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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 00:01 GMT
Living the converged media life
By Tim Weber
Business editor, BBC News Interactive

Nokia N73 X-Series phone, using Slingbox to watch BBC Two
Television on the move, brought to you straight from your telly at home

At the 3GSM trade show in Barcelona, mobile operators and phone makers are placing huge bets on convergence - the coming together of mobile phones, television and music players. But does it work?

The 3G phone in my hand certainly has novelty value: people get excited when I show it off.

Not that the Nokia N73 is a particularly special phone. It's more what I can do with it.

Whether I'm in the office, in a cab or on a train, at the click of a button I can watch dozens of television channels, plucked straight from my very own television set-top box at home.

A clever silvery brick - called Slingbox - allows me to control the set-top box remotely using the internet. As a technology, it's not new, but the Slingbox software for mobiles is.

Now listen to this...

Another piece of software, called Orb, gives me access to all documents, pictures and music on my home computer.

Using the mobile phone, I can browse pictures, read documents and listen in good quality to music on my PC's hard drive.

Instant messaging (with MSN Messenger and Yahoo) can also be had on this Nokia; a special eBay application makes online bidding easy.

And then there is Skype, the software to make cheap international calls to traditional phones and free internet phone calls to other Skype users.

All this and more is part of the software bundle offered on X-series phones by UK mobile phone operator 3.

The best part: the service comes with a fairly low flat fee; it would take very heavy usage indeed to reach the limits of 3's internet access deal.

Does it work?

To my surprise, it's very straightforward to set it all up.

Nokia N73 X-Series phone, using Skype
Skype: calling San Francisco for free, in perfect quality

The Slingbox, for example, comes with the most foolproof manual I've ever seen and excellent online instructions for tweaking my router's firewall to make it work.

A colleague of mine, though, was caught out because his television set-top box was not anywhere near his router or a telephone line.

If that's the case, some nifty technical footwork is required, at least if you want to avoid long cables trailing through your living room.

Orb was also easy to set up. Only Skype gives me headaches, not because of the sound quality, but because it constantly forgets my password.

The phone has two browsers - one labelled "web", the other "services" - which is rather irritating, because each has a slightly different way of navigating the web.

Annoyingly, the phone does not show websites in landscape mode, which would help with most websites. But there are plenty of sites out there that are optimised for mobile phones (the BBC's, for example, is on bbc.co.uk/pda).

The killer applications

X-series phones offer the usual 3G goodies, like music and video downloads, multi-media messaging and online games.

Nokia N73 X-Series phone, using MSN messenger
Instant messaging on a numerical keypad - can you txt?

But I had to download the killer applications myself: the Google software that gives me control over my Gmail account, and Google maps, which can provide not just maps and directions, but satellite pictures as well ("see that silver car parked in front of that house - that's mine").

Most of the software on X-series phones can be downloaded and installed on smart 3G phones, although this is not always for the faint-hearted.

Thus it is up to the network operator to offer the right mix of call plan and software package to attract subscribers.

For now, 3's flat fee package is hard to beat, although rivals are catching up.

Vodafone just announced a string of deals that will bundle YouTube, MySpace, eBay, Google maps and Yahoo and MSN instant messaging on its 3G phones.

When the novelty value wears off

But will it be enough to persuade customers to get a new phone and contract?

Do people really want to watch television on the move, always worrying that they might miss that crucial scene in Eastenders just because their bus is going through a 3G dead spot?

Do I really want to keep my home PC running all day, just on the off-chance that I might want to show somebody a picture or dig out some music?

Even though the Slingbox exceeded all my expectations, I didn't find the downtime to untangle the headphones and watch telly on my Nokia.

Not least because I had set myself one rule: only use the service when nobody is at home, because when I change channels on my mobile, I do so for everybody in the house.

My daughter would have words with me were I to switch from "Big Cook, Little Cook" on CBeebies to News 24.

And in these environmentally-aware times, do I really want to keep my home PC running all day, just on the off-chance that I might want to show somebody a picture or dig out some music?

Admittedly, I constantly found myself snacking on the latest news and my e-mail. And if this were my phone for keeps, I might invest in a micro SD card and make it my MP3 player.

Others, no doubt, will love the chance for instant messaging on the move.

The form factor

So will I go out and get myself a fully converged phone?

Probably not. Not yet, that is.

For starters, there is the speed.

If you are used to broadband, 3G feels really slow. The X-Series currently features only traditional 3G; new high-speed phones, using HSDPA technology, will be available later this year.

Then there is the cost. When would I really want to watch home TV on the move? When I'm travelling abroad and can't follow the travails of the Welsh rugby team.

But flat-fee deals end at national borders. Beyond that, roaming charges kick in - minute by expensive minute.

My biggest gripe, though, is the form factor. Answering e-mail using a numerical keypad is hard slog.

I still wait for slim smartphones with large touch-screens and slide-out keypads. A few phones - like Samsung's Ultra Smart F700 - are getting close, but they are expensive and not in the shops yet.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said for this converged world.

I'd love to have a device that replaces my phone, PDA and MP3 player.

And when, just before Christmas, my family and I were stranded at fog-bound London Heathrow, even my wife approved of my going online and checking out the airport's website, to see whether our flight was still on.

For a few hours, we became huge fans of the converged world.




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