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Businessweek Archives

Phones Just Get Smaller And Smaller...

Developments to Watch


CELLULAR PHONES ARE getting so small you can't cradle them on your shoulder without inviting a trip to the chiropractor. Two companies are doing something about that.

In a bow to Dick Tracy, Japan's Nippon Telegraph & Telephone Corp. has developed a prototype phone that fits into a wristwatch weighing just 2 1/2 ounces (photo). There's no touch pad, because a user dials by speaking. The lithium-ion battery and antenna are in the watchband. NTT researchers hope to develop batteries by early 1998 that will make the phone powerful enough to work with Japan's digital cellular service, the personal handyphone system.

But as Dick Tracy knows, speaking into a wristwatch ties up your arm. Aura Communications Inc., a year-old Wilmington (Mass.) startup, solves that by breaking a phone into two parts. One part fits in the ear and has a lightweight arm extending to the mouth. The other goes in a pocket. Instead of infrared or radio waves, the two parts communicate by inducing magnetic fields in each other. This consumes little power at short range, so one rechargeable button cell gives the earpiece at least eight hours' use.

Aura says its patented magnetic-induction system could be used with other phones, including cordless sets for home and office. It's selling its technology to phone makers. The first systems should go on sale early next year, says President Frank A. Waldman.EDITED BY PETER COY By Steven V. BrullReturn to top

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DUTCH CHEMISTS HAVE COME up with a molecule that gloms onto and removes tiny bits of impurities in water--from gold to radioactive waste.

The molecule is an advance over existing water-purification systems, many of which work on the principle of ion exchange. Impurities in a solution break down into positively and negatively charged ions. Ion-exchange systems remove only one set of the ions, either the positive ones, such as calcium or cesium, or the negative ones, such as chlorides or phosphates.

The Dutch molecule--which is incorporated into a filtration membrane--gets rid of both positively and negatively charged ions, says team leader David N. Reinhoudt, head of the department of supramolecular chemistry and technology at the University of Twente in Enschede.

The molecule operates in two stages. First, it draws the positive ions to one end. The capture of those substances changes the other end of the molecule so it can capture the negative ions that remain. Also, it can be tailored to grab specific ions, even in tiny amounts that other processes miss. A Dutch company Reinhoudt declines to name has right of first refusal on the molecular trap.EDITED BY PETER COYReturn to top


AN ONLINE BROKERAGE FOR electronics parts could help manufacturers get needed components faster and sell excess inventory. Modeled on a stock exchange, the Internet-based FastParts Inc. ( brings buyers and sellers together anonymously and acts as a clearinghouse, charging a small fee for each transaction.

Electronics makers typically end up with about 10% excess inventory because of design changes and production shifts. Today, those parts are sold to brokers, usually at a big loss. FastParts aims to cut out the middleman and speed up the process. Gerry Haller, the company's CEO, admits it's relatively easy to set up an Internet trading floor. FastParts' edge, he says, will be its security, systems management, and billing.

Some distributors aren't convinced. "A lot of people are interested in something like this," says Peter Hartman, vice-president of distributor Americomm in San Jose, Calif. "But my confidence level in doing business strictly on the Internet is pretty low right now."EDITED BY PETER COY By Andy ReinhardtReturn to top

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