Signs of Cell Things (Not) to Come

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    NEWSLETTERS

    This week in Orlando the wireless industry's hoi polloi and hoity toady will gather for the twice-annual CTIA exhibition (why the entire consumer electronics industry manages to squeeze its business into a single CES but the cellphone people need two shows is one of those "why is Kim Kardashian famous" mysteries — but I digress).

    I could postulate on what the major handset makers will do, but we'll know for sure in a few scant days — and so will you. Or, do a Google search on "Mobile World Congress 2011 new phones" to get a glimmer of the goodies likely to be launched this week.

    Maybe I've been doing this too long, but I'm getting a bit cynical about significant further cellphone innovations. Over the next six months or so, well be seeing more dual core phones to follow the Motorola Atrix (perhaps some that also will serve as the core for a laptop accessory like Atrix), and a lot more LTE phones, and a few of both — perhaps the iPhone 5, for instance.

    But there'll likely be no revolutionary technology breakthroughs at CTIA, which begs the question: Have we reached the cellphone Peter Principal? Are all the great cellphone breakthroughs taken?

    Let's discuss.

    Phones will always get a bit more powerful and a bit faster, and networks will get a bit faster. But other than the mutations of, say, Motorola's StarTAC (the first flip phone), Motorola's RAZR, Nokia 7110 (arguably the first Web-connected phone), the Sanyo SCP-5300 (the first U.S. cellphone with a camera) and the iPhone, that's been the slow-but-steady evolutionary story line of cellphone innovations for 25 years.

    Screens can't really get too much bigger (the jury is still out on whether the Sprint Kyocera-made Echo is a gimmick or trend to be imitated, but I'd guess the former). More efficient processors mean slightly longer battery life.

    But are there still breakthroughs to make in screen size and battery life?

    Glad you asked.

    Look, Ma, No Charger!

    The bane of all portable gadgets is the battery. Designers continually minimize the drain from processors, network radios, screens and applications to gain incremental talk and standby time improvements, but cellphones still run out of juice too fast (the power drain is the reason why Apple eschews Adobe Flash, by the way, and why the iPhone 5 is unlikely to be LTE).

    If the bane of portable gadgets is battery life, the holy grail is some new technology to magically eliminate the problem. A year ago, that seemed to be something called "AirPower" or "Airenergy" from RCA, a gadget the company claimed could suck power out of ubiquitous Wi-Fi signals to trickle charge a low voltage battery. In a metropolitan area, such a battery conceivably might never need a typical recharging.

    Well, that was a year ago. The exec in charge of the program has not answered my numerous email update requests, and I think I know why — AirPower is a chimera, a myth, a ghost. The physics have been debunked, and the company has changed its approach to the idea.

    Perhaps I'll be able to get some straight answers this week. But for the time being, perpetual — or even just longer — battery life, especially for LTE phones, remains an elusive breakthrough.

    Big Screen Cellphones

    Cellphone screen size has reached a point of diminishing returns. At some point, a screen can get too big to be ergonomically sensible and power efficient. It looks as if the new 4.3-inch size is about as large as a smartphone screen can reasonable be.

    Or can it?

    At CES a couple of months ago, Samsung demonstrated a bendable cellphone screen — a 4.5-inch, 840 x 480 pixel flexible AMOLED screen less than 0.012 inches thick.

    The ultimate idea, here, is if you could somehow roll a screen into a Roman-like scroll or accordion fold, then screens could theoretically be twice or three times their current size and still be stuffed comfortably into a pocket and not drain the battery life like squeezing a water-filled sponge.

    Theoretically.

    A few years ago, Nokia unveiled a concept called the Nokia Morph, a cellphone that could be folded into multiple shapes — this video, although animated, still makes me drool. It's comprised of a nanoscale mesh of transistors and electro-luminescent materials, it charges when open in the sun, it has a superhyrdophopic surface to repel liquid, the surface form is content dependent, and it's powered by a liquid battery.

    Nokia created a similar — and perhaps slightly more realistic — bendable bracelet phone, the Nokia 888, created in 2005 by Tamer Nakisci, a Turkish student, for the Nokia Benelux Open Design Award.

    But back in the real world, the best work on flexible displays is being done at Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University. But these folks work primarily for the military, and their main focus is larger rollable displays to lighten to load for soldiers in battlefield conditions.

    So it looks as if we'll be stuck with our stiff, solid screens for a bit while longer.

    Air Is (Almost) Free

    While there may be a dearth of handset innovations at CTIA, one cellphone paradigm shifting breakthrough is coming from other source.

    An Irish outfit called Maxroam lets you roam for voice and data with your GSM phone in Europe for a fraction of the normal price — and receive calls for free.

    You buy a pre-paid SIM card online, provision it with your own phone number, and swap it for your current SIM when you land in the Old World. You can even add your Google Voice number (just add the Maxroam number to your Google Voice account). The SIM has your phone number, so no one calling or being called knows the difference.

    Better yet, Maxroam is cheap — 68 cents a minute to call the U.S., 55 cents a minute for calls within Europe, $1.10 per megabyte for 3G (HSPA) data, 21 cents per standard text message. As noted, all received calls are free. Maxroam's prices are about half or more (since you're not paying for incoming calls) than international rates from AT&T and Verizon — and easier to figure. Maxroam supplies a data usage calculator to help you figure and track your minutes and megabytes.

    The catch: you have to use an unlocked phone (such as a jail-broken iPhone, which I'd never sanction), or buy an unlocked phone from Maxroam, which could eat up the savings.

    More significant is an announcement coming from the Wi-Fi Alliance, "an industry-wide initiative that will transform the user experience in carrier-owned hotspots [to] create an important foundation for roaming agreements among carriers, improve security and ease of use for consumers [and] enable greater access to hotspots [to] ease congestion on wide-area networks."

    I've already gotten a briefing on this, which I'll tell you all about next week. I can tell you the significance of the development is almost on par with a rollable cell display and perpetual battery life.

    Almost.

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