Pop quiz: Choose the most important electronic device in your business arsenal. Is it your laptop? Your PDA? Your iPod? Nah, none of the above. It's gotta be your cell phone. Nowadays, your cell phone can handle your laptop's job, your PDA's job, your iPod's job, and so much more.
The consumer market agrees. Last year, 810 million cell phones were sold worldwide (Fig. 1). That's up 13.6% from 2004's 713 million tally, according to research firm iSuppli Corp. It's difficult to name another consumer or business electronics product that can top such success. In fact, the number of wireless subscribers surpassed the number of wired subscribers in 2005, and this trend will forge on despite the move to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP).
Who uses their cell phone for simple calls anymore? When it's time for a chat, there are walkie-talkie and Bluetooth headsets. Other services like Internet access and e-mail are common. Music, video, games, podcasts, and custom ringtones can be downloaded. Then, there's the camera for still and motion pictures—its photos and other data are stored on memory cards.
But there's more. We can talk to Wi-Fi hotspots via VoIP. Location-based services that include GPS and maps are available. Then there are RFID and near-field communications (NFC) links. Soon, you may be able to use your cell phone as a remote control for home appliances. What will they think of next? More importantly, how stuck will you be if you lose your cell phone?
With steady growth in an already huge market, chip companies, handset manufacturers, and carriers will perpetually roll out better products as long as money can be made. All they need to do is give us better features.
The good news is that there's a huge number of choices. The bad news is that there's a huge number of choices. While selection is tough, maybe you can find something that fits your specific needs. And if it's not available yet, just wait a while. The following trends may hold the key.
3G ROLLING OUT, 4G IN THE LABS
3G has taken forever to debut. To protect their investment, carriers delayed 3G. In its place, they've provided 2.5G-like enhancements such as 1xRTT, GPRS, and EDGE to keep us happy. Finally, though, we're beginning to see the real 3G emerge.
Verizon and Sprint are rolling out Qualcomm's EV-DO cdma2000. Cingular is activating UMTS WCDMA 3G in selected areas. UMTS 3G already works in many European and Asian locations. In the U.S., 3G growth would go faster if the spectrum were available. But by today's standards, UMTS 3G's maximum 2-Mbit/s data rate is no longer sufficient. EVDO can beat it.
Also, the new High Speed Download Packet Access (HSPDA) option recently blessed by the 3GPP easily provides the data rate (3.6 Mbits/s today, 7.2 Mbits/s tomorrow with a potential of 14 Mbits/s) to handle video and, for that matter, anything else that might come along. And while carriers usually expect to get at least a decade out of their upgrades and new infrastructure, they're already looking to 4G systems that can deliver up to 20 Mbits/s via some form of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing.
CHINA: THE GROWTH MACHINE
China has the most cellphone subscribers, an estimated 380 million last year. The U.S. follows in second place with 194.6 million. China expects another 250 million by 2010. Most of the Chinese systems are already 3G, whether cdma2000/EV-DO or WCDMA. The new versions may use China's unique brand of 3G, a TDM version of UMTS 3G called TD-SCDMA. Tests continue, with a national standard to be determined.
OVER 1 BILLION SOLD
It won't be long before the annual sales of handsets will increase to 1 billion. Look for that to happen in 2009, according to one estimate. But don't be surprised if it's met sooner if the huge increases of the past few years persist.
MULTIPLE RADIOS PER HANDSET
Many cell phones already feature two radios—the cell-phone transceiver and a Bluetooth radio for the headset. But look for more radios to be integrated in the future. Some handsets offer a Wi-Fi radio so VoIP phone calls can be made via the nearest access point or hotspot. Many cell phones also now contain a GPS receiver and an FM radio.
In the future, ZigBee transceivers will turn cell phones into remote controls for home appliances. RFID and NFC radios also may find room. Maybe even WiMAX. Coexistence will be a problem, but no doubt solvable. This certainly signals great business ahead for the chip and antenna companies.
One of the hottest cell-phone configurations is the RIM BlackBerry, with its fabulous email system and 3.7 million U.S. users. Though expensive, it's worth it for business and professional users. The Blackberry is so effective, many people rely solely upon it, eschewing their laptop on business trips or wherever they may be going.
Motorola and Nokia soon will offer e-mail phones like the Palm Treo, which also is popular. All of these phones will grab some market share from Black-Berry. However, it probably will remain numero uno in the sector with almost 3 million U.S. users— that is, if RIM dispenses with the legal problem it faces from patent company NTP. RIM seems to have won the patent battle, and that should put present and future investors and subscribers at ease.
The biggest push in the near future will be audio and video. We now have MP3 functionality in cell phones, and that trend will ramp up. Audio features make sense in cell phones, since they're audio devices (Fig. 2). The likely outcome will be a marked rise in podcasts. Motorola's iRadio service will provide CD-quality music and a wide range of radio programming. Thanks to several low-cost FM-radio chips, FM radio is now available in cell phones as well.
With Verizon and Sprint Nextel offering video, expect to see more services. Digital video broadcast systems for handsets (DVB-H) will beam TV to cell phones with tuners and the related decoders. Nobody knows how many subscribers will want to watch TV on a two-inch screen, but the carriers bet it will be more than just a handful. Content is king, so if it's desirable enough, consumers will buy. How about more music videos? They seem to be a perfect fit for a cell phone.
THE SATELLITE PHONE
Cell phones based on low-earth-orbit satellites aren't new. The two main carriers, Globalcom and Iridium, recently survived bankruptcy. In fact, business is booming since the onslaught of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. With most land lines and cell towers down, there was no phone service anywhere in the disaster areas—unless you owned a satellite phone.
When you absolutely must stay in contact regardless of weather, location, or other conditions, nothing beats a sat phone. You can call from anywhere on earth under any conditions. Businesses, government agencies, the military, and other organizations are discovering the power of the sat phone. Though bulky and expensive, expected improvements should whittle down both size and cost. And a hybrid sat/cell phone is on the way. It's a niche, but it's growing.
For more, go to www.elecdesign.com.
"Trends In Cellular Handsets" by Doug Grant, Analog Devices, Drill Deeper 11777
"Multiple Wireless Technologies Can Coexist" by Yoram Solomon, Texas Instruments, Drill Deeper 11778
"More Trends In Cell Phones," Drill Deeper 11840