Mobile devices: What are we meant to do with all this?

Slim, sleek phones are more than a fashion statement. Extreme addicts are more concerned about being without their phone than forgetting keys or wallet.

A phone carried around this much obviously needs to be small and light.

But people are demanding more from their phones – and the plethora of other devices they carry. They want features and flexibility: play music and video, synchronise with calendars; PDAs to include GPS; laptops that come with 3G modems built in.

IT departments are more interested in mobile devices, not just because features and networks have advanced, but because security and device management tools have improved markedly.

According to Regine Hohnsbein, Director of Handhelds and Mobile for HP: “You can handle a smart device like you can handle a desktop or notebook PC.”

As well as fewer devices tumbling out of pockets and briefcases, users want the convenience of the desktop on the move. Over the past year smartphone sales have gone up by 18 per cent and PDA sales have gone down by nearly twice that figure.

But how many features can you usefully cram into a single device without making it too big and too heavy, contorting features to fit them in, or overloading the battery?

A phone is the ideal place to keep an address book, diary and other useful information.

Mobile e-mail and mobile web are key features; they are not new but are becoming more popular, especially now that HSDPA (high-speed downlink packet access) gives speeds closer to broadband than dial-up.

Anyone who uses instant messaging or Voice over Internet (VoIP) at their desk, is likely to want them on their mobile phone, too. In addition, connecting to an employer’s IP PBX gives one number on which employees can always be reached.

Symbian’s Nigel Clifford believes that by 2010 the mobile phone will have turned into ”a remote control for life”: broadband or Wi-Fi web browsing, listening to music, watching TV, navigating to the next meeting, scanning in business cards, paying for train
tickets, monitoring jogging distances and calorie use, making cheap VoIP calls or turning on a personal video recorder (PVR) at home if they are running late.

Some features work better on a converged device. Searching the web from a mobile device usually means looking for something to do with a journey rather than general research – location services can find the nearest bank and give directions to it; the co-ordinates of where a photo was taken can be tagged automatically.

Some of this can be achieved by coupling separate devices.

Instead of putting GPS into a camera, Sony has a GPS accessory that tracks a user’s travels and extracts locations. The downside is that managing connections between devices is not trivial – and there are two devices to carry around.

HP, Mio and Benefon have smartphones with GPS built in. They allow navigation and let the carrier report where they are, which has many uses, from tracking children on the way from school to letting callers know the user is in the gym and does not want to be disturbed.

As more features are added, the camera is becoming ubiquitous. It is already hard to buy a phone without a camera but only a few have significant resolution (five megapixels from LG or two and three MP from Sony Ericsson) while even budget compact digital cameras have up to 10MP sensors, better optics, real flash and simpler controls.

Some of that is down to the difficulty of fitting a camera into a phone and some is the cost a higher resolution camera adds to devices in a very competitive market. Mobile operators are still hoping picture messaging will prove as lucrative as SMS, but have little interest in higher resolutions because the images are too large for picture messaging.

But even 1MP is useful for more than snapshots. Barcodes are cheap to print on an advert or inside a CD case, allowing a potential customer to photograph the barcode with a phone to retrieve more information or a free download. Mobile barcodes are already popular in Japan and France and are spreading. Microsoft is also developing tools and services that use a phone’s camera for comparison shopping and scanning business cards.

Also on the way are 3G updates that will increase upload speeds and make video conferencing possible. GPS will become commonplace and TV on mobile phones will be possible.

But the long-term trend is to improve existing features; better camera and screen resolution and a more powerful processor to allow for the addition of applications and services, rather than extra hardware features.

Brian Gammage of Gartner cautions against adding features to a device “just because we can” – the “kitchen sink syndrome”. He wants manufacturers to learn the lesson of 25 years of adding functions to PCs, leaving us with a system “too complex to manage and often too complex to use”.

Converged is not automatically better, he believes. Not only will some features be compromised compared with a dedicated device, but many proposed features mean paying for content, whether that is connecting to a wireless network or watching TV. “Anything where success is going to be based on me paying an extra subscription runs into problems.”

Battery life also becomes a factor, as discussed in the last issue of Digital Business (September 20): WiMax and mobile TV could reduce standby time to just a few hours. Price and running costs matter too.

But primarily, converged devices have to get easier to configure and use. Phone support company WDS Global finds many smartphone returns are not due to faults but to the difficulty of getting various features to work – especially e-mail.

And although two-thirds of the consumers quizzed in this year’s Digital Music Survey want a combined phone and music player, a recent survey by Accenture found that 43 per cent of consumers would rather have a device that does one thing well.

And that one thing varies from person to person.

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