HOME Technology Nov 2009
Touchy feely smartphones emerge
Mobile digital makeover underway

Manufacturers and carriers are now cramming in more features and focusing on ease-of-ease and smart services to take mobile broadband communications to the next level.’

The mobile digital broadband device of the near future will recognise your voice, be location sensitive, respond to your gestures, manage your multimedia content and keep you connected at light speed wherever you are.

Advances in chip speed will enable web pages to be downloaded 10 times faster and in higher resolution, and pico-projectors and RFID (radio frequency identification) chips are also on the list of imminent additions.

Smartphone users typically want a comprehensive range of downloads, upgrades and online services. That might be as basic as the latest news and sports results, music and video clips to street maps and location-based services that notify you when you are near a favourite retail outlet or one that has an item you’ve been looking for.

Micro-payment partnerships will soon enable mobile devices to become digital wallets and provide secure access to buildings or vehicles. Camera capability has already jumped to between 5-8Mpixels on many phones and video quality is improving significantly for posting online or sharing with friends

Worldwide mobile phone sales grew around 6 percent in the year to June but smartphones grew a whopping 27 percent, becoming the fastest growing mobile devices in the market, possibly reaching 170 million units by the end of this year.

Touch takes hold

Nokia maintained leadership, Samsung’s touchscreen and smartphone innovations drove its sales in mature markets and Apple came in at third with its iPhone, with sales accelerating through its 8Gb and 3G broadband versions. LG also recorded strong sales followed by Motorola, Sony Ericsson and further down the ranks Palm. At the high end of the smartphone market Taiwanese manufacturer HTC remained in fourth position behind Apple.

The move to 3G cellular networks has created even more synergy between the manufacturers of mobile devices and the carriers who are eagerly bundling or subsidising the latest smartphones, netbooks and even e-book readers as sign up and loyalty incentives.

When Apple slashed prices for its iPhone and introduced 3G models, it became the fastest selling smart handset in the US, with many people defecting to networks that supported it.

Manufacturers and carriers are now cramming in more features and focusing on ease-of-use and smart services to take mobile broadband communications to the next level.

Digital Mobile says many leading edge phones are plummeting in price; the Vodafone 541 touchscreen phone has halved to around $150, the Nokia E63 with qwerty keypad and wifi has plummeted in price to $400 and the Sony Ericsson W595, which doubles as a Walkman, sells for around $400.

The iPhone and iTouch experience has dramatically changed the way people use mobile technology and now there’s huge investment developing more intuitive interfaces, including larger touch screens.

LG Electronics, Samsung, phones using Google’s Android operating system, and the Blackberry Storm are all moving in to touch, and open operating systems (OS), to attract more software and services developers to their platforms.

Palm, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile and other ‘closed’ operating systems are being left behind in the dust stirred up by new players who’re quicker to innovate. Research group Gartner predicts that in 2012, ‘open’ players like Android, Symbian — mainly used on Nokia phones — and Research In Motion’s BlackBerry will dominate the mobile landscape ahead of Apple's iPhone OS.

Open and shut case

While the iPhone continues to show year on year growth, consumers and businesspeople on the move are looking for a platform that will grow with them and provide a secure path into the future.

HTC, Samsung and Motorola already have Android-based product in New Zealand. Typically they’re touch-screen GSM 3G phones, fitted with wifi, an MP3 player, camera, Bluetooth, GPS and applications including Google Maps.

While Android hasn’t kept pace with the hype, a raft of new products and applications are imminent. Analysts remain confident that if development stays on track, it could even provide a challenge to New Zealand’s favourite smart phone, RIM’s Blackberry, including its newly released Storm 2, with multi-touch screen and wifi.

However Microsoft is attempting to lift its game with Windows Mobile 6.5 which delivers similar functions to its major competitors and makes for easier connectivity with its PC-based operating system and the online X-box gaming platform.

Windows Marketplace for Mobile for example, is a one-stop shop for downloading applications that run on Windows phones including games. And then there’s My Phone, an online service for backing up and sharing photos, contacts and other smartphone data. HTC and LG are among those planning to sell new touchphones here capable of running Microsoft’s new mobile operating system.

Having wifi on your cellphone will become mainstream over the next year or so, driven by the huge growth in wifi hotspots at coffee shops and public places, resulting in significant savings over costly cellphone calls. According to ABI Research, 90 percent of the mobile phone market will be new dual-mode by 2014.

Meanwhile Texas Instruments (TI) has launched an advanced mobile chipset for faster phone downloads and a mini-projector it hopes will go mainstream from 2010. Interest was so strong when Samsung trialed the product resulting in further reduction in size and the resolution being doubled.

The projector beams video or photographs from a phone, enabling presentations, videos or photographs to be displayed on any flat surface. TI believes the embedded projectors may even be more popular than cellphone cameras which soared from 4 million shipments in 2001 to more than 70 million by 2007.

ID chips with that?

Now there’s a move to incorporate RFID chips, making the phone a proximity device that can access your car or house. Ericsson believes, with a secure bi-directional tag or a reader incorporated into the SIM card, the phone could manage ‘trusted identities’ and ‘secure elements’ to pay for concert tickets, tolls or enhance GPS (global positioning systems) for dynamic travel information.

Instead of having different chargers for different phones, a universal charger based on a micro-USB interface is in the pipeline. This will reduce waste when phones give up the ghost, so chargers remain useful for longer and work with more phones from 2012.

And manufacturers are working on bigger screens that will take things a step beyond touch to more intuitive interfaces, with sensors that respond to gestures and ‘augmented reality’. While pull-out or fold-out options may help expand the screen, standards are still being worked out for new ways to communicate with your device.

Some Nokia phones allow users to reject calls by turning them upside down, and the iPhone has a ‘shake to undo’ capability. In the future you might share files with a flick of the wrist or by touching devices together, although accidental activation could be embarrassing.

A number of companies have begun patenting these new developments, including a track pad that responds to pressure with ‘accelerator’ and ‘brake pedal’, which could emerge by 2011. Then there’s augmented reality, allowing users to input instructions on how they want to operate their camera or GPS receiver, including acquiring information about people by pointing the phone.

Just as some human gestures are considered unacceptable in public, the wisdom and privacy issues of pointing your phone at someone still needs to be worked through.

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