Cell Phones Getting Smarter

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2303, 2005-01-21, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 26-27) and their website.

The ubiquitous cell phone has certainly come a long way. Back in 1983, Motorola introduced the DynaTAC 8000x, which only offered one hour of talk time, eight hours of standby, and enough memory to store 30 phone numbers. Tipping the scales at 28 ounces and more than a foot long, it quickly became known as "The Brick". Costing almost $4000, it was an expensive brick to haul around. But it was truly a pioneering product for any consumer eager to stay in touch while on the go.

In dramatic contrast, the Nokia 9300, due out in early 2005, will support four hours of talk time, 200 hours of standby, 80 MB of memory, and Bluetooth technology. It will also have a keyboard and joystick. At less than six ounces, 5.2 inches long, and an estimated price tag of $850, it may still be pricey to some people, but it certainly won't feel like a brick.

The convergence of cell phones with smart devices, such as PDAs and palmtops, is happening already, and it is accelerating. Not long ago, there was debate in the industry as to whether cell phone manufacturers would successfully steal the features of handheld devices — such as running small applications on downsized operating systems — or if the PDA and palmtop makers could add wireless telephony to their popular devices, and win the hearts and minds and wallets of consumers. The majority of industry pundits would argue that the first scenario overwhelmed the second. But this is not clear-cut, partly because there is now so much overlap of functionality among the product categories, e.g., wireless telephony extensions that snap onto PDAs.

In addition, many of the consumer electronics giants dominate both cell phones and mobile computing products. Some of the major players are well-known names to electronics buffs: Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sanyo. Lesser-known firms include Research in Motion, which makes BlackBerry devices, and palmOne, which manufactures the Treo smart phones.

The industry's frantic pace of innovation and blurring of product lines, can cause confusion for prospective buyers, as they try to determine which of the latest offerings deliver the most usable features at the lowest prices. Compounding the problem is a marketing-driven influx of new terminology to describe essentially the same concept — such as "PDA-based cell phones", "third-generation (3G) mobile phones", "pocket PC phones", and "smart phones".

Talk to the Handheld

Yet one idea is crystal clear, and that is the shared goal among the competitors to create the seemingly impossible — a device small enough to slip into a shirt pocket, but large enough to provide the user with high-quality wireless telephony, a usable keyboard or stylus-based data entry system, and an LCD screen sizable enough to allow the consumer to read Web pages without using a magnifying glass. Moreover, the ideal product must incorporate enough memory and processing power to support all of the aforesaid components, plus be powered by a battery that is long-lasting but also light.

The ideal product will improve upon all of the features currently enjoyed by people using existing mobile phones and PDAs: wireless phone calls, note taking, contact management, e-mail and Web access, digital photography (albeit at low resolutions, for now), online books, and instant messaging (IM). On top of all that, these combo cell phones will encompass future services, such as video calling and video streaming.

As noted earlier, the manufacturers of these smart phones must balance the demand of customers for small and elegant devices, with their even greater desire for readable color screens and keyboards that are not so small as to result in multiple keys being pressed by the average-sized finger. The manufacturers are responding with some inventive technologies, such as smarter input recognition, use of limited keys, speech recognition, or special graffiti written with a stylus, as made famous (or infamous, depending upon the user's success rate) by the Palm Pilot.

Smarter input recognition is nicely illustrated by the new BlackBerry 7100T phone, made by Research In Motion. They have taken the approach of assigning two characters to every key, thereby reducing the number of keys. But how does the 7100T know which character the user intended? Its SureType text-input system considers all of the possible words that match the keys already typed, and narrows it down with each subsequent keypress. This is similar to the phone directory systems that allow you to reach an employee (well, usually their voice mailbox) simply by typing their name on your phone keypad until the person's name is recognized.

Speech recognition, if near flawless, would be the most convenient input system, at least for non-mute consumers. But PDAs lack the processing power required to accomplish speech recognition that works well enough to obviate the need for a keyboard. However, that limitation could be disappearing in the near future, as several companies continue making progress in creating lightweight speech recognition modules and speech-specific processing microchips.

Having recognized the tremendous potential for mobile computing platforms, Microsoft developed and released in 2003 its Voice Command software, designed to allow Pocket PC devices to be controlled by voice commands. While the vocabulary has to be restricted to specific commands due to current hardware limitations, further advancements in processing power will eventually allow it to recognize natural speech comprising words typically found in documents and e-mail messages.

Resources for the Consumer

As electronics manufacturers begin offering the next generation of smart phones, anyone shopping for such a device will be well served by comparing the product features and prices. One place to start is CNET, which has a useful collection of cell phone reviews, a buyer's guide, articles, links to carriers and manufacturers, ring tones, forums, special offers, and subcategories for smart phones and camera phones. Mobiledia's website offers cell phone reviews and news, service provider information, a buying guide (with side-by-side comparisons), data on cell phone reception, upcoming releases, and forums for discussing manufacturers and service providers.

Cellphones.ca, run by WCS Cellphones Online, is a website that provides the visitor with unbiased comparisons of cell phones and cellular plans, as well as industry news. One disadvantage, for American site visitors, is that the cellular plans reviewed are only those in Canada. But an advantage of this site over many others, is that user ratings are welcome and displayed, which is usually a reliable sign that the site owners are not simply promoting particular services that sponsor a site.

A better day is dawning for those consumers who have held off on purchasing a cell phone or a PDA, because they wanted the capabilities of both, without having to lug around two separate devices. It will be interesting to see what the leading manufacturers come up with during the next couple of years, as they combine the features of telephones and computers, in ever smaller packages. Dick Tracy would likely be impressed.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.