Cell phone technology is making possible what was once considered laughable


Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The cell phone, introduced 24 years ago, has already evolved into a camera and music player. But the cell phone of tomorrow will be a map, a credit card, a TV remote and a taxi stand.

"These phones have evolved into amazing devices,'' said Benoit Schillings, chief technology officer of Trolltech, a Norwegian tech company developing software for cell phones.

Some ideas, such as using a phone's camera to identify people, are likely a few years off. But others are just around the corner.

For instance, MasterCard is working with Nokia to insert a mini credit card into phones. Simply swipe the phone near one of the new payment scanners that are being rolled out by credit card companies at retail stores, authorize the charge, and go, said Tero Ojanpera, chief technology officer of Nokia.

Ojanpera carries around a working prototype.

"At McDonald's, I said I was going to pay for a cup of coffee with my phone,'' Ojanpera said. "And the lady behind the counter said, 'No, we don't accept phones for payment.' "

But Ojanpera simply swiped his phone near the pay pad and the cash register accepted his payment.

Cell phones are attracting increased attention from software developers, who have watched hand-held devices far surpass the number of computers in the world.

The first cell phone, introduced in 1983 by Motorola, was a brick-sized device that weighed 2 pounds and cost $3,995. Almost a quarter-century later, most cell phones are smaller than a deck of cards and many are given away for free to entice consumers to sign up for service plans. And the newest phones do far more than allow people to talk. In June, Apple Computer is scheduled to introduce its iPhone, which melds an iPod music player and Web browser onto a cell phone.

Today, about 3 billion people have cell phones worldwide, compared to about 300 million who have computers. The task now for programmers is to develop applications as handy on cell phones as those developed for computers.

"The killer applications will still be about connecting people,'' said Ram Fish, founder of Fonav, which is developing a program that will allow users to manage all communications, including e-mails, text messages, instant messages and voice mail.

But Fish said mobile devices also will connect people to a wide range of other technologies. Soon, for example, people will be able to control their stereo's volume from a program installed on their phone, he said.

Other similar technologies have already been rolled out. Sling Media, manufacturer of the Slingbox, allows users to stream their home TV signal across the Internet to their cell phone. Users can watch live TV, such as a high school football game only available in their hometown, while traveling anywhere in the world. Or, they can use their phone to remotely program their home digital video recorder.

Other upstarts, such as Orb.com, offer free software programs that allow people to stream shows to their phones from a computer equipped with a TV tuner. And media companies such as ESPN and Disney are beginning to provide content tailored for mobile phones.

One factor that slowed the evolution of cell phones was the limited deployment of wireless broadband networks. But carriers such as Verizon and Sprint increasingly offer high-speed data plans that allow cell phones to access vast quantities of information from the Internet faster than the snail's pace common only a couple of years ago. And traditional Internet service providers such as Earthlink are beginning to deploy broadband wireless networks that can accommodate cell phones designed to make calls over the Internet.

Global positioning systems will become a standard component in cell phones within two years, Ojanpera said. And that feature will allow developers to create a host of new applications. In the near future, calling a taxi might be as simple as using your phone to locate the closest cab, sending it a quick message, and waiting for the driver to find the location the phone provides.

"I suspect if trends continue, I'll be like Batman with his utility belt that has, like, 22 devices on it,'' said Jeff Todd, a senior director at Yahoo.

Phones with GPS will notify household electronics when you come home, turning on the lights, music, the heater and whatever else you program.

"If it knows its location, it can do things you can only dream of doing on a computer,'' said Sean Moss-Pultz, spokesperson for Openmoko, an Asian phone manufacturer that is developing an open-source phone.

"It's like God in your pocket."

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