A quick glance through the cellular catalogues available fromology improves, there has never been a better time for dealers to take advantage of the goldmine that is the cellular market. companies such as Carphone Warehouse and others will reveal that cellular handsets have advanced tremendously this past year, moving on from simple voice functions to embrace messaging and even email facilities.
The good news for the mainstream computer sector is that the arrival of multi-functional handsets in the cellular market is starting to piggyback on the surge in sales of PC notebooks and palmtops. The price of these mobile devices has fallen through the floor in the past six months, with the result that it's possible to obtain a respectable notebook PC for about £700. Many companies are equipping their staff with notebooks in preference to kitting them out with home PCs. But these devices need connectivity and that's where sales of GSM data cards or software comes into the frame.
One of the first signs to the channel that cellular telephony was starting to integrate firmly into the portable hardware and general telecoms business was at CeBit in March. At the show, Ericsson revealed plans to take a multi-environment approach to communications. Rather than go for a unified networking/telecoms approach, it unveiled its wireless/wireline convergence strategy.
According to Ulf Lesley, manager of value-added services at Ericsson, customers are starting to look for telecoms systems for their offices that support both wireless and wireline telephony. Ericsson calls this strategy fixed mobile convergence (FMC) and intends to market the technology as giving users geographic as well as device independence.
Operators, Lesley argues, can provide unified services such as single 'one mailbox' service, where all messages are stored, managed, and handled, independent of source or destination. Added benefits are single billing and subscription processes.
He adds that operators are interested in finding systems that can combine the merits of fixed and mobile networks into attractive full service packages. 'Our FMC systems put operators in a position to offer converged services to their business customers in a manageable and cost-effective way.'
The first rung on this ladder was unveiled at CeBit with the release of Ericsson's T28, a dual band (GSM 900 and 1800MHz) device that will work with any of the UK's four digital networks. Perhaps its most interesting feature is the icon-driven navigation, a departure from the norm for the vendor.
To go with the T28 is a range of add-ons known as 'intelligent accessories'. The intelligence seems to operate like Windows 95/98's plug and play facilities, and allows users, for example, to slot the phone into its hands-free carrier in the car kit, and for the phone to auto activate its vehicle mode.
Not content with just shipping the T28 handset to its channel, Ericsson is also developing a clamshell smart phone called the R380 for an end-of-year deployment. The R380 is a dual band GSM 900 and 1800MHz with features such as touch screen and several personal organiser functions, as standard.
The keypad, meanwhile, acts as a flip protector for the touchscreen, and operates as a normal keypad when closed.
Central to the phone is the Epoc operating system that Ericsson has licensed from Psion as part of both companies' membership of the Symbian alliance. Since the phone is based on Epoc, its power consumption is said to be very low, with correspondingly lengthy standby and talk times from the handset's lithium ion battery.
In addition, several of its features are similar to the Series 5 PDA from Psion. As a result, it has several features not seen before on a GSM handset, including a full graphic display screen. Other features include an integral GSM data facility that allows email and other internet connectivity facilities to be accessed, as well as microbrowser software that supports low graphics access to the Net.
Despite all these features, the R380 is roughly the size of an ordinary mobile phone, with the keypad placed on the flip. When using the phone as a personal organiser the screen has been designed to be used in a landscape mode, and allows users to read and write notes, as well as email, and check the calendar and address book.
Along with integral GSM data facilities, the R380 is infrared data association (IRDA) compliant, allowing it to upload and download data to and from an IRDA-compliant notebook PC. The handset also features hand writing recognition, voice dialling and voice answering.
For those resellers that can't wait for the R380, Sagem will launch the cellular industry's first dual band microbrowser-enabled mobile phone this summer. Like the R380, this means the Sagem dual band can be used on all four UK digital networks.
The microbrowser feature in the handset is based on Phone.com's (formerly Unwired Planet) Web browser technology, which has been developed specifically for advanced mobile phones.
According to Sagem, by combining the microbrowser technology with its existing user interface software, the company gives cellular network operators a way to reach subscribers and add services, with seamless integration of all voice and data features.
Not to be outdone, Motorola is also promising its channel that all of its handsets will support Web access by the end of this year. Perhaps one of the most interesting handsets from the manufacturer is the L7089 tri-band phone, which also ships this summer.
According to Motorola, it is the world's first handset to support GSM 900, 1800 and 1900MHz wavebands, making it a true globetrotter. When IRDA compliance for wireless data communications to notebooks and PDAs is taken into account, it could be that Motorola will have a best seller on its hands - depending on the price, of course.
According to Frank Lloyd, personal comms sector president of EMEA at Motorola, all of the vendor's upcoming handsets will be microbrowser compatible by the end of the year. He also says the vendor wants to make all its phones WAP (Web) compliant as soon as possible.
Elsewhere, the first GSM dual-band data modem has also seen the light of day. Simoco has just unveiled a dual band (GSM 900 and 1800MHz) data modem, making it suitable for use on any of the UK's four digital networks.
According to company officials, unlike the existing GSM data modems, the unit is being offered to third-party companies for inclusion as part of a dedicated system.
Pricing on the unit is about the £130 mark and, because the GSM modem supports both 900 and 1800MHz wavebands, it gives the host mobile unit access to more information, at greater speed, across a wider area, so increasing reliability and efficiency of data transmission.
Portable Addons, based in Basingstoke, is shipping its extended range of PCMCIA comms cards, which include support for the Ericsson 3xx, 4xx, 7xx and 8xx handsets. The vendor has carved out a niche for itself in the PCMCIA comms card sector by offering a range of modem and comms cards to users of notebook PCs.
The move to embrace the mainstream Ericsson handsets means the Free Spirit range of PCMCIA cards now support a wide range of digital cellular handsets, including the Nokia 6110, 2110, 3110 and 8110 series, as well as the Alcatel HC100 and 1 Touch Pro, Panasonic G400/G500, the Hagenuk-Global Handy, and a variety of other phones.
Clive Girling, managing director of Portable Addons, says telecoms is increasingly playing a key role in the business environment.
'Mobile executives need to maintain contact with the office at all times - whether they are checking data messages or just making a simple phone call.'
The entry-level FreeSpirit with 56K modem communications, sells for £159, while including GSM and ISDN facilities adds £99 and £160 respectively to the price tag.
All these Web and email-enabling cellular technologies may seem a distant rumble in the jungle as far as dealers busy selling hardware to businesses are concerned, but it is still important to realise that the very customers who are snapping up desktops and notebooks by the carload today are also avid users of the internet.
The fact that Dixons Group, including its The Link outlets, has managed to sign up 1.5 million customers to its Freeserve internet service in the six months since its launch is proof enough, if it were needed, that the right internet service - at the right price - can sell to the mass market.
Dixons makes its profit from the Freeserve service on the fractions of pence-per-minute that internet users pay BT or their cable company for their internet access.
This pile-it-high, sell-it-cheap philosophy is one that the cellular market has yet to embrace with non-voice communications. But, with profit margins under pressure in most areas of the mainstream computer sector, now may be the time to look seriously at the value-added - and even box-shifting - profit that can be derived from selling cellular hardware and services to business customers.
A report published in April by Analysys called Data over Mobile: Commercial Strategies for Mobile Operators, predicts that the global cellular data market will reach the $80 billion by 2010. The main driver behind this impressive figure, the report says, is that mobile knowledge workers will adopt cellular data technology over the next few years in their millions, as mass market applications start to arrive.
Cellular network operators are in a prime position to benefit from this growth, mainly because their networks are already in place.
The report predicts that the boom in the business cellular voice market will spill over into the mobile data market. Such is the expected surge in cellular data applications that about 70 per cent of business in developed countries that subscribe to cellular networks - and that includes the UK - could be using advanced cellular data services by 2005.
Katrina Bond, research analyst at Analysys and co-author of the report, says the most important services will be messaging and access to corporate intranets, plus the internet. She adds that the take-off of cellular data is attracting a multitude of players to the mobile communications market.
TDK Systems has developed a version of its GlobalPulse software for the 3Com PalmPilot series of personal digital assistants (PDAs). GlobalPulse was the first software-based GSM data package to be released onto the market some 18 months ago. The package allows Windows 95, 98 and CE-based PCs to use GSM data channels for data transmission, using a simple serial cable connection to the GSM mobile, rather than requiring a PCMCIA card device.
The software for the Palm PDAs is the first non-Windows version of GlobalPulse and is available for the Palm III, IIIx and V series of the 3Com PDA.
The Palm version of GlobalPulse connects the PalmPilot PDA directly to a variety of Ericsson and Nokia cellular phones. According to 3Com officials, users of the software benefit from a complete package that facilitates wireless data communications, phonebook management, and integrated short-messaging services.
The software comes complete with a connector cable and Smartcode Software's popular HandPHONE software, which lets users edit, synchronise, and dial telephone numbers on GSM cellular phones right from Palm organisers. According to Smartcode officials, the software also integrates a complete short messaging system (SMS) client for sending and receiving SMS text messages via supported cellular phones.
'GlobalPulse bridges the gap between cell phones and handheld computers,' says Stephane Bussat, vice president of sales and marketing at Smartcode.
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