Mobile telephone access, e-mail capability, calendar management: for most people, these are different tasks, requiring different tools. But some electronics manufacturers hope to convince you that a new breed of devices, dubbed Smartphones, can tackle all three tasks at once. Most cell phone manufacturers now offer some version of these smart devices in their packages, and more and more consumers are picking them up as well. Sales of the devices have doubled in the past year, according to one European consumer research group.
“Smartphones are great for anyone who uses both a mobile telephone and a handheld computer, but would rather have just one device,” Manfred Breul from the industry association Bitkom, headquartered in Berlin, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa). That helps to explain why half the market for these phones seems full of offerings from traditional cell phone makers who have decked out their devices with bigger screens and fancier address and calendar functions. The other half is made up of handheld computer makers who are now sending their products out with an antenna built in.
Some wireless providers are even providing their own proprietary devices, in the hope of driving business for their mobile services like the WAP and GPRS mobile Internet standards. The 9210 Communicator from Nokia looks like a traditional cell phone, but it’s got a secret underneath its shell. One need only lift up its casing and a larger screen comes into view.
Most other Smartphones are considerably thinner but wider. They tend to look more like traditional handheld computers, notwithstanding the antenna that makes them appropriate for telephoning and e-mailing. Instead of using a keyboard, users work with a touch screen and a stylus. This means that two hands are necessary to use it, even when you just want to use the phone function.
Texts are generally entered using the stylus, as with handheld computers. Entering text goes more quickly than trying to punch in an SMS message using a cell phone’s keypad, but not as fast as a with a computer keyboard. Yet Smartphones equipped with a keyboard are still not the quickest when it comes to text entry. “The relatively small keyboards make it impossible to type using the 10 finger system. It usually comes down to a two-thumb method,” says Wolfgang Pauler, editor of the online magazine xonio.com.
In the end, the method of data entry is largely a question of taste. The manufacturer Handspring, based in Mountain View, California, aims at both groups with its Treo. The Smartphone offers a keyboard on its casing but can also take stylus entries. The device, which retails for USD 700, is currently the only device that is based on the widespread Palm OS operating system for handhelds.
The American firm Palm, with headquarters in Santa Clara, California, has announced its own first Smartphone for release at the end of the year. Palm’s competition, the Pocket PC operating system from Microsoft, is the basis for Smartphones from manufacturers such as Siemens, Trium, and Sagem. While the battery life for a regular cell phone is relatively long nowadays, the battery life of handheld devices is still nothing to brag about. “No Smartphone will last longer then two days if put to intense use,” reports Pauler. This weakness is compounded by the fact that most manufacturers have chosen to install colour displays in the devices, which tend to suck even more power.
Pauler sees similar problems when it comes to surfing the Internet. Many of the Smartphones are equipped with one of the speedy communications protocols GPRS or HSCSD, which makes them well suited for sending out e-mail messages.
The small screens and high costs associated with transferring large amounts of data, however, make them more questionable as Web platforms.
Smartphone proponents claim that this is a question of preparing Web sites to be suitable for the format, but practically speaking few Web sites have made any motions toward readying themselves for the new access devices.
Breul, the expert from Bitkom, recommends that buyers consider carefully whether the additional functions of Smartphones are really necessary. Someone who will use the phone 99 percent of the time just for making calls will probably get little use from a Smartphone, he says. Many of the other functions don’t pay for themselves, given the added weight, demand on resources, and price. When it comes to addresses and calendar functions, Smartphones already have competition: even normal cell phones are a bit cleverer in these areas than in the past.