Electronic Design

Next-Generation Cell Phones

Listed here are a few of the significant trends in the constantly evolving cell-phone business.

  • Growth in e-mail: Despite the patent scare of recent months, BlackBerry sales continue to boom, keeping Research in Motion in the clover. This is a hot product, and lots of competition is emerging. Look for more "push" e-mail cell phones from Palm and other companies.
  • Rollout of 3G: 2.5G technologies like EDGE and 1xRTT are peaking, and now gradually succumbing to real 3G, such as cdma2000's EVDO from Verizon and Sprint Nextel and WCDMA from Cingular and TMobile. It's now available in most major cities. Expanded 3G speeds also are available with the addition of the high-speed downlink packet access (HSDPA) service for WCDMA.
  • 4G in the works: No kidding. Research continues in the development of the next big thing—4G. It's expected to use OFDM and MIMO, with data speeds reaching 20 Mbits/s. It sounds like WiMAX could be the new 4G. The target is after 2010, but as we've seen with 3G, it will most certainly take much longer.
  • Location services and E911: The FCC said that 95% of all new phones required a location-service technology such as GPS or uplink time difference of arrival (U-TDOA) by December 31, 2005, so that your 911 service could find you. Such phones are now available, but the public has been slow to adopt them. The whole E911 thing continues to drag out, mainly in the GPS-equipped cdma2000 phones of Verizon and Sprint Nextel. Ultimately, 911 will work with cell phones, and we may even get the various location-based services promised years ago.
  • Wi-Fi and UMA: You can now get dual-mode phones with regular cell service as well as regular Wi-Fi access to access points and hot-spots. This lets you make Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls via the wireless local-area network. A new technology called universal mobile access (UMA) is now becoming available to make the handoff from one service to the other smooth and transparent to the user. I wonder if that will eventually include VoIP on WiMAX.
  • Near-field communications (NFC): NFC is a version of RFID that uses very low-power 13.56-MHz radios for really short-range (inches) communications such as financial transactions, so you'd pay for items much like you would with a smart card.
  • Multiple radios per cell phone: 3G phones already have multiple transceivers, not only for the 3G service, but also to support older 2.5G services. Bluetooth is very common in cell phones for headsets, as well as for links to laptops and PDAs. Now, Wi-Fi is making inroads, and many E911 phones use a GPS radio. Even single-chip FM radios are available. WiMAX could be an option, too. Score one more radio when the new broadcast video services become available.
  • The ultra-low-cost handset: Several companies like Philips, Silicon Labs, STMicroelectronics, and Texas Instruments now have simple GSM cell phones on a chip. These devices make the super-inexpensive cell phone a reality, allowing carriers to greatly expand their markets into developing countries and other areas where a dirtcheap phone makes sense.
  • Walkie talkies: The original Nextel iDen walkie-talkie cell phones were a big hit, and that niche is growing. Most other vendors and carriers now offer walkie-talkie phones and services. It comes in handy for many types of jobs and with the family.
  • China as the cell-phone leader: China is well on its way to being the dominant cell-phone user. It already has more subscribers than any other country, and there's no end in sight. China has become the driving factor in cell-phone technology.
  • The handset as a remote: You can now program and control your TiVo from your cell phone, thanks to a new service offered by Verizon. Expect other uses of the cell phone as a remote. Machineto-machine (M2M) applications using the phone for remote monitoring and control of your house are available in some areas now, and they're expected to balloon in due time.
  • Replacing landlines with wireless: A disturbing trend, for carriers at least, is the continued abandonment of regular landline phones for a totally wireless phone. As cell service expands and becomes more reliable, this trend will continue, albeit slowly. It's no wonder the phone companies are worried.
  • Style is as important as technology: While new technological developments continue to drive the direction of the industry, handset style has a huge impact on sales. Looks, format, and "coolness" are major selling points. Just look at the buzz created by the stylish Motorola RAZR. Now, more companies are offering slick new phones in colors and designs to encourage more new and replacement sales.
  • Larger memories: With audio, video, and game downloads getting bigger, cell phones are adding much more flash to accommodate it. Some phones already support the plug-in flash modules used in some digital cameras. Also, hard drives are already showing up in some high-end phones to store music playlists and, no doubt, more games and video in the future.
  • Improved cameras: About 50% of all cell phones now come with a digital camera. And their resolution is improving, with 2- and 3-Mpixel cameras now available. Many can take limited video, too.
  • More multimedia: Audio is here now, along with some gaming. Video is available in a limited form now, with more to come.
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