The phone of the future wins on style

MyCustomer.com
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If you’re looking for a stylish mobile phone, perhaps you should wait until 2001. The New Year promises big color screens, dishy diary functions and new games for Europe’s mobile fashion victims, some of whom change their handset every six months. Commuters will have handsets with built-in MP3 digital music players, and watch film clips on a mobile videophone.

The choice of feature phones is set to spiral next year, and the focus at the top of the range is on merging phones with palm-sized computers.

“The real panic to be making the smallest phone is now gone. It’s more about getting the style and form right for the market you’re targeting,” said Keith Westcott, Ericsson’s managing director of consumer products in Britain.

Handsets combining the diary and address book functions of personal digital assistants have been around since Nokia launched the Communicator in 1998. A handset that opened up like a miniature laptop computer, it has been too expensive and clunky to win many fans, but the idea has taken root and is starting to spawn more sophisticated devices.

Nokia is promising a color Communicator for the first half of 2001, while Ericsson has been winning rave reviews for its recently launched R380. This combines a touch-sensitive screen the size of a business card and a full range of PDA functions in a phone not much bigger or heavier than a basic handset. Although a British price of £450 ($652) means it is strictly a niche product for now, prices are expected to come down by the end of 2001.

But what’s niche in one year becomes mainstream the following year, according to Jonathan Hook, marketing director of Carphone Warehouse, who sees the convergence of phones and PDAs from two directions - just as phones are taking over the functions of electronic organizers, so PDAs are going online.

The Palm VII version of the popular PDA has offered US residents wireless email and Internet access for some time, and plug-in modules are extending the same functions to cheaper Palm models and the rival Visor.

But next year’s most covetable gadgets could well be wireless PDAs running on Microsoft’s rival Pocket PC software. The latest version of Microsoft’s stripped down Windows CE operating system is inspiring a wave of handheld computers combining large color screens, big memories and multimedia functions in hand-sized cases.

People are keen to swap their phone and PDA for a single product - and that’s a trend the telecoms industry is eager to encourage. Next-generation mobile technologies providing always-on, high-speed Internet connections will transform mobile phones into pocket computers - or so the industry hopes.

Consumers are under pressure to rethink their ideas, as the mobile phone is now much more than something you put to your ear. As handsets merge with music recorders, games machines and digital cameras, the phone manufacturers are having to gain new consumer electronics skills.

Microsoft is thinking big for its marketing strategy, and its managing director for Britain, Neil Holloway, is proposing that banks and retailers wanting to win online customers give away wireless Pocket PCs, in the same way that they offered free WAP Internet phones this year.

Microsoft has been promising a brick-sized communicator with a built-in video camera for months, and swears it will be on the market early next year. At $1,500 or so, you had better start saving now.

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