Mobile handsets, what Motorola calls the “device formerly known as the cell phone,” can do a lot more these days than just let people talk to each other. All of the top wireless-phone makers are at a major trade show this week displaying a new generation of handsets that combine a variety of functions in a single device. Handsets can send email, store music on removable memory, play video clips, check satellite positioning and even monitor a user’s stress levels.
And that’s why the predominant message that Motorola and its rivals are stressing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is that a wireless handset is now a must-have device for lifestyle-conscious consumers as well as world travelers and businesspeople.
Handset makers aim to transform phones into mobile entertainment devices that let owners listen to music or watch TV wherever they go. Wireless phone operators, for their part, are enhancing their networks to offer high-speed Internet access. Handset makers and network operators both hope their efforts will pay off in the form of higher demand — and profits.
In all likelihood, 2006 will emerge as a crucial year for the growth of Bluetooth technology, a short-range wireless standard that every handset manufacturer has included in its newest phones.
Bluetooth, for example, enables users to listen to music on their phones with wireless headsets. Bluetooth adapters could also let customers link their music-capable handsets to car or home stereos.
Indeed, the ability to play music has become a key feature of wireless handsets, much the way built-in cameras came into vogue a few years ago. Motorola has unveiled its second-generation Rokr (pronounced rocker) — minus iTunes.
The Rokr E2, which will probably cost around $200, can hold up to 500 songs, using 2 gigabytes of removable SD memory.
Unlike the first incarnation, however, the new Rokr runs on a Linux operating system that would let users play different music formats and drag-and-drop songs onto its memory. It also has a sleeker design and is faster at downloading music.
The original Rokr, an iTunes-capable phone designed in tandem with Apple Computer, was criticized for its limited capacity (100 songs), flawed design and slow download speeds.
Not to be outdone, Sony Ericsson has issued another version of its Walkman-branded mobile phone. The new W810 model is supposed to be easy to use for playing music, and like the Rokr, it has removable memory. Customers will also be able to buy portable speakers or a docking station to listen to music at home or on the road.
In addition, the W810 is a so-called quad-band phone that can run on virtually any network in the world.
Meanwhile, Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, has sought to cash in on the “thin is in” trend established by Motorola’s snazzy, credit-card sized Razr phone.
Samsung plans to issue several thin models of its own, including the A900. That model will work with Sprint Nextel Corp’s high-speed wireless network.
The company says it’s the industry’s first model that can download songs directly over the air, but Sony Ericsson’s W810 appears to have that ability, too. Existing phones have to be connected to a PC to download music.
Another emerging trend among mobile handset makers is a stiffer challenge to Research in Motion, maker of the popular BlackBerry email device. Motorola, LG Electronics of Korea and Samsung have all unveiled competing wireless devices with full mini keyboards.
They hope improved designs, sleek styling and the use of open operating systems will allow them to gain a foothold in the high-end market and end RIM’s dominance.
Samsung’s SCH-i830, for example, is a quad-band device that allows customers to stay connected almost anywhere in the world with just one phone number. The phone will only be offered through Verizon and is expected to cost around $600 to start.
Motorola’s widely anticipated handheld device, the Q, is based on the Razr’s ultra-thin design and should be available shortly.
Among the more unusual devices slated to hit the market later this year is an LG phone that can test blood sugar, body fat and stress levels.
LG has also developed a phone for kids, called the Migo, with a bright green color and blue backlit LCD screen. The easy-to-use handset also includes a speakerphone and a dedicated emergency button.
The company making the smallest splash at the CES event, surprisingly, was the world’s largest seller of wireless phones: Nokia.
So far, Nokia has only released details on several updated models of its popular mid-priced phones. The newest inclusion to the foldout phones is Bluetooth technology.