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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 16:34 GMT
The future of phones
The screen of Nokia's 7650 mobile phone, Nokia
You can do more than just talk with the 7650
Mobile phone makers are stepping up efforts to convince customers that it is worth buying new handsets and services.

This week Nokia unveiled a phone with a built-in camera that lets users swap images and sounds much more easily. Rival Ericsson has also demonstrated the forthcoming multimedia replacement for popular text messaging services.

But the success of these new services depends on cash-strapped mobile phone operators buying the network infrastructure to support them and working out how to charge for them.

The take-up of phones that can use the new services could also be stymied if the handsets prove too expensive for consumers.

Picture perfect?

Nokia hopes its new phone will convince users that it is worth moving to third-generation (3G) phone networks.

The new handset, the 7650, has a camera on board, a colour screen, and can swap multimedia messages made up of sounds and pictures with other enhanced handsets.

Nokia's 7650 phone, Nokia
The Nokia 7650 looks like a handheld computer
The unveiling of the 7650, along with the release of the 5510 music player last month, was a signal to Nokia's rivals that the Finnish phone giant was still a keen competitor, said Ben Wood, European telecoms research director at Gartner Dataquest.

But, he said, more importantly the 7650 indicated the direction the whole mobile phone world was going.

Futuristic third-generation phone networks that promised high-speed interactive data services and phones that looked more like handheld computers would not be widely available until mid-2003, said Mr Wood.

Model to model

Before these 3G networks are switched on, mobile phone firms must try to convince users they will be worth using. The 7650 and its allied multimedia messaging services were the vanguard of this propaganda campaign, said Mr Wood.

"Nokia is trying to push things forward with the technology that's here today," he added.

Other handset makers such as Ericsson are joining in. The Swedish phone maker has unveiled the T68, which has a colour screen and can also use the multimedia messaging services (MMS) that are tipped to replace the text messaging system popular today.

Before now, users have been divided by the handset they use. Many services, such as the Enhanced Message Service that lets people attach pre-prepared images to text messages, are only available between phones of the same model.

By contrast, the specifications for MMS will be available and open to all handset makers. To handle multimedia messages, mobile networks will have to use the general packet radio services that boost their data handling abilities.

Party people

Wide availability and ease of use were vital to getting enough consumers interested in moving to a 3G network, said Mr Wood.

"The key to unlocking this market is making it so simple that people do not know that they are doing it," he said.

Ericsson's T68 will work with the new multimedia messaging services, Ericsson
The Ericsson T68
Early reports suggest that the 7650 and the multimedia services will prove popular when they become commercially available next year.

At the post-launch party for the 7650 many people were merrily using the prototype phones to take snaps and pass them on to each other, said Paul Brannan, BBC Ceefax editor, who helped Nokia set up a demonstration of the phone's multimedia abilities.

The 7650 may even achieve the cult status enjoyed by the camera that Nintendo makes for its hugely popular Gameboy handheld game unit. There are now even online film festivals that showcase movies made up of stills taken with the Gameboy camera.

But Mr Brannan said the technical hurdles of building services that the new phones could tap into were significant.

Price of a stamp

The cost of the phone itself could also deter users. Mr Brannan said Nokia was planning to price the 7650 in the same range as its 9210, which could mean a price tag of up to 500.

The price of the services that the phone can use are also yet to be decided. Mr Wood said the mobile phone firms would have to adopt a different charging structure from the one they used for SMS.

Mr Wood estimated that it would cost 2,000 to send a megabyte of data under the SMS charging regime.

While images sent via MMS are likely to be only tens of kilobytes in size, users are unlikely to want to pay hundreds of pounds per month to send them.

Few networks have announced prices for the multimedia messages, but Mr Wood believed that sending one could cost as much as a first class stamp.

If the charging systems are right and the phones prove popular then mobile phone firms could find that the price they paid for 3G licences was not too high after all.

See also:

19 Oct 01 | Business
Nokia profits fall
19 Nov 01 | Sci/Tech
Nokia opens up its phones
19 Jul 01 | Business
Nokia profits down 20%
24 Sep 01 | dot life
Gadgets get fruity
19 Nov 01 | Business
Mobile phone demand declines
15 May 01 | Business
Finland stalls on 3G launch
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