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Monday, 27 November, 2000, 13:13 GMT
The future is at hand
Concept phone Ericsson
Is this the future of the phone? An Ericsson concept phone
By BBC News Online internet reporter Mark Ward

The US and Europe differ in many ways. In favourite sports, how to run elections and appreciation of Jerry Lewis to name but three. But they also differ in the gadgets they prefer.

And the future of the PDA? The Handspring Visor with phone plug-in
In Europe, the mobile phone is king, queen and consort, and is starting to be used for more than just making and taking calls.

Many turn to it for access to online information - be it stock quotes, lottery numbers or curry restaurant guides.

In the US, small handheld computers like the Palm and Visor are assuming the same role. The stage is being set for a battle between the two.

There is a lot at stake here. Given that Europe leads the way on phones, and the US has taken the lead on handhelds, then whichever one consumers favour will have significant economic consequences for the companies making the gadgets and the regions they call home.

Choose carefully

As yet, it is an open question whether people will plump for phones that have extras such as diaries and memo pads built-in, or whether they will go for a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA), such as the Palm computer, and add-on a phone-call-making widget.

If it was simply a question of numbers then European phones and standards would win in a fashion that no recount could contest. Market research firm EMC estimates that almost 67% of the 500 million users of digital mobile phones around the world are using GSM phones - a European backed technology.

Zaurus AP
Sharp's Zaurus handheld that plays video
"All the predictions say that phones are going to be selling in hundreds of millions," said Geoff Baird, chief executive of mobile technology company Xtempus.

The first phones with extras are starting to appear. Ericsson has unveiled its R380 which has a large screen, a diary and memo pad onboard, and uses a stylus to enter text. Nokia has just released the 9210 Communicator. Many Wap phones, that can access the internet in a crude fashion, can store far more messages and information than ordinary handsets.

Ultimately though, it may not just be a popularity contest. It is what the technology lets people do that is as important. In that respect, the US is a long way ahead when it comes to developing sophisticated information-based services.

"The PDA makers have done some pretty innovative things in horrendous technological circumstances," said Mr Baird.

We can see you

Devices like the Blackberry interactive pager and the wireless services introduced with the Palm VII are at the forefront of this innovation. America leads in location-based services that can work out where you are and send relevant information to you.

Text via phones
In June this year, 500m text messages were sent from mobile phones in the UK alone
Such things will be key to making an information economy genuinely useful. "Personalisation and profiling becomes increasingly important as time goes on to minimise how much the technology has to second guess the user," said David Harris-Evans, chief technology officer at travel info firm Wcities.

But as yet it is a real pain to configure these gadgets to make a phone call or manage e-mail on the move. This would defeat the majority of people happy using a mobile phone or sending text (SMS) messages.

"Most people would be horrified by what technology fans put up with to enjoy the latest devices, gadgets and services," said Andrew Davis, UK managing director of Digital Island, which works on getting information to people no matter where they are or what gadget they are using.

There is no doubt that people are keen to use these information-based services. Trials of a system that sends messages about special offers to shoppers at the Thurrock shopping centre near London have almost caused riots as people race to snap up the bargains.

In the future, companies such as World Zap are planning to send out clips of music from the bands you favour when they release a new single, or despatch video clips of key sporting moments to whatever device you carry around with you.

Configuration conundrum

As the pace of life has accelerated, using a mobile is a great way to manage your life while on the move. The time we have for ourselves is only going to dwindle and mobile devices are going to be called on to help us more and more. But they will have to change radically to do so.

At the moment, simply combining the two devices creates a bulky box that may be unattractive to people who are more used to slinky dinky handsets.

It is clear that phones will have to grow up; they simply don't have the memory on board to store address books, e-mail messages, the odd MP3 file and bank account details that you might soon want to carry around.

What is also clear is that people do not want to use cut-down PCs. "Windows CE handhelds have not been a success compared to Palm or Psion because of the fact that Microsoft has been trying to squeeze PC applications into a smaller mobile device," said Harris-Evans.

Technologies like Bluetooth which uses short-range radio should make it easier to swap information between devices, but there are going to be times, when you are down the pub, when you won't want to have every gadget you own with you.

All of the companies making phones or handhelds recognise that the future involves changing their gadgets in one way or another. As a result, all are feverishly licensing each other's technology so that they can combine the best of handset and handheld. The future is in your hands.

Mobile web worries
See also:

24 Nov 00 | Business
08 Nov 00 | Science/Nature
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