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Talkin' 'bout a revolution

Mobile phones have come a long way from Motorola's $5,000 "Brick." From reading menus to mapping your route to monitoring your health, today's tiny wonders are morphing into the ultimate lifestyle accessory

Globe and Mail Update

I saw my first mobile phone in the 1980s. It was the size of a car battery, and it weighed almost as much. It had a desk-phone-sized handset mounted on top, but the radio reporter using it could hardly contain his glee at being the first in the media scrum to have the latest in mobile technology. Technically it was a radio phone, but we marvelled at it anyway.

A couple of years later, the mobile revolution began in earnest with the Motorola DynaTAC—a.k.a. the Brick. This cellphone weighed a pound and a half and cost $5,000. Our organization's bean counters screamed each month when they got the bill, because no one who managed to sign it out could resist the urge to call their friends just for the thrill of wireless at a buck a minute.

Fast-forward more than 20 years, and geek envy still survives (though seeing phones in the pockets of 11-year-olds has dropped the cool factor down a notch or two). The mobile, as we now call it, has evolved. It's
a lifeline, a security blanket, a work tool to make or break billion-dollar deals, a guide when we're lost, a way to record the world around us and to share our lives with others.

Today's mobile is not your father's telephone. As it becomes a network gateway device, it is morphing into a computer with telephony features, just as the desktop PC became a window on the world when we connected to the Internet. "We are entering a golden age of mobility," says Bob Iannucci, chief technology officer for Nokia Corp. "Web 1.0 made lots of information available to a lot of people. Web 2.0 democratized information. Web 3.0 is about all that, anywhere, where mobility and connectivity converge with our lifestyles."

Indeed, the mobile is fast becoming about where you are, where you're going and what you could be doing. It's becoming the central contact point to your social network through programs such as Buddy Beacon, which alerts you when a friend is nearby or tracks the whereabouts of your kids. The concept of video-blogging via mobile has already created hordes of followers on the Web, as have random chat concepts such as Twitter.

Last year, Nokia surveyed 200 million advanced users in Europe and Asia about their mobile habits, and it turns out that making phone calls accounted for just 12% of their usage. They spent about 37% of their time text messaging, 16% using multimedia (watching videos or listening to music), 14% delving into their contact directory and calendar, 8% browsing and 4% playing games.

Overseas habits are already changing the faces of our mobiles. Motorola's Rokr E8 (and to some extent the just-launched LG KF600) abandons fixed buttons for a glass surface that displays controls appropriate to the feature being used. The 12-button dial pad appears for phone use, then morphs into a jog wheel for MP3s. Thanks to development in the science of haptics, which examines how we interact with devices and what our senses expect, the phone even offers buttons that "click" when touched, despite the fact that there are no moving parts. One day, Iannucci says, nanotechnology and bio-reactive compounds in casing materials could react to your touch, rousing the mobile from dormancy and interacting with your skin to check temperature, pulse and other health signs. It could match music with the user's heart rate, which could be useful for workouts or relaxation. And it could be a step toward streaming data about your heart, blood pressure and blood chemistry to a database where software might flag issues that need medical attention.

Even the ubiquitous camera is improving. Nokia—now the world's largest maker of digital cameras thanks to its phone business—sees them going up to 8 megapixels and near-broadcast video quality. Soon, those cellphone pictures you see on the news won't be so blurry. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, news agency Reuters and Nokia collaborated on a tool kit that included a Nokia N95 to allow reporters to transmit interviews live to the Web.

Because picture quality is getting so much better, you'll soon be able to do an amazing range of things with your phone. Say you're travelling in China and can't read the menus or road signs. Snap a picture with your mobile and onboard software could automatically translate the text. If you're wondering about the history of a building in Beijing, just take a picture of it and let the phone's software search the Web for its historical, political and social significance. Hewlett-Packard envisions a day when gamers can play outdoor versions of online games like World of Warcraft, using their mobile cameras to map a fantasy world over the real one.

The phones of the future won't be all fun and games, however. Gaetano Borriello, a professor at the University of Washington, is researching how mobile devices can help memory-impaired patients navigate buildings. It's an extension of how people with visual disabilities have been using voice-guided GPS navigation to travel outside familiar neighbourhoods. Borriello's software translates a building's interior into a series of points and then matches them to the architectural plan, overlaying directional arrows to guide the user. There are lots of applications for the same technology. For instance, it could help auto owners perform simple maintenance—take a picture of your car's engine, and the software inside your phone "recognizes what it sees" and calls up an instructional video on how to fix it.

In the Web 3.0 version of mobile social networking, you don't even have to consciously participate. The network's ability to locate a cellphone by GPS or by its proximity to cell towers brings new possibilities, beyond apps like Buddy Beacon or those that send coupons to your mobile from nearby restaurants. Like aircraft transponders, each mobile could emit
a unique signal. If those signals could be monitored as users drove along the highway, software could extract their speed and produce an automated traffic report that predicts peak congestion.

The only limitation of our ubiquitous mobile companions may be their size. They're getting smaller all the time, which might make it difficult to use them for reading maps or responding to e-mail. A solution is in the works, though: Lasers can project a screen image on any flat surface and even simulate a working keyboard.

Perhaps the most overlooked capability of the phone remains voice. Why type an e-mail or squint to read one when voice recognition software will do it for you? "The phone is an inherently voice device," says Iannucci.
"Why is it we can't control it with voice?"

Most of these solutions, applications or predictions aren't rocket science—the majority are either in prototype stage or beta testing in labs at Hewlett-Packard, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung and others. Some are already commercially available.

To paraphrase sci-fi writer William Gibson, the mobile of the future is already here; it's just not in your hands yet.

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