.

"Our vision is that life is going mobile," said Nada Usina, Nokia's general manager of entertainment and media.

Like so much in the technology business, there's hype as well as substance in many of the wireless industry's new promises.

Wireless companies have been pledging for years to turn handsets into everything from Internet browsers to global positioning system terminals, but haven't come close to delivering.

Most of the new services debuting here should be available to consumers everywhere soon, but many can be used only with the newest, most expensive phones. And in many cases, they'll be available only in Europe and Asia, where wireless phones are more widespread than in the United States.

Technology needs to catch up with the hype too. To send video clips and do high-quality Web browsing using cell phones, transfer speeds need to be faster and phones need more power.

The amount of wireless spectrum - the federally managed airwaves that carry cellular signals - isn't big enough either, said Rudy Baca, an analyst at Precursor Group, a technology research company.

"I think what we're seeing now is just announcements and not much more," Baca said. "You're not going to see widespread deployment of a lot of these things for several years at least."

Cell phone companies don't want to wait that long. What's driving their desire to dial up new services is the fact that most people who want a cell phone already have one.

In some big markets, three out of four households already have a cell phone, and many have more than one.

Nowhere in the United States are cell phones more dominant than in Atlanta, where 75 percent of homes subscribe to cellular service, according to a report last week from Scarborough Research.

Detroit ranked No. 2 in the Scarborough report, and Austin, Texas; Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and Washington were tied for No. 3.

Because so many people already have phones, cellular companies have to find new markets by selling services like downloadable information or new models that let users do more.

"What [cellular carriers and phone makers] need to do is find ways to grow more profits from their existing markets," Baca said.

Encouraging the wireless companies is the success of add-on services such as text messaging and camera phones.

According to the cellular industry trade group, wireless phone users sent 1.5 billion text messages in June, 50 percent more than in June last year.

Sales of camera phones recently outpaced sales of digital cameras, according to the telecommunications trade group.

In all, cellular companies' revenues from wireless data services totaled $700 million during the first half of this year, 70 percent more than a year ago and 300 percent more than in the first six months of 2001, it said.

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