Remote controls for your life

/ Source: The Associated Press

Forget voice calls. They're oh so retro. That cell phone in your pocket is well on its way to becoming a remote control for your life.

"Smart" handsets are already being used by busy executives to retrieve important documents from office computers halfway across the globe. They're handling e-mail, programming set-top boxes and keeping an eye on the home surveillance system.

Tourists lost in some foreign capitals can now, with a GPS-equipped cell phone, get their bearings using on-screen maps. Commuters crossing town can tap into the same tools to avoid traffic jams and reroute in mid-journey.

Millions of Japanese already use their handsets as digital wallets.

"The phone is rapidly becoming a window to the world," said Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group research firm. "In many ways it's becoming a replacement for the PC."

Cell phones have far outpaced personal digital assistants as the electronic device favored by consumers — 187.7 million people, or 65.4 percent of the U.S. population, own cell phones, according to the Yankee Group, which has stopped tracking sales of handheld computers that lack cellular connectivity, calling them irrelevant.

Software makers, keenly mindful of the trend, are coming up with new ways to lend mobile handsets some of the prime functions of a personal computer.

Phones that double and triple as digital music players, personal organizers and cameras are just the beginning.

A number of mobile applications making their debut at the DEMOfall conference, a showcase of tech innovation that begins Monday in Huntington Beach, Calif., point the way to a world where the cell phone is a key to greater efficiency.

One such program comes from EasyReach, a Campbell, Calif.-based startup that is jumping into the remote document-retrieval space.

EasyReach founder John Stossel says it is the first software that enables users of smartphones such as Palm Inc.'s Treo, which boast computer-like operating systems, to search their PCs by keyword. Punch a few more buttons and EasyReach users can e-mail retrieved documents to whatever address they choose.

In addition, EasyReach enables a user to search multiple desktop PCs on which EasyReach's software has been installed.

Services such as pcAnywhere and GoToMyPC allow a user to control a PC remotely, but most offer PC-to-PC access only. Other software packages try to give handheld users virtual control of their PC, but that can be unwieldy, says Stossel.

Since most handhelds already efficiently display document and e-mail lists, trying to replicate the PC's interface on a handheld doesn't make sense, Stossel said.

"Why try to squeeze a 19-inch screen on a 3-inch display?" said Stossel. "What do you want? Files and e-mails. Let's get them and be done with it."

The software works on any mobile device equipped with an Internet browser _ regardless of the operating system, and a native application is available for the BlackBerry, made by Research in Motion Inc. And while many competitors' products only work on certain handhelds or Java-enabled phones, EasyReach says its software is designed to support the devices of any wireless carrier worldwide.

Some companies are betting that people will use their PCs as a sort of home base for content that can be accessed anytime, anywhere, through a mobile phone.

Software created by Orb Networks Inc., based in Emeryville, turns the PC into a personal network server that can stream video files and music to handheld devices.

"We think the reason you invested in broadband is so everything you own is available to you at any time," said Ian McCarthy, vice president of product marketing at Orb, which was founded in 2004. "You have a blurring of the lines between the stuff at home and stuff in your hand."

Orb also recently launched TiVo Anywhere, which lets handheld users watch shows they've recorded on their TiVos as well as program their TiVo set-top boxes from their smartphone.

Avvenu, a Palo Alto startup founded in 2004 and backed by Motorola Corp., intends to challenge Orb on both fronts, said spokesman David Trescot.

Starting next week, Avvenu will match Orb's network server functions and soon thereafter will launch a service bringing TiVo to smartphones, said Trescot, whose company is a DEMO alumnus.

Several companies have developed smartphone applications that leverage Global Positioning System technology, which pinpoint locations anywhere on Earth through satellite triangulation.

Last March, MapQuest and Nextel Communications launched the "Find Me" Service, which uses MapQuest's digital maps, on GPS-enabled mobile phones.

At the DEMO conference, MapQuest is expected to announce a similar service for the BlackBerry.

A rival company, Destinator Technologies Inc., is unveiling software for GPS-enabled smartphones and handhelds that automatically updates a route based on the device user's location.

The Destinator platform, which has been available in Europe for more than two years, also allows friends and colleagues to spot each other's locations on a map in relation to their ultimate destination and send directions via instant message.

Destinator also includes a real-time traffic-monitoring feature. Few U.S. companies aggregate traffic information but this is expected to change soon.

"We're going to automated-live navigation," said Jeff Kukowski, senior vice president of marketing. "Your printed directions from Yahoo or Google can't tell you how to get back on route."

The Destinator software takes the user's GPS location information and compares it to the planned route. Miss a turn, and the software offers up a revised route.

Adoption of all these new smartphone functions isn't widespread yet, probably because phone carriers such as Verizon, Cingular and Sprint make it difficult for customers to obtain services the carriers can't closely control and profit from, analysts say.

But smartphone makers are encouraging software companies to keep developing new applications that can drive sales, says Kevin Burden, program manager of Mobile Devices at research firm IDC.

"The makers are lawyers looking for a nice hook because the phones come at such a premium price tag," Burden said. "To sell these things, they have to offer more than a phone and e-mail."