All manner of data services — including two-way video — will be available on GSM phones in the next two or three years, but the service operators will have to pull their weight, according to a leading manufacturer.
The momentum behind the hand phone industry was clearly demonstrated at last week’s CeBit computer show in Germany, where the majority of new product announcements came not from IT vendors but from phone companies. Among them was Nokia, which announced its 1998 range at the show — and reprised the launch for Asia-Pacific media in Singapore.
Nokia Mobile’s new top-end Communicator 9110 packs an AMD 486 chip and a PDA-sized screen into a phone-size package, but its most significant feature may be its image messaging facility. A digital camera can be plugged into the Communicator, which can down-load, compress, render and email images as JPEGs. Up to 4Mb of additional storage is available on a slot-in card.
Nokia’s senior VP for Asia-Pacific, Nigel Litchfield, says still pictures are but one step on the way to video, which will open up a fantastic opportunity. “You’re talking about a need for transfer rates of about 60-70Kbit/s, which is only two or three years away. That’s the theory. You still need people to develop a service around it. But certainly, in that time frame you’re going to see cameras built into a handphone.”
The Communicator 9110 will ship in the third quarter of this year, with tools to ease connectivity between Windows desk-tops and its own GEOS embedded operating system.
Litchfield says even the scaled-down Windows CE environment, which emerged after the first Communicator was launched two years ago, was not designed for cost-effective low-powered devices such as phones. “I think Microsoft — because that’s what we’re talking about — underestimated the growth of the cellular phone industry. They didn’t understand it because they were concentrating on other things.”
He confesses to being disappointed at the relatively few independent developers working on GEOS.
“That is a problem, and I personally can’t understand it because I think there’s a huge opportunity.”
Developer and service operator support will also be important to products in Nokia’s Artus server range, including the Artus Messaging Server, which was also announced last week. The server filters, formats and forwards Internet content to GSM users, according to individual profiles.
The AMS will probably be regarded as too expensive for BellSouth to deploy in the relatively small New Zealand market, but Litchfield wants to see initiatives in dedicated Internet delivery to handphones.
“It’s very inexpensive for someone to set up a PC as a server and, via the Internet download services on to cellular phones. What you need, then, is the marketing clout behind it and somebody to take the lead. That’s what we don’t see. Some operators are playing at it, offering weather reports and stock market quotes, which is fine, but there’s got to be a lot more to it.”
Litchfield says in Europe Nokia down-loaded a different ringing tone to the 8110i (cellphone) via Artus Netgate every day for the two weeks before Christmas. “It was a silly little application, but it caught on. Who’s going to offer that?
“As a manufacturer, Nokia doesn’t see such activities as its role long-term. “But we may have to get involved in encouraging it. I’m looking at how we can set up some kind of centre where somebody in New Zealand can set up a local number and get access to a service.
Maybe that gets routed through via the Internet to Hong Kong or Sydney or wherever, but the service would seem a seamless New Zealand local service.