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Cellphones ‚ not just for talking

Are the manifold functions of a cellular phone really useful or just gimmicks? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK looks beyond the likes of ring tones, SMS, voice activation, built-in camera and FM radio to the meaning of gimmicks in cellphones.

When last did you buy a cellular phone because the advertising messages convinced you that you would be able to have better conversations with it? When last did someone sell you a phone because it had clearer sound and better speakers? And when last did you rave to friends about the amount of talk time you get out of your phone battery?

These features are taken so much for granted in all cellular phones today, that manufacturers and marketers can no longer sell the cell on the basis of its primary purpose.

This is the huge irony that lies behind the ever-mounting range of added extras that are used to market phones in the 21st century. The Nokia 6600, for instance, ‚can take a picture or make a video: add text and send a multimedia message or e-mail to a compatible device: save it in the photo album: transfer it wirelessly over Bluetooth technology: do it all with the graphical user interface: 65,536 colours for a large, bright display screen: use the notepad, video recorder or web browser: receive your e-mail…‚

To its credit, the message eventually adds: ‚you can even phone someone‚ . It’s just as well because, says Nokia, ‚the 6600 is designed primarily for the business person‚ . It’s one of the first phones to combine all the added extras without requiring a flip-top lid that exposes the insides of some phones as digital diaries.

But does this mean that people are more likely to use these features? Or, because of the complexity of manoeuvring round such a small device, will they end up just using two features: voice, for talking: and the very fact that they own such a device, as a conversation piece in its own right?

The problem with most of the gimmicks is that they are still little more than gimmicks. Experienced users of PDAs (personal digital assistants) still refuse to move to cellular PDAs like the Nokia 9210i, or the Sony Ericsson P900 or Z600. The former is too bulky, the latter not powerful enough as PDAs to compete with the capacity and range of applications that can be incorporated into conventional PDAs.

As for built-in cameras and picture messaging, give me a call when the quality improves to the level of normal digital cameras, let alone traditional film cameras. Better yet, send an SMS, as that is something that does indeed prove useful and cost-effective on most existing cell phones.

The problem with cellular cameras, aside from atrocious quality, is that there isn’t terribly much you can do with once the photo is taken. Compatibility with other devices for easy transfer is still limited, and sending photos by message has not caught on to the extent where your recipients welcome the image, if they are even able to view it.

The solution does not lie in stripping devices of their features, however. The phones that seem to make the most impact are those where one of the features becomes the primary focus of the device, and voice becomes an added extra. In other words, the direct opposite of the way we currently think of phones.

The best example I’ve seen of this is the Nokia N-Gage, which looks like a gaming device, feels like a gaming device, and behaves like a gaming device. It is, of course, another cellular phone, but it is designed first as a game deck, with a horizontal format, central screen, and multi-directional navigational keys. Just to emphasize that this is an entertainment machine before a communications device, it also features an FM radio, which the user can preset to a range of stations, and an MP3 player, through which we can play our favourite downloaded songs in the MP3 audio format. Oh, and it is Java-capable, meaning that it can carry interactive applications, from games to, well, more games. It is technically feasible to run business applications on it as well, but why mess up a work of art like that?

As I’ve found in the past with other flashy, gimmicky cellular phones with more features than common sense, however, the one big attraction of the N-Gage is that it is exactly that: a big attraction. Everyone wants to talk about this phone and, given that it is priced for the youth market, would probably be one of the most cost-effective investments yet in attraction attention to yourself.

Does it work as a phone? Yes, but not very conveniently, unless you’ve already stuck in earphones to listen to radio or MP3s. That also means the voice quality is not the greatest, but do you really care? You’re too busy playing Sonic and Monkey Ball and Puyo Puyo in a multiplayer match with the kid at the next desk who has the same phone.

Motorola’s answer to this strategy is to create games that work on normal colour-screen cell phones. Well, maybe not so normal. You’ll need the T720 phone, which features a four-way navigation key much like the one on the N-Gage, and intended as a mini ‚joystick‚ for moving at speed through a game. Some of the gaming options are eerily similar to those on the N-Gage, but the games themselves are very different.

For instance, MotoGP, a motorbike race-track game, allows four players to compete simultaneously ‚ from separate phones. And you can make calls in the middle of a game, but don’t complain when you suffer a wipe-out on your bike.

Amid all the hype and noise, there is one feature that has been added to most phones that changes the way we look at cellular phones ‚ quite literally. And that is colour.

For the first time, we are seeing the mass-market roll-out of colour editions of all the major mobile phone brands. And for the first time, in 2004, green-screen cellphones will no longer be dominant. The full colour cellular phone is upon us. And every subsequent breakthrough in cellular technology, even as it thrills the technophiles and gadget freaks, will leave the average user wondering: what for?

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