Of the half billion or so cell phones produced in 2003, fewer than 10 million were so-called "smart phones" with the type of operating system, calendar, e-mail and other software found on computers and handheld organizers.
All the rest of those handsets also run on software, albeit dozens of incompatible operating systems, each chiefly designed to deliver what is still the only "killer application" most users demand of a cell phone — to be a phone.
For those even aware there's software involved, the decision to buy a cell phones still tends to revolve around stylistic preferences — "candy bar" or "clamshell" shape, for example.
But this week, at the U.S. cellular industry's annual trade show, a number of influential companies will be heralding what they see as a not-so-distant future when it's all about software:
The future of cell phones
Everyone will want their cell phones to do a lot more computer stuff. People will shop for these smart phones with a careful eye toward the operating system, e-mail handler and Web browser, how many other programs are available for that platform and how well they all interact with a regular computer.
It should be no surprise, then, that a famous software company which already gets paid more than $40 for nearly every PC sold in the world is trying to extend its business model to the cell phone market, confident the familiar look of Windows will be a welcome sight on the small screen.
And where Microsoft is involved, of course, there are sure to be differing views, many of them revolving around familiar names such as Linux and Palm. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)
But even more notable this week in Atlanta will be the first-ever appearance at CTIA Wireless by Symbian Ltd., a consortium led by Nokia and other handset makers which is the early leader in smart phone software everywhere but the United States.
"We're going to see in very short order that smart phones as we know them today will move to become the largest segment in the market over the next few years," said Jerry Panagrossi, vice president of U.S. operations for Symbian, currently the operating platform for 15 smart phones, including several that more closely resemble a personal digital assistant, or PDA.
While many have sung this smart phone tune before, and it may take more than a few years before such phones are commonplace, recent industry developments suggest change is at hand.
Cell phones and software
Advances in microprocessors, color screens and battery life have enabled engineering coups such as the Treo 600 from PalmOne, which packs most of the punch of a full-blown PDA into a nearly cell-phone sized package.
And while the power of such a device is largely wasted on the feeble first wave of wireless Internet connections, speedier network technologies have finally begun to hit the market.
Against that backdrop, armed for the first time with a wide array of phones to show off, software makers will try to draw some of the show's spotlight.
For now, however, most handset makers and wireless carriers are keeping their options open as the market takes shape.
One key debate remains whether the emergence of a dominant platform might fuel demand for smart phones by enabling software developers to churn out more and better programs because they're not busy rewriting them for multiple operating systems.
The early running suggests that a Symbian-Windows rivalry will dominate the market, though some point to the rising strength of Linux in Asia as a significant wild card.
For whatever benefits come with a dominant platform, the wireless industry is a bit leery of finding itself beholden to a single software purveyor the way PC makers rely on Microsoft.
But such concerns also dog Symbian. Though the consortium was founded as a partnership among most of the world's top handset makers, the enthusiasm of several has waned with the rise of Nokia as Symbian's biggest promoter, investor and source of revenue.
While it is still making Symbian handsets, Motorola sold its stake in the venture last year and signed on to sell a Windows-based phone, a major coup for Microsoft. And with two Linux-based phones selling in Asia, "Motorola is leading the charge" with that open platform, said Kevin Burden, analyst for research firm IDC.
Providing the best of both worlds
Meanwhile, among Symbian's other investors, Samsung and Sony Ericsson both assert they will continue to develop their own proprietary operating systems and applications for substantial portions of their product lineups, which in Samsung's case also includes smart phones based on Palm and Windows.
"Our philosophy is not to dictate to end users to use this operating system or that," said Muzibul Khan, a vice president for Samsung Telecommunications America. "There are a lot of people who love Palm, who swear they will never change to Microsoft, or vice versa, and instead of going through that holy debate, Samsung has the ability to offer products that take advantage of one operating system or another."
There's also a question of how well smart phones will sync with the Windows desktop of a PC — a point Microsoft stresses in advocating its Windows Mobile operating system.
However, because Microsoft initially struggled to gain adoption among handset makers, software developers only began writing programs in earnest for Windows phones last year as the number of handset models grew from one to a dozen.
At Handango, a popular Web site which sells applications designed for cell phones and PDA's, there are now about 800 downloads available for the Windows smart phone platform.
By contrast, there are 2,600 applications for Symbian, which is currently the best-selling smart-phone platform on Handango.