Posted by: lrrp | April 26, 2007

Your Next Computer

There are 1.5 billion mobile phones in the world today. Already you can use them to browse the Web, take pictures, send e-mail and play games. Soon they could make your PC obsolete
By Brad Stone

June 7 issue – One hundred nineteen hours, 41 minutes and 16 seconds. That’s the amount of time Adam Rappoport, a high-school senior in Philadelphia, has spent talking into his silver Verizon LG phone since he got it as a gift last Chanukah. That’s not even the full extent of his habit. He also spends countless additional hours using his phone’s Internet connection to check sports scores, download new ringtones (at a buck apiece) and send short messages to his friends’ phones, even in the middle of class. “I know the touch-tone pad on the phone better than I know a keyboard,” he says. “I’m a phone guy.”

In Tokyo, halfway around the world, Satoshi Koiso also closely eyes his mobile phone. Koiso, a college junior, lives in the global capital of fancy new gadgets—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. But Koiso also depends on his phone for something simpler and more profound: an antismoking message that pops up on his small screen each morning as part of a program to help students kick cigarettes. “Teachers struggle to stop smoking, too. You hang in there,” the e-mail says one day.

Another few thousand miles away, in Frankfurt, Germany, Christoph Oswald is winding his way through his favorite nightclub, busily scanning for women who are his type: tall, slim and sporty. The 36-year-old software consultant is doing this by peering into his cell phone. Before he reaches the bar, Oswald’s Nokia starts vibrating, and a video of an attractive blonde appears on the color screen. “Hi, I’m Susan, come find me!” she says. Oswald scans the crowd and picks out the blue-eyed financial adviser he’d glimpsed in the video. She has seen his picture, too. The proximity of their two phones has activated a service called Symbian Dater, which compared their profiles and decided they were compatible. Soon they are laughing, and Christoph is buying Susan drinks.

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. AT&T rolled out the first cellular network in 1977 for 2,000 customers in Chicago. The phones had the approximate shape and weight of a brick.

Those phones sit in museums now, and half a billion sleeker, colorful new mobile sets are sold each year. Sales of mobile phones dwarf the sales of televisions, stereos, even the hallowed personal computer. 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. Tweak the question, though, to ask whether 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.”

PalmOne is among the firms racing to trot out the full-featured computerlike phones that the industry dubs smart phones. Hawkins’s newest product, the sleek, pocket-size Treo 600, has a tiny keyboard, a built-in digital camera and slots for added memory. Other device makers have introduced their own unique versions of the smart phone. Nokia’s N-Gage, launched last fall, with a new version to hit stores this month, plays videogames. Motorola’s upcoming MPx has a nifty “dual hinge” design: the handset opens in one direction and looks like a regular phone, but it also flips open along another axis and looks like an e-mail device, with the expanded phone keypad serving as a small qwerty keyboard. There are also smart phones on the way with video cameras, GPS antennas and access to local Wi-Fi hotspots, the superfast wireless networks often found in offices, airports and cafes. There’s not yet a phone that doubles as an electric toothbrush, but that can’t be far away.

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. “What makes [the smart phone] so much better than the computer is that it’s always with you, always up and always ready,” says Jeff Hackett of Gordon, Feinblatt, an 80-member law firm in Baltimore that recently started giving its lawyers Treo 600s instead of laptops.

In Asia, it’s not the boring professionals driving the newest innovations in the mobile market but what the Japanese call keitai-crazy kids. Teens sit in Tokyo’s crowded plazas, furiously messaging each other, reading e-mail magazines and playing fantasy games like Dragon Quest. In South Korea, phones are so cherished by youngsters that in a recent survey of elementary-school kids, half said they wanted a phone as their gift for Children’s Day, a national holiday. Dogs got 22 percent of the vote, PCs a meager 10 percent. Many Asian phone manufacturers think the next killer app for all these kids is actually 75 years old: television. 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 Research in Motion, maker of the popular BlackBerry e-mail device. 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, serve up discounts for stores as you walk by them and expand dating services like the one Christoph in Frankfurt enjoyed.

But not all mobile technologists think the ultimate promise of the mobile phone ends there. Could your phone one day actually perform many of the functions of the PC, like word processing and Web browsing? PalmOne’s Hawkins thinks so. The inventor of the Palm Pilot and the Treo keeps a desktop PC and a thin Sony Vaio laptop in his office. Yet he waves at both dismissively, as if they were heading for the dustbin of history. Within the next few decades, he 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. That’s it. 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. “Hundreds of millions of people are not going to replace the full screen, mouse and keyboard experience with staring at a little screen,” says Sean Maloney, an executive VP at chipmaker Intel, which is investing heavily in both Wi-Fi and mobile-phone technology.

Yet mobile-phone innovators are working to solve that tricky problem, too. Scientists are continuing decades of research into speech-recognition systems and have recently introduced the technology into PDAs. Users can control these gadgets with simple voice commands. Phones don’t have enough processing power for speech recognition yet, but Moore’s Law—the inevitability of annual improvements in computing power—will help phones get there soon, provided that battery life can keep up. Other innovators are working on improving the keyboard instead of scrapping it altogether. Canesta, a five-year-old firm in San Jose, Calif., is working on a product called a “projection keyboard.” A laser inside the phone emits the pattern of a large keyboard onto a flat surface, and the phone’s camera perceives the user’s finger movements. Canesta’s first products for phones will be available as plug-ins later this year, but one day they could be cheaply integrated into handsets.

Cell phones aren’t likely to take the fastest road to this bright future. Innovation in the mobile industry is full of zigzags and wrong turns, often because no single company completely controls the device in your pocket. Carriers like Sprint and AT&T sell the phone to customers, provide billing and run the phone network; device makers like Sony, Nokia and Samsung design the phone itself and outsource the actual manufacturing to factories in China. Another challenge is that, unlike the Internet, the phone world has no open and single set of protocols for programmers to build around. Software written for one kind of phone won’t work on all the others. The uncoordinated, noncommercial programming that led to the quick evolution of the Internet hasn’t taken hold in the world of mobile phones.

But what if you could sidestep those business barriers and, limited only by your imagination and by the feasibility of existing technology, design the Phone of the Future from scratch? NEWSWEEK wondered, and asked Frog Design, a 34-year-old Silicon Valley firm that helps build phones for companies like Motorola and Nextel, to work on the problem. Over the course of a month, four professional tech designers produced the specifications for the “petfrog,” a sleek, enticing prophecy of things to come. The phone’s touch screen can display any interface, from keypad to keyboard to mouse pad or game console. A second, higher-resolution screen can slide out of the unit for video chats and Web surfing. Thin, insertable cartridges can turn the phone into an MP3 player or a camera, or add extra memory or a large keyboard. “This phone will be your alter ego,” says Frog founder Hartmut Esslinger.

The only drawback is that the petfrog doesn’t really exist—yet. But Esslinger says it would take only two or three years to build. “The challenge is to get companies to think beyond the boundaries of their businesses,” he says. Incongruously, he is demonstrating the petfrog on his ultra-thin Vaio laptop, exactly the kind of personal computer he believes we will all one day leave behind. But for now, that doesn’t matter. In this vision of the next frontier, we are all phone guys.

With Emily Flynn in London, Kay Itoi in Tokyo and B. J. Lee in Seoul

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