The cellphone is a phone no more

The new cellphone models unveiled at the CeBIT technology show on Wednesday let users do more than just call a friend to catch up.

How about sending a brief film clip of you by the fountain in Rome? Or perhaps a picture snapped of the Eiffel Tower with an image quality so fine it could be blown up and put in a 25cm x 35cm frame.

With a new crop of phones debuting, including a model by Samsung that sports a seven-megapixel camera (better resolution than most nonprofessional digital cameras) and others that can download and stream music like an MP3 player, it’s no wonder that cellphones are more than just a keypad and three hours of talk time.

“This is the first time that 3G phones are getting close to being sexy and attractive,” said Leif-Olof Wallin, who follows cellphone development and marketing for the Meta Group from Sweden.

Samsung didn’t disclose a price on the new SCH-V770, whose seven-megapixel camera delivers quality on par, or better, than the digital cameras available to consumers that offer four to six megapixels in quality. The handset is expected to go on sale by June, at least in Asia, but its availability in the United States and Europe isn’t certain.

Reaction near the Samsung booth, which was still being assembled for Wednesday’s official opening, was filled with actual “oohs” and “ahs.” The phone will be officially presented on Thursday.

Wallin said phone makers are being careful to tailor their product lines for specific markets. Japan and South Korea, for example, use the CDMA standard, and customers there are big fans of camera phones and instant messaging.

Samsung is targeting that market first because customers there will be eager for a small phone combined with a powerful camera that sports a flash and can be manually focused.
It also has a display capable of showing as many as 16-million colours. Most upscale phones can show around 65 000.

Germany’s Siemens AG hopes to transform text messages from boring print to a more interactive experience.

The company unveiled its new animated instant voice messages, software that converts the text in the message into speech that is synchronised with an animated figure. Siemens said the messages can be sent using a user’s own photographs, and will make the lips move in time.

European users will get the first chance to see it, likely later this year.

The slew of new features on phones is an astounding leap from just two years ago, when an integrated camera that took fuzzy images was an attention-getter. And since 2002, music and mobiles has meant much more than just polyphonic ring tones.

It’s become a selling point, not just for the makers, but for the operators who want to increase their revenue.

Sony Ericsson, a joint venture between Sweden’s LM Ericsson and Sony, is touting its new Walkman phone, breathing new life into a name associated with music on the go since the late 1970s—but radically advanced compared to the analogue cassettes of the 1980s.

“We’ve looked carefully at what people want from a mobile digital music player and have designed a product that fits the bill,” said Rikko Sakaguchi, senior vice president for production and application planning for Sony Ericsson.

The company’s W800i contains a two-megapixel camera and a digital music player that can hold up to 30 hours of songs. Because it’s tri-band, it can be used in Europe, Asia and the Americas.

It’s expected to be released sometime after July.

But fancy phones require lots of bandwidth and fast networks to make good on the promises of streaming video and downloading songs.

“To be quite honest, multimedia is more like an operator’s dream. The operators want to see people eying more services because they’re not content with just selling voice minutes,” Wallin said.

“Anything that consumes bandwidth on the networks is good for speedy operators.”

Paul Budde, an Australian analyst, said while operators like to hype the new phones, users are sometimes cautious.

He cited consumers being overloaded with offerings from providers to take advantage of their new handsets, and high prices for ring tones, online games that require a guidebook to play and the fact that phones, while compact and feature-packed, are still no substitute for a video game console or a television set.

And what of the regular cell phone? The inexpensive Nokia 1100 that doesn’t have Bluetooth or infrared and can’t even play a polyphonic ring tone?

There’s still a market, said Wallin. A big one.

“Sure, we’ll see low-cost phones focused on voice only. We’ll soon see phones that will be sold into the $35-$40 range that will be geared to the next billion subscribers: those that live in less-developed countries.” - Sapa-AP

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