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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Mobile Phone As The Next Computer

(Via Newsweek) 20 percent of all phones in Tokyo link to the fastest mobile networks in the world. Tokyoites use their phones to watch TV, read books and magazines and play games. Technology revolutions come in two flavors: jarringly fast and imperceptibly slow. The fast kind, like the sudden ubiquity of iPods or the proliferation of music-sharing sites on the Net, seem to instantly reshape the cultural landscape. The slower upheavals grind away over the course of decades, subtly transforming the way we live and work. The emergence of mobile phones around the world has been slow but overwhelmingly momentous. Sales of mobile phones dwarf the sales of televisions, stereos, personal computers. There are 1.5 billion cell phones in the world today, more than three times the number of PCs. Mobile phones are so integral to our lives that it's difficult to remember how the heck we ever got on without them. As our phones get smarter, smaller and faster and enable users to connect at high speeds to the Internet, an obvious question arises: is the mobile handset turning into the next computer? In one sense, it already has. Today's most sophisticated phones have the processing power of a mid-1990s PC while consuming 100 times less electricity. And more and more of today's phones have computerlike features, allowing their owners to send e-mail, browse the Web and even take photos; 84 million phones with digital cameras were shipped last year. Will mobile phones will ever eclipse, or replace, the PC, and the issue suddenly becomes controversial. PC proponents say phones are too small and connect too sluggishly to the Internet to become effective at tasks now performed on the luxuriously large screens and keyboards of today's computers. Fans of the phone respond: just wait. Coming innovations will solve the limitations of the phone. "One day, 2 or 3 billion people will have cell phones, and they are all not going to have PCs," says Jeff Hawkins, inventor of the Palm Pilot and the chief technology officer of PalmOne. "The mobile phone will become their digital life."
The smart-phone market constitutes only a slender 5 percent of overall mobile-phone sales today, but the figure has been doubling each year, according to the Gartner research firm. In the United States, it's the business crowd that's primarily buying these souped-up handsets. In May Samsung announced it would launch a phone that receives 40 satellite TV stations. In the near future, at least, new phones won't look anything like PCs. "The industry is figuring out that a wireless handheld is a different beast," says Mark Guibert, marketing director of RIM. Mobile-phone watchers say that handsets in the next few years will pack a gigabyte or more of flash memory, turning the phone into a huge photo album or music player and giving stand-alone iPods a run for their money. For several years the industry has also talked about "location-based services," built around a phone's ability to detect its exact location anywhere in the world. With this capability, phones will soon be able to provide precise driving directions. The inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Treo predicts, all phones will become mobile phones, all networks will be capable of receiving voice and Internet signals at broadband speeds, and all mobile bills will shrink to only a few dollars as the phone companies pay off their investments in the new networks. "You are going to have the equivalent of a persistent [fast] T1 line in your pocket. It's going to happen," Hawkins predicts. The computer won't go away, he says, but it might fade to the background, since people prefer portability and devices that turn on instantly instead of having to boot up.
Defenders of the PC react with religious outrage to this kind of prophecy. Laptops allow another kind of mobile computing, they point out, particularly with the emergence of thousands of Wi-Fi networks around the world over the past four years. By the end of this year half of all laptops shipped will be Wi-Fi-equipped, allowing laptop owners to set up temporary offices in the local cafe or public park. Then there's the matter of simple practicality: mobile phones are small and getting smaller. Humans are not

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