By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 9/13/2006 5:46:28 PM ET 2006-09-13T21:46:28

LOS ANGELES — The cell phone industry is changing — and it's changing fast.

That's easy to see here at the CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment 2006 trade show in Los Angeles, where cell phone makers are showing off new gadgets designed to meet the needs of consumers who are demanding more from their cell phones.

Cell phone makers are packing new features into cell phones, many of which have been the exclusive domain of PCs. These features include e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, television, music players, television shows and even full-length movies.

Smartphones, with features such as a voice, contact, appointment, Web browsing and e-mail functionality used to be purchased mainly by business people. That's changing rapidly.  Manufacturers are now marketing their smarter, full-function handsets to regular consumers and are realizing that the demand is going to be high.

“The latest batch of smartphones to hit the market is aimed squarely at consumers," said Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research. "As much as smartphones were first adopted by businessmen who needed to be connected to their office all the time — now it’s the consumer who is demanding that level of connectivity.”

BlackBerry’s diminutive new Pearl phone, Sprint’s Treo 700wx, Cingular/Nokia’s e62 and the latest, updated Sidekick 3 from T-Mobile are examples of the new breed of handsets which are aimed directly at both business and non-business users alike.

Moms, dads and kids now see the benefit of having their phone calls, e-mail and to-do lists with them when they're away from home.

“They see the benefits of being able to stay connected with their office as well as with family and friends,” Gartenberg said.

Some phone manufacturers and cellular providers are only too happy to provide them with what they want. Companies are lowering prices for some of their phones and they're also lowering the monthly charges for services. 

“Some full function smartphones are now selling for $199, $149 and even $99,” Gartenberg said.  “And, that gets people’s attention.”

Many phones now double as music players. And some provide you with slots to add memory cards for expanding the number of songs you carry with you. Newer designs can accept up to 2GB cards — which means your phone can now hold as much music as some current iPod models.

Smartphones will eventually morph into the platform of choice for portable entertainment.  Sprint recently announced that they’re going to sell full-length movies you can watch on their cell phones.

According to Neil Strother, research director for mobile devices, content and services for the NPD Group, video over cell phones is the next big thing. 

"Right now it is just the early adopters," Storther said. "My guess is that mobile TV becomes an overnight sensation around 2009."

The next generation of smartphones will be able to bring you not only streaming video clips — but live television as well. You can download software to have your home SlingBox video gateway stream live television to some of the latest smartphones on the market. They’re also working on software that will allow all smartphones to receive live video — not just those which run on the Windows Mobile operating system.

A number of companies are working on systems which “broadcast” live television directly to your phone. I’ve seen demonstrations of Nokia’s cell phone TV system and even though it’s in the early development stage, it’s pretty impressive.

Cellular companies in the United States currently are building out higher speed networks to handle these few phone features. Verizon and Sprint are busy rolling out their EV-DO networks — Cingular and T-Mobile aren’t far behind.

But as cool as all these mobile technologies sound — it will up to the phone manufacturers and cellular companies to provide lots of features and keep services affordable. So far, monthly fee plans for high-speed data services are sky high. Prices should begin to drop as competition stiffens.

Expect to see future generations of smartphones to become the Swiss Army knife of portable electronics. They’ll be able to handle everything from your communication to your entertainment needs. And, everyone will have one.

Remember when telephones had dials?

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