Connecting the Dots

Sorry to break the news, but your shiny, spiffy iPod is an obsolete piece of junk. Ditto the other electronic toys you tote in your L.L. Bean knapsack. They'll soon be vacuumed up, integrated, and reissued as a new paradigm that we can't live without.

Here's what I mean: Suppose you have three dots, spaced equidistantly. Logically, you'd connect them to form a triangle. That kind of brilliant thinking is exactly what captains of industry are doing. When you connect the three dots - computers, telecommunications, and entertainment - you get the Swiss Army phone. No, I'm not talking about a red phone with a knife blade and tweezers (though a corkscrew would be nice). I'm talking about 3G phones, the third generation of cellphones.

Cellular telephones were first test-marketed in Chicago in 1977 to 2,000 people. They must have been impressed, because 28 years later, there are over 180 million subscribers in the U.S. alone. According to the Cellular Telephone Industry Association, wireless service revenue was $102 billion last year. For many folks, cellphones are vital to everyday life. I know people (no names) who might absent-mindedly go out their front doors without wearing pants, but by golly, they won't forget their phones.

That reliance on cellphones is about to escalate. 3G phones are characterized by high-bandwidth connectivity. That seems innocent enough, but the ramifications are huge. For example, a 3G could subsume all the functions of a PDA, allowing high-speed e-mail and Web surfing and shopping. Throw in photos, videos, music, multimedia messaging, and video gaming, and you start to get the idea.

A cellphone really is the ideal platform. It has a user interface, storage, audio playback, and a video display. In other words, it's a really small multimedia computer. If it can't do a task with onboard circuitry, it can connect to another system that can. If the connectivity is fast, the line between onboard and outboard functions begins to blur.

Consider some of the applications. You ask for directions to Hollywood and Vine; the phone downloads the data. As you navigate, it gives you voice-guided instructions. If you deviate, the navigation adjusts its directions. Or how about this? The radio is playing a song, but you can't remember the name of it. You place a call and hold the phone up to the speaker. The system identifies the song and tells you the title.

As cellphones expand into data and entertainment, music will lead the way. Consider, with current portable players, you have to rip CDs or download to a computer and sync files to a dedicated player. With a cellphone player, you can wirelessly (and quickly) download music right into it. Downloading to phones is already big business in the U.K. and other countries. Ask yourself, would you rather carry around a cellphone, an MP3 player, a PDA, and . . . or just a phone that does everything?

Sure, I could be wrong. Three dots could also be connected to form a circle instead of a triangle. But I'm betting on phones. And your old iPod, freshly loaded with 5,000 songs? Bummer: it's history. But send it to me. I'll find it a nice home.

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