SAN FRANCISO -- "We won't all be using smartphones in 10 years."
That may have been the most sobering comment at the one-day Smartphone Summit conference here Monday.
The gathering of communications and mobile device executives and developers featured positive comments and analysis of the current and future state of so-called smartphones. Ironically, though, there was no clear agreement on just what a smartphone is.
"We have between 56 and 85 percent global market share depending on what you say is a smartphone," said Jerry Panagrossi, vice president of U.S. operations for Symbian, the leading provider of operating system software for cell phones.
Still a panel of industry executives that included Panagrossi agreed whatever the definition, smartphones today make up about 10 percent of the cell phone market worldwide, and the percentage will increase significantly in the next five to 10 years.
The broadest definition of a smartphone came from HP.
"Smartphones are computers you talk to," said Rick Roesler, vice president of handhelds for HP, in a separate presentation.
But while HP looks to eventually morph its iPAQ PDA into a smartphone, most of the vendors at the conference had a more phone-centric take on where phones are headed.
"The keyboard or keypad represents a fundamental bottleneck on input," said Rick Geruson, CEO of Voice Signal, which makes embedded voice recognition software already in some 45 million cell phones. The company's V Suite software enables voice activated menus for common tasks like accessing a Microsoft Outlook directory and speaking a command like "Dick Cheney at home" to call Mr. Cheney should he happen to be among your contacts.
HP's Roesler sees corporate users wanting to do more than what voice can offer. He predicted mobile users will be able to connect smartphones and devices like the iPAQ to wired or wireless docking stations, with a keyboard, mouse and other peripherals giving the user ready access to the equivalent of a desktop computer. "And it's only a matter of time before services and content for phones is indistinguishable from what's available for PCs," he added.
From HP's perspective, the fast-evolving smartphone market looks very familiar. "The phone will be your PC," said HP's Roesler. He drew comparisons to the PC market in the 1980s which was fragmented by competing standards and technologies but experienced rapid growth after a standard software platform (Windows) and hardware architecture (Intel and the PC bus), were established. As software and hardware standards for smartphones continue to coalesce, he predicts the industry will see explosive growth.
A company called i-mate previewed its Charcoal JAM mobile phone for the U.S. market (the company is based in Dubai, but has offices in the U.S.). Running on Windows Mobile for Pocket PC, the Charcoal JAM includes 128 megabytes of built-in memory, is Bluetooth compatible, features a 1.3 mega-pixel camera and video recorder and includes e-mail, Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player 10, and Microsoft Pocket Office applications, a built-in voice recorder and speakerphone. The portable device can operate on the Cingular and T-Mobile networks as well as any other GSM network. It runs $665.
Several speakers agreed that e-mail is a leading or "killer" application for smartphones, and that others will be necessary to break significantly beyond the 10-percent share of the market. The cost of smartphones, currently several hundreds of dollars, was also mentioned by panelists as an impediment to higher sales
Voice Over IP (VoIP) was a hot topic of discussion. One company at the conference, Silicon Valley-based Kineto Wireless, announced last week that Korean manufacturing giant LG Electronics is shipping the CL400, a mobile phone with celluar/Wi-Fi capabilities along with a built-in camera and MP3 music player.
The company said future versions would support VoIP which promises to lower the cost and range of call connections.
Analyst Gerry Purdy of Mobiletrax said future "Mobile VoIP" phones with WiFi will enable users to walk around and stay connected using whatever technology gets the best access automatically.
"In the enterprise we're seeing explosive growth of WiFi," said Patrick Tao, vice president of worldwide marketing for Kineto Wireless. "But there are different types of WiFi networks, some are just in meeting rooms, not contiguous throughout a building."
Advances will need to be made in longer battery life though as WiFi connectivity adds more power demands.
"You need to think about battery consumption," said Tao. "Last year's WiFi chips use too much power for any meaningful talk time." In addition to improved batteries, panelists mentioned coming improvements in "sleep" technologies that power down the phones when not in use to preserve battery power.
The more power the better, as other features are sure to follow. HP's Roesler said HP had integrated Global Positioning System (GPS) capability into some of its mobile products already.
"The cost of GPS silicon and antennae has come way down," he said. "You'll see more PDAs and smartphones integrating GPS in the future."