Of course, the most prevalent converged mobile device remains the smart-phone, which combines the ability to make voice calls with data-centric communications tasks such as retrieving and sending e-mail or downloading file attachments or other content from remote servers.
Here, too, the offerings continue to explode, ranging from the Treo 650, the latest edition from U.S. smartphone leader Palm; to the planned Hewlett-Packard iPAQ hw6500 Mobile Messenger, shipped over the summer; to the BlackBerry 7100 series from Research In Motion--the force to reckon with when it comes to handheld e-mail and data communications. These devices still carry a serious premium over more traditional mobile phones, costing from about $400 to $900, depending on the service.
But price is just one reason for their slow adoption. Another is that form factors remain awkward. While most mobile phones can be used with one hand, many smartphones require both. "The fact is that any smartphone is something of a compromise between a great phone and a great PDA," says Todd Kort, principal analyst at Gartner.
Kort says about 16 million smartphones shipped in 2004, and that number will likely more than double in 2005. (U.S. shipments were about 2 million last year, and the Treo line accounted for just over half, he estimates.)
But the lines have blurred: When counting unit shipments, Gartner now lumps smartphones with their kin from the data world, most notably the handheld market leader, BlackBerry. By the time you read this, Kort predicts, RIM will have reached the 4 million-subscriber mark. "It's pretty clear that wireless e-mail is the first sort of killer application there's been in the wireless device market," he says.
E-mail software application providers that conduct research in this segment include Intellisync, which released in June an offering called Wireless Email Express. It pushes e-mail to handheld devices running Palm, Pocket PC, Symbian, SyncML or Windows Mobile Smart-phone. The Intellisync service carries an introductory price of $120 per year.
Other players are Good Technology, Seven Networks and Visto, all of which aim to bring the same sort of e-mail capabilities once associated only with the BlackBerry to more basic mobile phones. Visto, for example, teamed up with Nextel in May to launch a push e-mail service that works with Java-based phones such as the Motorola i605, i355 and i275 models. The service starts at $14.99 per month with 2MB of data access.
Another factor driving sales of converged handhelds, experts say, is the advent this year of applications that let users access data housed in their offices. One example is MobileAccess from Ten-Digits Software, which lets a BlackBerry user get to data stored in the Microsoft CRM application. "Prior to things like MobileAccess, mobile devices were only good for lookup. Now I have my customer database at my fingertips no matter where I am, including their histories," says Karen Brodie, 47, founder of Brodie Computes Inc., a 10-person IT consulting company in Guelph, Ontario, and a TenDigits customer. "It's way beyond being able to look up a phone number or access e-mail."
Brodie says she pays about $500 per user for the software, plus mobile service and update fees. She uses the software on her BlackBerry 7250.
The wild card for the converged hand-held segment is Microsoft. The software giant is including features in its Windows Mobile 5.0 software that will hook handheld devices more directly into Exchange mail servers back in the office, providing the same message-pushing features offered on the Black-Berry. Devices using the new Microsoft software are slated to ship late this year.
New and Noteworthy
This could well be the crossover year for notebooks. Gartner projects that worldwide mobile PC shipments will grow 26.5 percent this year, compared with just 4.6 percent growth for desktops. Portables now account for slightly less than 30 percent of all PCs shipped, the firm reports. And another researcher, San Diego-based Current Analysis, made waves earlier this year when it reported that second-quarter retail sales of notebooks had outstripped those of desktops.
One big factor in the notebook upswing has been price, says Sam Bhavnani, principal analyst of mobile computing for Current Analysis. As of July, average entry-level notebook price tags were around $1,100, down from $1,400 in summer 2004, Bhavnani reports. During the same time frame, average desktop prices declined by only about $30.
The Dell Latitude D510, as an example, starts at $929 and comes with a choice of a Pentium M or a Celeron M microprocessor from Intel. The notebook includes a rugged Tri-Metal chassis and Strike Zone shock absorber; starts with 256MB of DDR2 RAM (expandable up to 2GB); offers a choice of hard drives ranging from 30GB to 80GB; and comes standard with internal Intel Pro Wireless 802.11 b/g, a 24X CD-ROM drive and four USB 2.0 slots, among other ports.
Advanced Micro Devices' introduction of its Turion 64-bit mobile technology in March should inspire further price reductions in the category, experts say. Turion is AMD's latest answer to the Centrino mobile platform, which serves as the foundation for notebooks using Intel processors and wireless technology.
Bahr Mahony, divisional marketing manager for AMD's Mobile Business Division, Microprocessor Solutions Sector, says Turion was optimized to encourage the design of thin and light notebooks operating at lower thermal levels. It has the added benefit of providing a 64-bit upgrade path for buyers looking to invest in future editions of Microsoft's Windows operating system, he says.
Hewlett-Packard was the first major brand to ship a commercial notebook product based on Turion. The HP Compaq nx6125 Notebook PC, which starts at under $1,000, comes with options including AMD's PowerNow power management technology, along with an optional travel battery; a built-in fingerprint sensor that supports secure single sign-on; integrated wireless LAN connectivity; a 15-inch display; and a three-year warranty.
HP hopes to sweeten the deal with a bundle for small businesses that combines an HP ProLiant Server with Microsoft Small Business Server, a choice of mobile devices and a wireless network. It has also applied its HP Financial Services Budget Stretcher lease program to purchases of its new notebooks.
Among other major notebook vendors, IBM this summer shipped the ThinkPad X41 Tablet series, a 12-inch convertible notebook/tablet computer that weighs 3.5 pounds and is 1.14 inches thick. Certain models offer up to 6.3 hours of battery life. What makes the product especially interesting is that at $1,899, it's only $100 more than a traditional notebook, Bhavnani says.
At this writing, Sony Electronics' latest innovation was an ultraportable, 3-pound VAIO T-Series notebook with built-in connectivity to Cingular Wireless' nationwide EDGE network, which offers speeds of 70Kbps to 135Kbps. Priced at about $2,200, the system supports one-click DVD burning and comes with a 10.6-inch wide-format LCD.
Also in June, Toshiba introduced a 14-inch diagonal, under-$1,000 wide-screen model that weighs less than 5 pounds and measures 1.2 inches thick. One of the more notable options for the new Tecra A5 series: the ConfigFree application, which monitors wireless access points and Bluetooth presence, analyzes connectivity problems and enables quick file-sharing with other nearby users.
By the time you read this, experts predict we'll see notebooks coming standard with DVD rewriters, 60GB to 80GB hard drives, and up to 1GB of memory.
"It's a social dynamic, in addition to a price/performance equation," says Gerry Purdy, principal analyst with Cupertino, California-based MobileTrax, which advises clients on mobile and wireless computing. "Inherently, people are mobile, even if they're not traveling from city to city. HR departments are also now offering [mobile devices] to new employees as time-shifting devices."
Don't forget that when you're mobile, your cell phones, notebooks, and handhelds are vulnerable to security threats. For tips on how to keep your data safe, go to "Wireless Security" .