Mon, 24 Feb 2003

Growing use of multimedia services expected

Zatni Arbi, Columnist, Jakarta,

Despite the controversies sparked by unscrupulous users of camera-equipped cell phones, the camera-cell phone combination is here to stay. Saudi Arabia banned these gadgets last year, but, according to Strategic Strategy Analytics, one out of three cell phones sold in Japan today already has a built-in camera.

Throughout the world, the research firm has projected that one in five cell phones will have the ability to capture images. What is more, cell phones with digital cameras are expected to eventually outsell digital cameras. Well, we can easily see that there will always be a demand for high-end digital cameras.

Technology companies such as Sanyo, Fuji Photo Film and Toshiba are scrambling to come up with camera modules that handset makers can add to their products. Up till now, the most common technology used by cell phone makers has been the Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS), because it uses minimum power and can be mass-produced quickly. A better alternative -- not for long, though -- is the Charge Coupled Device (CCD), which is used in a lot of midrange to high-end scanners. While a mega-pixel CCD -- equivalent to what can be found in a three-year-old digital camera -- is already available, people have been able to improve the resolution of CMOS-based cameras from the current 640 x 480 to one mega-pixel. Meanwhile, a new technology called Threshold Voltage Modulation Image Sensor (VMIS) is also under development at Innotech Corp. The war of the cell phone camera modules is heating up.

Helping to spur the camera-equipped cell phones revolution are companies such as Hewlett-Packard that are developing printers that can print photos downloaded directly from the cell phones. The question remains, except for saving those candid moments, what do we need the camera for? The answer is Multimedia Messaging, which incorporates voice, video and graphics in our mobile communications. Our operators and cell phone makers are working hard to boost the use of MMS, which our cell phone users are obviously still slow to pick up on.

* Nokia 3650

Last week, I had the privilege of playing around with the next imaging cell phone from Nokia, the Nokia 3650. What I got was still a prototype, so it still had some rough edges. The product will be officially launched here in Jakarta in March, and Nokia Indonesia is planning roadshows in the other major cities as well.

Apart from the circular keypad (more on this later), this cell phone has a number of interesting and important new features. As a successor to the immensely popular Nokia 7650, it shares a lot of big brother's strong features. It is GPRS-ready and it supports both SMS (Short Messaging Service) and MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service). It shares the same sharp and bright, 4096- color and 176x208 pixel screen, as well as the same VGA (640x480) CMOS camera. It also runs the same Symbian operating system, although now you have the Help menu to guide you as you explore the features of the 3650.

It also has the important features left out in the classy 7650, including the possibility of adding a memory card to expand the internal 4 MB memory. This allows you take as many pictures as you wish as long as the memory card can hold them. It also has a video streaming capability using RealOne from Real Network, and it can even record short video clips. We can specify where we want to store the images and the clips, whether in the internal memory or in the memory card.

"The current 12-second limit of the length of the video clips that we can capture is determined by the software," said Usun Pringgodigdo, Nokia's Business Development Manager for Indonesia. "As our operators' infrastructure improves, we can send longer clips."

Like still images and data, the clips can be sent or received through a Bluetooth or Infrared connection. Speaking of Bluetooth, there is still another important improvement over the 7650. The Bluetooth integrated in the 7650 is data only, which means that it can only be used to send or receive data to another Bluetooth-capable device. The Bluetooth in Nokia 3650 is both data- and voice-ready. Thus, you can use a Bluetooth headset with this model -- you can now do without the cord.

Two more important features of this new cell phone are the supports for Java MIDP 1.0 and XHTML. The latter allows us to browse the Web in a more familiar way -- if we are used to surfing the Internet on our computer. XHTML enables Web developers to use different fonts, font sizes, colors, etc. on their pages, and this formatting will be displayed on the cell phone's screen. By the way, if you like to match your cell phone with your dress, the Xpress-on cover of this model can be changed with different colors.

* The downsides

Anxious wives who would like to have the ability to track down the whereabouts of their husbands still have to wait, unfortunately. A real-time surveillance device is what this Nokia model is not. The video clips have to be captured, stored and sent as a multimedia message. Besides, the video clips do not contain audio, so the sender will still have to annotate the clip before sending it over. For real-time video, the ladies still have to wait for the more sophisticated Third Generation (3G) services to become available in Indonesia, and it is still a big question mark now that there is the competing Wi-Fi technology looming on the horizon.

Unfortunately, too, unlike the camera lens on the 7650, the one on the 3650 is not protected. It gets dirty quickly, so you have to be careful when using the camera while enjoying your chicken at Ayam Goreng Suharti.

Now about the keypad. Although at first sight it looks like a piece of art, I found the keypad rather unintuitive. It took me a long time to memorize where the keys for abc, def and so on are. I had to look at the keys when trying to send SMS messages. Forget about using this cell phone while driving, as it will definitely boost your already big chance of having an accident.

Using the five-way navigation button key, not joystick, will be totally impossible if you have not cut your nail for two days. If you insist on keeping your nails perfectly manicured, you may need both hands to navigate the menu. I hope the shipping version has a much better, non-slippery keypad.

Honestly speaking, I think cell phone-makers should also get together and decide on the basic design of the keypad. Can you imagine if each automaker is free to place the pedal for the brake on the right of the accelerator, for example? That is exactly how I feel when I cannot avoid using someone else's cell phone.

Despite these shortcomings, this second camera-equipped cell phone offering from Nokia will attract users who need to take a lot more pictures than the 4 MB 7650 can hold, who want to be able to personalize their cell phone and who want to take fuller advantage of the Multimedia Messaging service. Besides, its XHTML capability will make Web browsing more enjoyable.