Think you love your mobile phone now? Wait till you see the latest features
Patrick Newman in Galveston, Texas, knows when his boss is calling--his
cellphone plays the theme from The Godfather . Fifteen-year-old Brooke Webster,
who lives near Wichita, Kan., uses her camera phone to give friends a sneak peek
of her dress for their school's upcoming Hollyball--one of several snapshots she
posts daily to the Web. Larry Fortune in Atlanta cut the cord a year ago and
joined the millions of Americans who make their calls strictly on cells.
Fifteen years ago, mobile phones were unwieldy and expensive novelties that
often couldn't even make a decent voice call. Today they are pocket-size
powerhouses that 170 million U.S. subscribers use to take pictures, access the
Internet and E-mail, record video clips, and--oh, yeah--call home to make sure
they're picking up the right can of soup when they forget the shopping list.
The rush to turn these devices into all-purpose pocket pods will continue as
wireless carriers and tech companies roll out flashy new features--services such
as tracking your kids' location, top-notch wireless gaming, downloadable TV
programs, and audio directions on how to get from point A to point B.
"[The cellphone] is already something you carry with you all the time," says
James Burke at Motorola, a leading handset maker. "So it's a great opportunity
to meet other needs."
Americans so far have been slower in their embrace of the new wireless services
that have swept Europe and Asia--text messaging, for example. There's a lot of
uncertainty about which new features consumers really want, says Charles Golvin,
a market analyst at Forrester Research. Consumers here want good voice
connections, and then maybe wireless headsets and color screens. Surveys by
Forrester show that cameras, videocams, and other doodads each right now
generate interest in only smaller groups of American users.
But the profit potential almost guarantees that new features will keep coming.
Cellphone makers can sell new "mobiles," as they're known just about everywhere
except North America, if the devices can do more tricks. The wireless carriers,
too, make more money if consumers send more data over their networks. That's
crucial to these service providers, who've seen trouble ahead for their profits
from voice calls. Stiff competition has slowed growth in voice income, so
carriers are throwing everything else at users, hoping something will catch on.
"They're in an experimental stage, trying this and that," says Neil Strother, a
market analyst at In-Stat/MDR. And the consumer is the guinea pig.
A big hit to date has been ringtones, as cellphone users pay to get their mobile
to sound off with favorite tunes whenever someone calls. These services are
becoming so popular that Billboard magazine has just started a Top 10 chart for
the most popular ringtones. (Last week's No. 1 was "My Boo" by Usher and Alicia
Keys.) In Galveston, Newman pays $1 or $2 to download ringers from Verizon for
his frequent callers--when it's his sister, who investigates paranormal
phenomena, the phone sings out the X-Files theme. His generic ring for others is
music from Monday Night Football , even if his beloved Dallas Cowboys are having
a rough year. Newman, a medical researcher, says he likes the phone to reflect
his tastes, so he's trying to find Irish folk music to load up. More typical is
Vincent Trinh, a Houston college student whose phone was recently chiming out
Snoop Dogg's "Drop It Like It's Hot" for callers he knew. Teens and young adults
are the biggest customers, as they are for the music industry as a whole.
Hip-hop--a genre whose digital noises and crisp beats often sound like some
electronic alarm anyway--is their choice for ringers. Ringtone quality started
at simple one-note-at-a-time melodies, progressed to more complex harmonies of
different sounds, and now on some phones can reach radio-quality
playback--playing out actual voices rather than digital beeps.
The next step is phones as audio players. Motorola, for example, just struck a
deal with Apple to load its iTunes on some models. It'll be a while before the
phones have enough memory or the networks have the capacity to compete directly
with the iPod--but it's probably just a matter of time.
Mo' better blogging. Another feature gaining popularity is phone photography.
Consumers already have shown they like digital pics--digicams are the hottest
holiday gift this year. "People have strong, emotional responses to pictures,"
says Jeff Hallock at Sprint, which is perhaps the most aggressive pusher of
photo messaging among U.S. carriers.
Grainy images diluted the impact of last year's camera phones, whose pictures
didn't look good on PC monitors, much less as prints. But a few phones this year
can capture more than a megapixel, and next year they will reach 2 and maybe
even 3 megapixels. Those shots should look great on computers and even make
decent 4-by-6-inch prints, despite the cam phones' weaker lenses and shorter
zooms than those of stand-alone cameras.
Even blurry pics were enough to launch "moblogging," where users upload the
intriguing and the mundane images from their daily mobile lives. Webster posts
enough photos to her site that friends and strangers can see not only her formal
dress but the damage to the family car when her dad hit a deer and pictures of
the school bus rides ("bleck!") she had to take as a result.
But it can still be difficult to swap pictures among camera phones. Carriers
expect that more people will join in the snapshot action once they can easily
send photos from a handset using one carrier to a phone using a different
service provider. But the companies first must decide how to move photos between
networks; that won't happen until next year or later.
These new functions raise the question of how much one phone can handle. Some
smart phones already have enough memory to handle a slew of MP3s and E-mail
while tracking tasks and calendars. Some newer models, such as the Treo 650 and
the BlackBerry 7100t, have better keyboards and software, and the online
services are better designed. But Internet-type news and entertainment still
disappoint because of slow downloads. While wireless carriers are rolling out
advanced networks that promise broadband speeds for data downloads, these
services remain too expensive for most users, starting at an extra $25 per
month. Few in the industry now see one phone doing everything, says Strother at
In-Stat. They're aiming instead to group the right combination of features for
the right consumers.
For example, Donna Butler of Wimauma, Fla., is no gadget freak. But she got her
daughter Danielle a cutting-edge phone when she learned it would track the
17-year-old's comings and goings. Butler pays an extra $15 a month or so to a
new service called "Teen Arrive Alive," which uses satellites to trace
cellphones and posts their whereabouts, plus the speed at which they're
traveling, to a website for parents. Danielle bristled at the loss of privacy
but liked the phone's added walkie-talkie-like service for instant chatting with
friends. "That helped win her over," says Mom, who also told her daughter she
wasn't going to spy unless given reason. "It gives me an edge," says Butler. "If
something does seem wrong, I'm not just another parent helplessly worrying at
Carriers think they can make money if they can get, say, 1 of every 10 customers
to bite on the new services--and some hope soon to be getting 10 percent of
their overall income from nonvoice features. That's still far behind overseas
carriers, which may soon draw 20 percent of their income from the whiz-bang
stuff. U.S. carriers think they'll see similar numbers, despite protests that
consumers here don't think they want more features. "People used to say that
about mobile phones themselves," says Sprint's Hallock, and now many people
can't imagine life without one.