Cellular convergance

Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on July 23rd, 2005.

Walk into a cellular telephone retailer and you will find that the days of cell phones being large bulky devices used only to make and receive telephone calls are over.  These days cell phones come with built in cameras, play music and can surf the internet.  This is only the tip of the iceberg to what the cellular phone manufacturers have planned.  Soon, according to their grand designs, your cell phone will be the central device in your life.  It will control the temperature inside your fridge from across town, let you reply to your emails, let you watch sports of news highlights while on your lunch hour and play the music on your ride home.  If you can think of a function somewhere in the world someone is trying to put that into a cellular phone at this moment.

These days the most common additional function of cellular phones are games.  Far from the days of the simple days of Snake on Nokia phones, these days’ phones are capable of playing fairly advanced games that include graphics that are comparable to home video game systems from about ten years ago.  Most of these games are available for download through your wireless provider be it Bell, Rogers or Telus for a fee.  They’re saved onto the phone and ready to play at anytime.

The wireless gaming industry has grown both large enough and fast enough that IGN.com, one of the major videogame media outlets, has dedicated a section of its site to covering the latest in mobile gaming.  There have been missteps in the early days of wireless gaming, such as Nokia’s N-Gage.  The N-Gage, a phone designed to combine the videogaming power of a Gameboy with a cellular phone, flopped due to being over priced, too large and being released with too few videogame titles.  Though still on the market the N-Gage has ensured that it will be a few years before another gaming phone is released.

Some of the footage aired of Londoners escaping from the Underground after the bomb attacks on the Tube last month shows another use of phones.  Escaping commuters used their camera phones to take pictures of the chaos underground, those with video phones captured the escape for replay later around the world on the news.  Cameras have been in phones in Europe and Asia for years now, but have just arrived in Canada in the last year or two.  Marketed as a fun way to take pictures at social gatherings or when you don’t have your camera the cameras’ quality is not yet at a place where they’ll be replacing regular digital or film cameras any time soon.

Sean Tamaki a sales representative at Pacific Cellular a Rogers dealership in Kelowna points out some of the limitations of camera phones, “Having a camera on your cell phone is totally just for that convenience factor, the difference in quality between having a stand alone digital camera and having one built into your phone is huge.”

Most of the camera phones on the market in Canada have a 0.3 mega-pixel rating, meaning the image quality of the pictures is far less than you’d get on even a cheap stand alone digital camera which are usually around 2 or 3 mega-pixels.  Bell offers the Samsung 8930, a flip phone with a 1.3 mega-pixel camera,  while Rogers has both the Sony Ericsson S710a and the Motorola V635 in the above 1 mega-pixel range and Telus has the Motorola V710 in the same range.   It is, however, often cheaper to buy a regular phone and a quality stand-alone digital camera than a quality camera phone.  Of course with a camera phone you never know when your remarkable footage could end up on the news.

For about two years now everyone in the world has been trying to topple Apple’s iPod.  The digital music player seems to be everywhere and controls so much of the MP3 and digital audio player market that everyone has been trying to compete with them.  After watching a number of big names in both computers, such as Dell and Microsoft, and audio, such as Sony, fail a lot of people are putting their money on cellular phones to take over.

However listening to music on a cellular phone is a hassle.  Most phones have limited memory and expandable memory cards, for those phones that can use them, are expensive.  The process of moving music to a cellular phone is also nowhere near the easy process it is with an iPod.  To further frustrate matters an iPod like phone, designed by both Motorola and Apple, is being held up because the wireless carriers want to control how music is put on the phone.  An iPod phone from Apple and Motorola would allow users to sync their music on their computer with the phone, something that companies like the American carrier Cingular Wireless do not want.   Cingular has so far resisted carrying the Motorola phone because it would prefer customers buy music through their network at five dollars and more per track than get them from their own collection. 

One area where cellular telephones have got it right is email, and all thanks to a Canadian company called Research In Motion (RIM).  RIM makes the popular email phone the BlackBerry, which has revolutionized the way people stay in touch.  With a BlackBerry as soon as an email enters your mailbox it arrives on your phone where you can easily read it on a large screen and with a full QWERTY keyboard you can easily respond and send out your email.  Add to that its ability to keep your contracts and calendars synchronized with your home and work computers and it is a handy little device.  I myself have been using one for over a year and like my iPod I could not live without it.

Tamaki, himself a BlackBerry user, agrees, “I use my BlackBerry to totally organize everything to do with my day to day lifestyle it allows me to stay connected as a cell phone, receive e-mail, it even contains a calendar, memo pad, and address book.”

Cell phones that control the temperature of your fridge are a little ways off yet and while a number of new features have begun to creep into the devices it will be awhile before the cell is the only device you need.  Still there’s something to be said for forwarding this article to eVent! while at the beach.