What will your cell phone do next? Read on …
By Jessica E. Vascellaro
The Wall Street Journal
Your mobile phone is about to get a lot cooler.
How cool? In the coming months, you’ll be able to dictate text messages and surf the Web just by speaking commands — no tapping or clicking required. If you’re trying to figure out where to go to lunch, you’ll be able to call up a map marked with local eateries your friends and family recommend. And you’ll be able to film movie clips on your cell phone and send them live to somebody else’s gadget.
Rapid hardware advances are making all these new offerings possible. Cell phones are morphing into minicomputers, packed with more processing power and bigger screens, and more of them are coming loaded with features like GPS. Faster connections are also driving the changes. Developers can work with tools like streaming video that wouldn’t be practical with creaky connections.
Not all of these applications will work on all devices, and to use some of them you may have to get a phone with particular features like GPS or a built-in video camera.
Most of the features are likely to first become available for higher-end devices like smart phones, but most companies say they plan to eventually roll their services out to a broader base of cell phone users, particularly as even basic phones come equipped with more-advanced features.
Here’s a sampling of the new applications scheduled to hit the market soon.
Plenty of mobile applications allow you to dial by voice. Soon, you’ll be able to carry out a lot more functions with spoken commands — making your cell phone truly "hands free."
Nuance Communications Inc. of Burlington, Mass., is developing voice-recognition technology to make it easier to send messages and surf the Web from your phone. For instance, users will be able to use their voice to search for a particular music track, then purchase the track and play it back later.
The new software will also let you dictate text messages and e-mails. In fact, the technology is a modified version of dictation tools that Nuance and others have offered on desktops for years.
Nuance is currently testing the new features with wireless carriers and other third-party providers, who plan to start offering them to consumers in the coming months. Steve Chambers, president of Nuance’s mobile and consumer services division, says the technology is improving so rapidly he has already seen a prototype of a buttonless phone that’s fully voice-controlled. (He won’t disclose the manufacturer, however.)
Connecting to the Web from a mobile phone can be painful. Download speeds slow to a crawl, and Web pages get cropped by tiny screens.
Skyfire Labs Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., has developed a mobile Web browser that tries to replicate the experience of browsing the Web on a PC. The browser supports all the standard elements of a Web page — like photos and videos — so users feel like they are browsing the Web on their computers.
How does it work? All of the Web pages that users access first get processed on Skyfire’s servers so the phones don’t have to do the heavy lifting. The pages then get sent to users’ mobile phones in a form that’s much easier for the phones to digest and display.
Todd Tomala of Geneva, Ill., was impressed with the trial version of the software he recently downloaded, as part of a test Skyfire is running. "I felt like I was carrying around a laptop," says the 30-year-old Mr. Tomala, who is general manager of a packaging-materials company. "The speed is unbelievable."
He notes that he could watch videos on YouTube or view content on ESPN.com almost instantaneously — and without a barrage of error messages telling him certain items couldn’t load.
Skyfire plans to release a full version of the browser publicly this year with new features, such as the ability to create a custom start page.
Imagine being able to store your videos, photos and work documents online — and then call them up on your mobile phone. So, you could put photos of your vacation online and brag about your trip by showing them off to people you meet right from your phone. Or you could store a PowerPoint presentation for work online, and then look it over on your mobile device while you take the train home.
That’s the vision of storage service LiveCargo Inc. Doug Young, chief executive of the Greensboro, N.C., company, says LiveCargo has sold the technology platform to a handful of companies that offer online storage accounts to their customers. The company aims to sell the platform to a broad range of wireless carriers and phone and cable companies.
LiveCargo is also working on ways to improve the technology. Currently, users can edit and upload documents using their phones. Later this year, they’ll be able to make some fancy modifications to their files, such as adding an audio message to a photo. Similarly, business users will be able to append notes to documents like PowerPoint presentations to share with others.
A bunch of services let you stream live video footage from your phone to a computer over the Internet, so you can share live images of, say, a concert or a scenic vista. Now one of those services — Visivo Communications Inc.’s Qik of Foster City, Calif. — is also working on technology that lets you send that live feed to someone else’s phone.
The service will work on any video-capable phone, but anyone who wants to stream the video has to download a small application. Qik does a number of behind-the-scenes tricks to make the service work more smoothly. To improve the playback quality — particularly in areas with slow wireless connections — Qik’s servers process the footage before sending it along.
Similar technology could soon help you snoop. Movidity Inc. is developing a service that allows mobile users to view footage from a camera positioned at a remote location. You could keep an eye on the house while you’re out of town, for instance, or you might check in on the babysitter while you’re at dinner — a mobile version of the nannycam.
Ontario-based Movidity has developed an early version that works with security cameras designed for commercial locations. Now Movidity is working on a version that can stream footage from consumer security cameras — like nannycams — to virtually any video-capable mobile device.
Mauro Lollo, chief executive of Movidity, says the new consumer applications should be live within the next 18 months. To set up the service, consumers will need to download a small application to their mobile device.
Move aside, mobile crossword puzzles. Much more complex games are coming to the small screen.
Vollee Ltd. of Israel plans to deploy a mobile version of the popular "virtual world" Second Life for mobile phones. Consumers with handsets compatible with high-speed mobile 3G networks will be able to try out the application free starting in May. The company is also working on mobile versions of other popular 3-D games and virtual worlds.
In Vollee’s mobile Second Life, consumers will be able to bop around the virtual planet and chat with friends — anytime and anywhere. Users can create a new Second Life account or access their existing one.
Since running the hefty software on a mobile phone would be impossible, Vollee uses powerful servers to do the heavy lifting — much like Skyfire’s approach to mobile Web browsing. Vollee also has rejiggered the Second Life interface for mobile handsets, breaking it into different screens that users can switch between by pressing buttons. For instance, users can click a key to swap between a view of the virtual world and a chat screen where they can send messages to other characters in the game.
Vollee isn’t the only game company trying to take mobile entertainment in more-complex directions. AdME Inc. of Melrose, Mass., is creating mobile games synchronized to a soundtrack, similar to popular console titles such as Guitar Hero. For instance, AdME’s DanceLord allows users to press keys to make figures dance in time with the music. GuitarStar awards users points for hitting cell phone buttons timed to the music’s beat.
Early versions of some games are already available. The company is working to expand the concept by creating games that allow users to mix together their own tracks of music, says Christopher Payne-Taylor, chief marketing officer of AdME. Eventually, players may be able to choose their own custom avatars as well, according to Mr. Payne-Taylor.
Desktop users have long enjoyed some pretty advanced map services. Sites like Google Earth give you satellite photos of a location and let you zoom in on a particular spot. Now mobile maps are starting to catch up.
Wayfinder Systems AB of Stockholm recently launched an early version of a mobile mapping service, Wayfinder Earth, that allows users to browse computerized maps of locations around the world. A new version of the free software, due out in the coming weeks, will have improved three-dimensional graphics — so users will be able to zoom in for simulated views of the terrain.
Wayfinder Earth also offers some neat navigation features. Users can spin the image of the globe by pressing certain numbered keys or, if the phone has a touch screen, they can scroll around and zoom into the maps with their fingers.
More people are logging into social networks such as MySpace and Facebook on the go. Now services are cropping up that let all those mobile networkers tell their online buddies exactly where they are at any given moment.
One such effort comes from TeleNav Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif. An early version of the service allows Facebook Inc. users to broadcast their location to Facebook friends through an application they download to their phones. Facebook users can add maps to their profile pages that pinpoint their friends’ locations. Users can also attach blurbs to their location markers, like "Out to lunch," to give their buddies even more information about what they’re up to.
In the coming months, TeleNav plans to expand the product — called Whereaboutz — to users of a number of other networks, such as News Corp.’s MySpace.com and Flickr.com, Yahoo Inc.’s photo-sharing site.
TeleNav and other developers are taking advantage of a recent move by many networking Web sites. The sites are opening up their technology and allowing outside developers to create a range of software that works with the sites.
Sal Dhanani, co-founder of TeleNav, says the company plans to keep the product free to drive adoption. To allay privacy concerns, users currently have to enter their location manually. Future versions will allow users with GPS-enabled phones to opt to have their location updated automatically.
We’re used to getting personalized recommendations when we shop at online retailers like Amazon. Pelago Inc. of Seattle is working on a service that gives you personalized suggestions about attractions like restaurants or clubs — while you’re walking around the neighborhood.
Here’s how it works. Pelago’s service, which is called Whrrl, will track the attractions that people visit through GPS chips in their phones. The service determines your location using a database of business locations and by factoring in how GPS signals are distorted in some cities. (An early version of the service currently available allows you to enter your location manually.) After your visit to the location, the service allows you to review it.
Then you can draw on other users’ reviews when you’re walking around and trying to find, say, a good local restaurant or museum. The service lets you call up a map of local attractions, with highlights over the places that other users have recommended. The opinions of people you know get particular weight in Pelago’s suggestions. (Of course, your friends and family need to be Pelago users for this to work properly, and you have to tell the service that you know them.)
Emily Chen recently used the service to settle on lunch at Samurai Noodle in Seattle. She chose the spot after calling up a map on her phone and seeing a large green dot that told her the restaurant had been frequently visited and well-reviewed by friends.
Chen, a 26-year-old office and community manager for a mobile-media company, says the personalization adds a "cool new layer" on top of an ordinary search service.