Coming From Asia: The Next Cool Cell Phones

GPS, electronic compasses, and new software will soon let our phones show us around town.
3 min read
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The United States leads the world in operating systems, Web 2.0 startups, and drunken teenage starlets. When it comes to cell phones, however, we might as well be Albania. With the exception of the iPhone, a truly game-changing (yet flawed) piece of technology, all the cool handsets appear first in Europe and Asia.

The main reason why we lag: Because people in Europe and Asia are more dependent on their cell phones than on their PCs, high-speed mobile broadband service has developed much faster. Buying a handset overseas is a lot like buying a computer--you can mix and match models and service providers. Here we're still mostly locked in to one carrier per device.

The good news is, that's changing. Verizon Wireless, for instance, now supports any handsets that work on its network. But if you want to see the future of cell phones, look to the east.

Mobiles in Motion
Need some proof? Take these three examples.

In Japan you can point certain Sony Ericsson or DoCoMo cell phones at a building, and they will display information about what's inside it, such as directions to a third-floor office or a menu for the rooftop restaurant. This trick is accomplished via the phone's GPS chip, its electronic compass, and Mapion Local Search software powered by San Francisco-based GeoVector. Handsets incorporating GeoVector technology will start to appear stateside by year's end, says CEO John Ellenby.

Also big in Japan: mobile phones that have motion sensors built in. Last year NTT DoCoMo launched cell phones that let you play games or fast-forward through MP3s simply by waving your hand. In the United States, Verizon has shipped handsets with games powered by Gesturetek, a similar technology that relies on the phone's camera to detect motion.

In China some cell phones, buses, and cars will be able to receive live HDTV broadcasts of the 2008 Beijing Olympics this summer. Unlike streaming services such as MobiTV or Verizon's VCast, China's mobile TV will transmit signals directly to a UHF/VHF antenna built into the phones, thus bypassing the cellular network and allowing for 50 times the bandwidth. Mobile TV is also taking off in Japan, Korea, and Europe.

Handset makers and carriers are still hammering out a broadcast standard for U.S. mobile TV. But we should begin to see devices employing early versions of it sometime in 2009, says Ben Runyan, VP of marketing for Legend Silicon, which makes the chips that power mobile TV in China.

Interesting Times
Nothing moves faster these days than the cell phone market. As I write this, prototype phones based on Google's Android mobile platform have begun to appear, though Apple's second-generation iPhone is still vaporous. And the FCC's bidding war for the old analog-TV spectrum could open up a third network beyond cellular and Wi-Fi/WiMax, an event that could turn the wireless world upside down.

"Sooner or later the U.S. will become more like the international market, where phones can be swapped between different providers and the applications are more open," predicts John Barrett, director of research for Parks Associates. "We are inching toward the day when handsets will be more like PCs and less like traditional phones."

Amen to that. Because I'm tired of living in Albania, even with all the drunken starlets.

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