The dividing line between cellphones and computers is becoming increasingly indistinct with the two instruments now tending to converge in a single device. In the near future, with the arrival of third generation cellphones using UMTS, this tendency is destined to be accentuated, resulting in devices with characteristics which are as yet uncertain and somewhat difficult to identify.

An economic game of vast dimensions is being played out with third generation cellphones (3g). The expectations of the public are increasing with regards to UMTS, which has been launched – too early for the effective availability of the products – as the real “wireless multimedia” with the notion of a cellphone equipped with audio and video facilities as well as of course the possibility to surf the net and receive emails. Over the years the functions of this product (always virtual, prototypes have been seen only in a number of IT and telecommunications fairs) have increased out of all proportion, to the rhythm of the technological innovation that is making it possible. And so expectations built up, along with the hype or rather the excessive emphasis on technology without putting it into practice. Then suddenly it all went quiet, so much so that last summer the Financial Times was asking “Where are the handsets?” and some months later Businessweek called the 3g handsets “The most complex consumer electronic devices never designed” as it highlighted the delay in the appearance of these products. It is almost impossible to talk about the characteristics of the real third generation devices with the main production companies. The stakes are so high that as far as projects and timing are concerned, a strong reserve is maintained. The only exception is Motorola, who have already presented their first UMTS model, available later this year, the A820 is equipped with a MP3 reader and optional video camera. The US company evidently wants to sound out the market with a product directed at applications linked to entertainment. The other cellphone giants instead concentrate on the standard GPRS, which should be a phase of transition towards a real wireless multimedia.

The difficulties in defining this handset also lie in the fact that it is an instrument into which are potentially concentrated a series of “extreme” innovations which IT research has been working on for some years. The PC palm-cellphone of the future has to host a high density of innovations and at the same time be easy to use, familiar. For example? MIT‘s futures research on “wearable” computers – IT instruments which can be worn like clothes or jewellery – has been put into practice in the cellphone prototypes proposed by Motorola, Alcatel and Siemens, who in the recent Cebit presented a “pendant phone”, a telephone to be worn around the neck. Studies of “Affective computing” which surveys our body signals and responds accordingly have also influenced the models of the American company whilst virtual reality technology for viewing inside increasingly lightweight helmets or goggles is present in some models put forward by Alcatel, to separate the handset from the screen and facilitate the use of moving images. A subsequent step, experimented in Japan at the University of Keio, is “augmented reality” information which helps to decipher reality, technology of this kind could be used for example for localised services, based on the geographical position of the user, considered one of the “killer applications” which could take off in the 3g market.

First of all though a question needs to be answered: will this device be classified as a telephone or a computer? As we said, the line between the two is unclear. According to Bill Gates, who presented a new operating system for Smart Phones it is simply a case of where it sits on the continuum which lies between cellphones to computers. It is not by chance that Microsoft has been developing three different kinds of software for wireless applications which correspond to three different faces of this evolution: along with the latest of these, Smart Phone, is the launch of Windows CE .Net – the operating system for palm held computers which becomes the instrument for communicating with domestic appliances and work stations – and Pocket PC – an operating system for new generation palms. The software from Microsoft, who have recently signed an agreement with Intel, the Wireless Development Initiative, for the development of a technological platform for cellphones and PDA, is countered by the applications linked to the Symbiam operating system, by Palm, adopted by amongst others, Ericsson and Nokia. This proliferation of programmes is in itself a sign of the complexity of a transformation which is anything but univocal and whose outcome is uncertain. “It is clear that the logic of products of this kind is strongly linked to the computer”, explains Maurizio Montagna, UMTS Director at Alcatel. So in this game, producers of computers have the advantage.

In effect, the number of palms on the market which are also cellphones is beginning to increase: amongst the latest models are Visor and Treo Communicator from Handspring. On the mobile phone front, Motorola has recently presented A388, equipped with fax, access to internet and PDA functions, whilst already on the market for some months is Accompli, aimed at the business market. Siemens, who have recently signed an agreement with the American giant for the development of 3G terminals, offers SX 45, very similar to a palm held computer, also in appearance, with a large screen and a touch screen interface. The primary aim of such handsets is to give space to images, which is obviously one of the fundamental applications of third generation telephones. The new telephone and palm held computer from Sony-Ericsson, P800, which will be on the market later this year, goes clearly in this direction, with a screen which covers the entire surface of the terminal.

Apart from the need to hold video images though, it is anything but clear what the principal service that 3g handsets should concentrate on will be. “This is the reason why the realisation of these devices has been so delayed – explains again Maurizio Montagna – nobody has the courage to place a decisive bet on one kind of application rather that on another. We had a negative experience with the standard WAP for example; we were the first to make handsets of this kind and then the market didn’t respond as predicted so today we are more cautious. We have concluded a deal with Samsung for building handsets with their brand but ours will arrive only when the market has matured”. The first Samsung equipped for the third generation has already been presented: it is the Nexio S150 which includes amongst other things a digital camera, an e-book and MP3 player and is available on the Korean market “In this case the prevalence of the PC object is evident – maintains Montagna -to all intents and purposes it is a palm held computer”.

At the extreme end (towards the palms) of the line between phones and PCs is a device presented recently as a “concept design” by National Semiconductor. It is Origami, which integrates the functions of a cellphone (for the moment GPRS, but compatible with the UMTS network), a videocamera, an electronic diary (PDA Personal Digital Assistant), an MP3 format music reader and a programme for surfing the net and receiving emails. The whole thing has a decidedly innovative design, made by Cocom Group, which recalls origami, the Japanese art of folding paper. Very advanced from a design point of view is also Pogo, from the Californian Pogo Technologies, which offers itself as a multifunctional terminal strongly orientated towards graphics and image: it integrates GSM and GPRS in a device consisting mainly of a square screen with attractive lines.

This is not to say that the evolution of the telephone is tending towards an extreme integration of all functions in a single device. This “swiss army penknife” approach as Matthias Richter, senior industrial designer at Motorola, calls it, risks creating bulky objects which carry out many functions but in a rather approximate way. An alternative route is that which leads not so much to the convergence of functions but rather to their distribution in different components, according to the IT paradigm of ubiquitous computing. In other words, it is probable that at least initially the extension of functions in cellphones takes the direction of specialisation in the form of devices for entertainment. An example is the Nokia 5510, equipped with a wide keyboard, MP3 file reader, videogames and aimed in particular at the young; another, available now only in Canada is the V101 from Motorola, which includes instant messaging and the possibility of writing and sending text messages: also in this case the target is a young public, who consider the cellphone a tool for entertainment and socialising. The latest models from Sony-Ericsson and Nokia emphasise video games and digital photography, all with colour screens. In particular the T68i from Sony Ericsson allows pictures to be taken and sent in real time, and the 7650 from Nokia which has an integrated camera. Z700 from Sony Ericsson is instead thought up above all for applications linked to video games.

BlackBerry is still more specialised, a portable email handset from the Canadian company Research in Motion, introduced in North America in 1999 and now coming onto the European market (just come to Italy following an agreement between Tim and the provider Dada). Blackberry efficiently resolves a real problem: dealing with email whilst on the move. The handset is always on and lets you know automatically when a message is received (in push mode). It is necessary to identify with some clarity demands such as this in order that the third generation cellphone avoids becoming the nth “solution looking for a problem”. This has been the case for many kinds of technology praised before their real diffusion: from the videophone to virtual reality, from interactive TV to WAP. But today the investments are of decidedly other dimensions.

“We are working in both directions: integrated devices with various functions as well as specialised devices”, explains Andrea Marrubini, marketing manager at Alcatel. The French company is working on a series of monofunctional devices, including the UMTS modem which is already available and can be connected to a laptop computer. A first step in this direction is the diffusion of the Bluetooth standard, which allows for wireless connection between various accessories, such as earphone or add on keyboard. The extreme outcome of this specialisation and distribution of functions is, as we have mentioned, that of “wearable” devices, a strong point of Alcatel’s design and an important area of research also for Motorola.

“In our opinion what we will need in the future is not a screen with more and more information – explains Iulius Lucaci, lead designer V segment of Motorola – but rather an intuitive way to manage this information. The screen for example is not necessarily the ideal interface: it implies that the user can sit and look at it”. Motorola’s studies go in the direction of incorporating body language and an “affective” relationship with technology. An example is the telephone in the shape of a glove or the video camera set like a jewel in a necklace, designed for living at a distance the sensations of the person wearing them. “We start with the presupposition that we should interact a great deal with this device and that this interaction should be pleasant – states Lucaci -: we are concentrating a great deal on the user interface and techniques which allow the filtering of messages, establishing a series of priorities”. What has been proposed is a kind of stick using Microdisplay technology which displays only a line of text, but once you look closer you can see a much broader information space. The telephone becomes as such only an element of a broader information network which coincides with the body itself of the user and the environment. Not by chance the Motorola research group is called “Intelligence everywhere”. The point is to understand when the users will be ready for this evolution”, concludes Lucaci. The last word, as always, is not from technology.

Text: Stefania Garassini from Domusweb

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