The innovation and growth on the mobile phones front is astonishing. The top-end phones available now have the processing power and storage available in desktop computers just 4-5 years ago. Little wonder, then, that 2004 saw 674 million phones being bought, and estimates for 2005 stand at 730 million.
The mobile phone is rapidly becoming the uber device -- the one device that seems to have it all and becomes even more indispensable than it is now. Mobile phones have already started functioning as more than just communications devices. Mobiles serve as watches and alarm clocks. Even with the limited free games that come with basic phones, they are already good for "time-pass". They can also function as calculators.
In unfamiliar neighbourhoods, they tell us where we are. The address book and contacts list on phones is our social interface. Without the phone, many of us would be quite lost in connecting with other people. The calendar function on the mobile phones can help us track our lives. Phones can also function as radios. For some, the mobile phone also becomes a notepad -- send an SMS to oneself and make it a reminder service. Owners also have tended to customise phones, with their own ringtones, themes and wallpapers.
This is just for starters. Consider what some of the more advanced mobile phones are also doing:
Digital camera: Point-and-click! Phones capture pictures and let us save them for posterity or transfer them to others and to computers.
Audio recorder: Mobile phones can be used to record conversations or even brief notes to oneself.
Video recorder: Phones are becoming video cameras also -- some of the newest cellphones can record an hour or more of video.
Multimedia messaging: Everything recorded can be shared with others by using MMS.
Email client: The phone can be used to connect to any POP or IMAP server and allow receiving and sending email. While most phones may not have the ease of use that a Blackberry has with email, contacts and calendar, the fact that it is on the phone itself and that there is no need for a separate device can be a big help (along with the lower total cost of ownership).
Web client: Phones can also browse websites, via a WAP and/or HTML browser. Most web sites may not look great on the small screen, but it is still possible to connect to any web site.
Gaming platform: Mobile games have become big business in the past couple years as people seek entertainment in the free time that they have on the device that they always carry with them.
Documents viewer: It is increasingly possible to view documents on the cellphone, in the popular MS-Office file formats.
Computer adjunct: For many, the cellphone has replaced the PDA as the complement to the computer. With a remote desktop application, it also becomes possible to make the mobile phone a window to one's computer.
Music player: The next big thing in 2005 is reckoned to be the combining of music capabilities on the mobile phone. While phones can play MP3s, it will soon also be possible to have music streamed from the Internet. Motorola is expected to introduce a phone this year that marries the mobile with Apple's iPod.
TV: In India, some operators have been promoting many TV channels on the cellphone over next-generation networks like EDGE.
Wallet: The phone can also be used to pay for purchases like a credit or debit card. There is already a billing relationship that exists between the subscriber and the operator, and that can be used to make payments to merchants.
Bar-code readers: Phones will also be able to read bar codes and that can have very interesting applications in commerce.
Ramesh Jain, professor at University of California, Irivine, wrote on his weblog: "Mobile phones are becoming very powerful and are likely to become a dominant device for CCC (communication, computing and content)."
So the phones of tomorrow will be the remote controls of our life. They will come with bigger, better keyboards and displays -- even though there are practical limitations on how big a device we will carry.
Networks are becoming faster too. And the device that was once a replacement for the fixed-line phone will occupy an even greater role in our lives. Countries like Japan and South Korea already lead the way in having multi-purpose mobile phones.
China is following and India is not far behind.
Consider some of the recent announcements at Cebit in Germany.
A Slashdot wrote: "Samsung [is] showing off a new cell phone which runs on Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system which features a built-in hard drive. The SGH-I300 will offer 3GB of storage, which allows you to store up to 1,000 songs on it for playback through the music player. The 3GB hard drive is similar to the type of hard drive that is found in Apple's Mini iPod. These 1-inch drives with very low power requirements are ideal for cell phones and other mobile devices."
News.com wrote about two of the announcements at Cebit: "Motorola is demonstrating its 3G Motorola V1150 phone in Hannover. The sleek phone will come with an integrated 2-megapixel camera, two-way video calling and a new Motorola ticker technology called Screen3 that streams news and entertainment from Motorola... Sony Ericsson is showing off the W800 phone, the first Walkman- branded cell phone. The handset comes with a digital-audio player, FM radio tuner and 2-megapixel camera. The W800 will have 38MB of free memory for music and images."
Mobile phones are morphing -- to the point where voice is just incidental. They are becoming, what George Gilder has called, teleputers.Rajesh Jain is managing director of Netcore Solutions Pvt Ltd