News Column

A New Tone

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The evolution of the fiercely competitive wireless phone industry continues at a blistering pace, offering consumers and businesses growing opportunities to boost productivity, efficiency, and on-the-go capabilities.

Cell phones these days are rapidly morphing to include everything from digital cameras and video recorders to personal digital assistants and even televisions. Wireless service plans, too, are offering growing options and incentives for consumers and businesses. And network coverage and speed are continuing to improve throughout the country.

Experts say continued demand by increasingly sophisticated users, along with competition in the industry, should propel technological advances and put downward pressure on pricing.

Motorola MPX

Motorola Mpx
The next-generation combination phone and PDA using the PocketPC platform. Offers continuous connectivity to the Internet via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth wireless technology. Equipped with a 1.2 megapixel digital camera; features a 2.8-inch touch-screen display. Also comes with an expansion card slot to add up to one gigabyte of removable storage. Slated for release later this year.

"Mobility is really being adopted in the enterprise realm," says Laurie Armstrong of cell phone maker Nokia. "More and more businesses are enabling their employees to go mobile, which begs for devices for mobile users to use more text messaging and connections to the office."

Nokia is among a bevy of companies, including No. 1 U.S. cell phone maker Motorola, that are adding everything from cameras to video recorders to their phones.

"Some customers just want to use the phone to talk, but then you show them the camera phone and how easy it is to use and how they can send pictures across the country to family and friends," says Gabriel Torres, a retail vice president for Sprint PCS' West region. "All of the sudden, people get enchanted."

Camera phones and the ability to send the pictures to other phones or e-mail addresses, in particular have been popular among Hispanics and other consumers, says Alisa Joseph, vice president of advertising and marketer services for Scarborough Research in Florida.

"There's been a growth in usage by the Hispanic population that's primarily been linked to the fact that they're very connected," says Ms. Joseph. "Family is very important, and they maintain levels of communication with family members who are traveling or living in other parts of the world."

HandSpring Treo

Handspring Treo 600
One of the most recognized combination mobile phones and handheld computers. Powered by the Palm operating system. Offers combined features of both products, including a built-in camera and memory card slot for accessing files such as photos and MP3s.

Wireless connection options for such mobile users also are improving, with providers such as Verizon Wireless testing faster networks capable of carrying quality streaming video and AT&T Wireless expanding its faster network.

Meanwhile, text-messaging capabilities are expanding. "Smart phones," which combine organizer functions similar to PDA features with voice capabilities and more, continue to grow market share. Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, recently said it will make a PDA that will include a cell phone. And makers are rushing to pump out cell phones that make typing easier by adopting QWERTY keyboards as an alternative to the phone keypad. Nokia's 6820, for example, offers a fold-out keyboard, and Motorola offers a cell phone that opens into a "mini-laptop," through Cingular.

Calling plans also are aggressively courting Hispanics and other consumers with variety and options. Last month, Sprint PCS introduced a $4 per month wireless international calling plan that allows users to place calls from the United States to Mexico over its network at a rate of nine cents a minute. AT&T Wireless offers its WorldConnect Mexico plan that for $4.99 per month not only puts the U.S.-to-Mexico rate at nine cents per minute but also allows roaming on calls placed from within Mexico to the United States for 69 cents a minute. And Verizon Wireless has a North America Choice plan that treats calls to and from parts of Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico the same as it does calls across town, starting at $60 for a 400-minute monthly plan.

"With a lot of the traditional calling plans that most carriers have, when you go into a market such as Baja California or the state of Chihuahua, you're roaming on those carriers' networks, paying daily access fees and roaming charges," says Oscar Madrid, head of multicultural marketing for the Western region at Verizon Wireless. "We created a partnership with carriers in Mexico. Just using the minutes that already accompany the plans saves the hassle of having to roam."

Samsung VM-A680

Samsung VM-A680
Records 15-second videos that can be sent to other video-phone users, stored on the Internet, or sent to a computer. Includes a built-in VGA camera. Images can be saved to the phone as screen savers or caller ID images.

The fact that three of the largest players in the wireless communications business would put together such packages speaks volumes about the power that the Hispanic market has begun to wield. According to Scarborough Research, Hispanics spend more per month on cellular phone service about $67 per household, compared with $62 per household for the general market and account for more than 10 percent of total monthly spending on cell phone services in the United States.

"If there was ever a perception that the Hispanic market is not spending as much on telecommunications, that myth is broken," says Scarborough's Ms. Joseph. "It's not only a growing customer base but one that's very profitable. These are the folks that will spend the largest amounts on calling plans."

Jon Fernandez, owner of TriNet Communications in Livermore, California, is among the hundreds of thousands of companies that have embraced wireless phones as part of corporate culture. Mr. Fernandez says he has about 20 phones on his company account mostly for a sales staff that travels the country and needs to stay in touch with one another.

"It's almost like you can't imagine not having a cell phone," he says.

Nokia N-Gage

Nokia N-Gage
A revamped version called the Nokia N-Gage QD is a combination mobile phone and video game system that hit the market this summer. The system no longer includes the MP3 player included in the previous version. Allows other N-Gage gamers to play against each other over a Bluetooth wireless connection.

Sam Diaz is a reporter at The San Jose Mercury News.

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