Newfangled cellphones offer lots more than talk


Thursday, March 1st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


YOKOHAMA, Japan (AP) _ Like a child with a futuristic toy box, Matsushita executive Toshiro Iizuka lifts the latest test models from his aluminum suitcase.

The first is worn like a wristwatch. The second has a detachable tiny ball that's a digital camera. Another resembles a portable video-game machine.

All are cellphones.

The dazzling and slightly wacky mock-ups, not all destined for the market, were designed for the next big step in wireless telephony services _ 3G, or Third Generation, whose global debut is set for the Tokyo area in May.

Japan has the world's biggest Net-linking mobile phone market, with some 30 million users. That's one in every five Japanese.

People here already use cellphones to view colorful animation, exchange e-mail and instant messages, play simple video games and view train schedules, stock prices and restaurant guides.

But the introduction of 3G by NTT DoCoMo promises to turn the portables into even fancier commodities.

The new devices will be capable of delivering streaming video and snappy Web surfing and could help mobile commerce take off.

So getting the right look and feel in a souped-up cellphone could be an important lifestyle choice for many.

``I want to make mobile phones that look cool to use, like a musician on an instrument,'' said Iizuka, who plays saxophone and drums.

No longer will a person's choice of cellphone revolve around issues as mundane as weight, size and battery life _ in Japan, at least.

Matsushita Communication Industrial Co., maker of the Panasonic brand, has already produced snazzy phones that at 5 inches (13 centimeters) tall are slightly shorter than a ball point pen and a snap to use with just one hand.

But all that is child's play now, Iizuka said during a show-and-tell at a Matsushita design facility in Yokohama.

Totally different features, many revolving around entertainment, promise to make it tempting to forget that the phones are ultimately for talking.

One of Iizuka's mock-ups comes with two screens, side-by-side, for Web surfers who insist on looking at two sites at once. Another has a stylus to scribble messages over e-mail and photos for a personal, emotive touch.

Music anyone?

A new technology called Bluetooth that links untethered mobile devices will allow people to use cordless earphones to listen to music stored on cellphones that they've put in their handbags.

There will also be the need to keep up with the fads of Japanese adolescents.

``Westerners I talk to think all this is crazy,'' says Iizuka.

Despite their spunk and style, Japanese handset-makers have long been losers internationally.

Matsushita, with 30 percent of the domestic market but just one-twentieth of the global pie, is among Japanese manufacturers who hope an edge in 3G technology will help them close ranks with the likes of Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Siemens.

Most of the world's leading phone makers are working on 3G handsets of their own, of course.

Even Fujitsu, a relatively minor player in Japan and virtually a non-player abroad, has its eyes on the foreign market. It was a pioneer with Matsushita in producing cellphones that can store Java language-based programs for games, stock listings and alarm clocks.

Sharp Corp., meanwhile, already has on the market the 13,800 yen (dlrs 120) J-SH04 phone with an embedded digital camera that will permit instant transmittal of snapshots by e-mail to personal computers _ and some cellphones. A 9,800 yen (dlrs 85) printer spits out postage-stamp-size photos.

Skeptics consider the wireless Web boom a fad unique to Japan.

But boosters argue that the rich content and instant information that made the Internet such a hit on computers in the United States will eventually do the same there on cellphones.

Rick Timmons, managing director of sales planning for J-Phone Communications Co., which offers Net cellphone services in Japan, believes the huge potential for the mobile Internet lies in entertainment _ not the business use that European and U.S. companies seem to be banking on.

``You're in a taxi from your office to our office, and you're probably not going to want to do research on World War II during that time,'' Timmons said. ``But you may want to download the latest melody or see what's happening in the movie theater.''