The mobile phone is moving away from being solely a telephony device and towards a role as a unique "personal identifier", according to MIT Media Lab associate director Dr Andrew Lippman.
Lippman, speaking in a panel discussion at Nokia's Designed for Life conference in Hong Kong last week, suggested that the potential of the next generation of mobile devices might even be enough to finally break the US market's notorious resistance to smartcards.
The thumbnail-sized SIM cards common in GSM handsets in the Asia-Pacific region but almost unknown in the US region could be used to carry digital certificates, and to govern "communication with the nearby world" via the Bluetooth wireless standard, he said.
He suggested that Bluetooth-enabled phones could be used to trigger vending machines or to link up with street kiosks, meaning the mobile phone user would simply be able to walk up to and use full-sized screens and keyboards for Internet access.
Lippman also praised the range and variety of handsets available in the Asian market, where, he said, mobile telephony reached the "point of maturity where you buy something because it looks good" - as opposed to the US, where mobile phones were "incredibly boring" and generally "basic black".
The mobile market, said Lippman, was no longer about telephones.
"Within the next few years there won't be any telephones. Just connected devices."
There was frequent mention at the conference of the runaway success of i-Mode, the wireless data service launched about six months ago by Japan's NTT DoCoMo, which already has around four million subscribers and is expected to top 10 million within months. This compares to Japan's total of about 15 million conventional Internet users.
Although i-Mode presently delivers HTML-formatted content, rather than using the WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) standard being pushed by most major handset vendors, NTT is a member of the WAP Forum and its service may converge with WAP 2.0, which will offer enhanced XML support.
More importantly, i-Mode is being studied for pointers to likely WAP services in other Asian markets, where the youth culture is often driven by Japanese trends. The answers have been unexpectedly trivial, according to Nokia's Nigel Rundstrom, who says the demand has been for "fun, disposable applications", such as downloading cartoons.
Nokia's senior vice president for Asia-Pacific, Nigel Litchfield, pointed out in a later workshop that with i-Mode the Japanese mobile market, which has traditionally favoured the smallest phones in the world, is swinging back towards larger devices with larger screens.
Nokia used the conference to unveil both infrastructure and terminal products aimed at providing an evolutionary path to third-generation mobile services, including GPRS (General Packet Radio Service), which allows Internet access based on charges for data volume rather than time.
But the first of the new products to show up in the New Zealand market is the 6250 handset, a ruggedised WAP-enabled GSM phone which is likely to be targeted at tradesmen and others who will value its water and dust resistance and built-in task journal. It will be launched here in several months' time.