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What's next in cellphone design?

Posted: 17 Sep 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:cellphone design? high-end low-end cellphone Asian economies? future cellphone features?

Strauss: Cellphones are becoming the universal appliance for individuals.

Cellphones have been!and will continue to be!a major contributor to the growth of Asian economies. Most people see the cellphone as their personal connectivity appliance. They give little thought to the underlying network of cellular towers and base stations that connect them to the worldwide telephone network and increasingly, the Internet. The cellphone started as simply a wireless telephone, but has also become a PDA, multimedia entertainment device, communications hub and much more.

There are basic cellphones serving the needs of emerging nations' rural areas, but there are also high-end cellphones with features and computing capabilities that rival those of PCs of just a few years ago. Of course, capability comes with a price, with cellphones presently priced from under $30 at the very low end to several hundred dollars at the high end.

High-end cellphones differ with geography, often a reflection of user culture and tastes, and the operators' method of charging for usage. Thus, the desirable cellphone characteristics vary by country.

'Killer app'
However, there are basic cellphone functions required by all regions. First, voice service is still the "killer app" for cellular. But there is a growing trend toward better-quality voice, provided through features such as better echo cancellation and background noise suppression. Although the capability has been available on some cellphones for a few years, voice dialing is becoming more readily available. Speakerphone capability is also becoming more universal. But these are features that the user cannot see when shopping for a new handset.

More visible are so-called "multimedia" functions, which are the sound and vision functions. At the low end, ringtones prevail. The next tier up provides MP3-type music playback capability, and increasingly, stereo and even surround sound. Then there are the digicam functions, which now provide 2Mpixel and higher image resolutions. Motion video is also becoming more popular not only for playback of movie clips, but also for videoconferencing.

The processing demands for video are easily 10 times that of voice. Consequently, ever more powerful "application processors" are being introduced in high-end cellphones to handle the multimedia functions. But that additional processing power comes at a price!faster battery drain. Unfortunately, the advances in battery technology don't scale as rapidly as chip processing power. Thus, the IC industry is heavily focused on lowering the power consumption of each new generation of cellular chips.

Mobile TV is another multimedia function, requiring dedicated radio receiver chips that also differ by geography. Better mobile TV viewing requires bigger viewing screens, adding to high-end cellphones' cost and size.

Let's not forget that many of the new high-end cellphone functions require greater communications bandwidth. More bandwidth brings faster data delivery and better-quality video. Greater bandwidth over that of the earlier GSM, CDMA and PDC networks is being provided through upgrades to both the networks and the cellphones, to newer W-CDMA, CDMA-1xEV-DO and TD-SCDMA networks. Even China will begin fielding all three of these networks in 2008. But even variants of these networks like HSPA (for W-CDMA networks) and DO/Rev A (for CDMA networks) will at least triple bandwidth over current high-end capabilities.

Other wireless connections are being added to cellphones. Bluetooth has become almost universal not only for connecting to the ubiquitous ear phone, but also for connecting to laptops, handsfree car operation, printers and more. GPS is beginning to take off as is Wi-Fi connectivity. Other wireless connections are being added for capabilities like mobile TV, contactless electronic wallets and even AM/FM receivers. Some believe that WiMAX and UWB capabilities will also be in cellphones by 2009.

'Cool' interface
The real key to user cellphone satisfaction is the human interface. That is the keypad, display, physical form and "cool" factor based on clever industrial design. The biggest challenge for high-end cellphones of the future is the display. The desire to view movies or surf the web on a larger screen is great, but how a handset maker can effectively provide that in a small form factor is not obvious.

So what will the next-generation of cellphones look like? There will not be a single physical implementation that serves all users, but we have some clues.

One thing is certain, though: Cellphones are becoming the universal appliance for individuals.

- Will Strauss
President, Forward Concepts

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