Who needs a computer when you can watch TV, take photos, play games and surf the Web — all from your phone?
A road warrior, Chad Stevens used to shuttle from airport to construction site to hotel, waiting until evening to catch up on the 200 e-mails accumulated each day on his laptop.
These days Stevens, who owns a travel-services business, leaves his laptop at home and uses his palmOne Treo to check e-mail, calendar appointments, driving directions and updates from his Web site — whether he’s at a job site, at a stoplight or on his living-room couch.
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“I read the news and anything that’s coming through e-mail,” Stevens said. “It makes your life a lot more simple.”
Oh yes, he added, “I use it as a phone as well.”
The scene is becoming familiar. More people are using their feature-loaded cellphones or wireless devices as if they were personal computers, so much so that one leading brand, the BlackBerry, is sometimes dubbed the CrackBerry, a reference to users’ dependence on it. Some are even using it instead of their PCs.
If the wireless industry has its way, this is only the beginning. After handling voice calls for more than two decades, the industry is moving heavily into the next frontier: data transmission.
Part of what’s driving this shift is that with so many cellphone subscribers in the United States — 176 million today and an estimated 236 million by 2010 — companies that provide service are facing diminishing growth in new users and are looking for more innovative ways to make money.
According to Yankee Group, only 5 percent of cellphone revenue in North America comes from fee-based data services, which suggests a lot of room for growth.
The shift should be evident this week at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association’s wireless conference, which starts today in New Orleans. The wireless industry’s annual trade show highlights new technologies and trends.
Going beyond the PC
What attendees are likely to see are cellphones that let you store and play back music, watch television programs, take pictures, play video games, surf the Web, make a date and much more. In the not-too-distant future, more tasks once accomplished with a full-size monitor and keyboard will be processed in the palm of your hand.
Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, says phones will even move beyond the PC.
As the industry likes to point out, Shirky said, for years the only items people would not leave home without were money and keys. That is, until the cellphone. “Since the invention of the lock,” he said, “the phone is the first thing you have to have when you leave the house.”
There has never been a similar reliance on computers, he said: “The phone will end up in a different place than the PC.”
The shift from talk to type is being driven by the rollout of new technology.
The largest wireless carriers, including Sprint PCS, Verizon Wireless and Cingular Wireless, are all installing higher-speed networks to handle the load.
At the same time, phone manufacturers are designing devices with the power and memory of a PC; and software developers are creating applications to give you a reason to upgrade and buy more services.
Last week, Samsung introduced a mobile phone with 3 gigabytes of storage capacity, enough to hold up to 1,000 songs. Several carriers are launching music services to allow users to listen to tunes on the go. Live television is already available on three nationwide carriers.
“It’s so much simpler”
Scott Horn, senior director of Microsoft’s mobile/embedded devices division, said customers are demanding that phones become more like PCs.
“They say, ‘I know how it works. It’s what I want, and they are the features I want,’ ” he said.
Microsoft launched its Windows platform on a phone in late 2002 in Europe and a year later in the U.S.
Stevens, the Treo-using company owner, is a microcosm of these developments.
As chief executive of Kirkland-based Signature Destinations Club, a company that offers membership-based travel services, the 32-year-old Stevens travels frequently. Because he no longer brings a laptop, airport-security checkpoints are a breeze.
“If I have to crunch numbers or write complete documents or spreadsheets, it’s taken care of ahead of time,” he said.
Everything else he can do on his Treo, the size of a cigarette pack with a large screen and keys the size of small pearls. The tiny keyboards have improved since the days of the early Palm Pilots, but some heavy users still get sore thumbs as they type with the device cradled in their hands.
Stevens tracks membership requests collected on his Web site; his administrator can update his calendar and drop in driving directions.
“It’s so much simpler than worrying about needing something off my computer,” he said.
Voice taking a back seat
Shirky, the NYU professor, sees more social uses. Consider a scenario in a bar where you want to take pictures of your friends with a camera phone. A PC can’t do that. But a camera phone will eventually be able to freely both upload that picture to the Internet and send it to all the people in the bar — without paying the wireless carrier for the privilege.
In addition, he said online social-networking services such as the popular Friendster are being created for the mobile phone. One site called dodgeball.com sends a note to all your friends within 10 blocks to let them know where you are.
There’s also the idea that advertising can stream to your phone based on your location: Pass by The Gap and receive a 10-percent-off coupon by text message. Or perhaps parents will monitor their children’s whereabouts from the phone’s global positioning system (GPS) tracking feature.
Bellevue-based InfoSpace is one of the companies benefiting from the increase in sales of ringtones and games for the phone, two things that represent a growing part of the company’s business.
“In the past year, we saw the first data applications coming out with an interesting business proposition,” said Hank Skorny, who is attending the wireless conference as InfoSpace’s mobile-division vice president. “I think you’ll start to see voice taking a back seat to data. I can pick multiple devices and get e-mail, and look at media that’s useful and play a game that’s actually fun.”
For all of its advantages, the convergence could also cause problems. Security already is becoming an issue, and devices will be vulnerable to the same ills computers have today, including the difficulty of using the device, hard drives crashing and even threats of spam and virus attacks.
“Certainly, anything that happens on the Internet can now happen on the mobile phone,” said Rich Begert, president and chief executive of Bellevue-based Wireless Services.
Wireless Services, which helps carriers roll out new services like text messaging and accompanying spam blockers, recently completed a survey showing that 43 percent of text messages in the U.S. are spam.
“Now that a device has Internet access, spam, viruses, Trojans and other devious things can happen on them,” Begert said.
Trojan horses are hidden programs that can report all keystrokes to a remote computer.
While it may be a bit premature to equate cellphones to PCs — not all phones can handle these applications today — there’s little doubt many people will soon be walking around with a lot of computing power in their pockets and purses.
“There’s always going to be a place for laptops and desktops,” said Adrian Smith, a principal at Ignition Partners, a venture-capital firm in Bellevue. “We are in the early stages of a blurring of those activities, and it’s only going to get better.”
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org