On the floor of the ITU Telecom World 2003 exhibition hall in Geneva, the Asian mobile-phone outfits attract the most attention. With multistory booths equipped with bright lights, music, and dancers, you can't miss them (see BW Online, 10/16/03, "Telecom's Future: Made in China?"). But the booths' much greater pull for convention visitors is the Asian handset makers' cutting-edge technology that's literally giving rivals from the U.S. and Europe a run for their money. A slew of hot phones developed for third-generation (3G) wireless networks were on display -- products that have been slow in coming, many have complained.
The new handsets make today's most advanced phones, which are already equipped with personal organizers, color screens, cameras, and rudimentary video recorders, look clunky. They'll start appearing on store shelves next year. Improving on everything from displays to audio, these devices continue to blur the line between cell phones and multimedia computers, making them well suited for applications way beyond voice (see BW Special Report, 10/20/03, "The Wireless Challenge").
SEEING YOUR CALLERS. After years of promises, video telephony is about to arrive -- albeit in a limited number of markets. Hutchison Whampoa (HUWHY) is already providing it over a pioneering 3G wireless system in Europe, and it's available in some Asian markets. Over the next year, additional higher-speed wireless systems are likely to come on-line, clearing the way for new handsets like Korean cell-phone maker LG's U8150. Light and sleek, it features a brilliant, crystal-clear screen -- perfect for video calls. A split screen displays a picture of each caller.
The phone is scheduled to appear in Europe on a trial basis in December and probably will roll out commercially over the next year, an LG spokesperson says. It will cost about $600, without subsidies, according to LG.
LG has another head-turner with the KA, a combo phone and PDA. While PDA phones have been around for a while from a number of manufacturers, this device pushes the idea much further. The Microsoft (MSFT) software-based PDA is loaded with a brilliant display that's great for viewing music videos, which are easily stored on a memory card that slips into the side. The 1.1 megapixel camera takes much sharper pictures than the camera-phones available now in the U.S. The slide-out keyboard, concealed on the back of the device, is easily operated with one hand. Price: About $730 without subsidies, says LG, which reveals that it may be available in the U.S. next summer.
3D DISPLAYS. Sony Ericsson is rolling out a mobile-phone version of its Gameboard, a gaming control panel. A new clamshell-style phone, the Z600, has two screens. The little screen on the phone's exterior displays time, battery level, and incoming calls. The high-resolution screen inside can be used for playing video games, controlled with an optional Gameboard attachment that snaps on the back. The phone also includes an integrated camera and sells for about $350. The Gameboard control pad is about $45, a Sony Ericsson spokesperson says.
For sheer visual brilliance, nothing beats the Samsung GHX400. Intended for younger users, it displays 3D animation, bringing gaming to another level. It will be available next month in Europe and later in the U.S. And just for fun, the phone includes an FM radio. The price hasn't been set, says a Samsung spokesperson.
How good are the latest screens? Well, cutting-edge camera-phones in the U.S. have screens that display about 350,000 pixels. But Samsung's new SGH Intenna, named for an internal antenna hidden in the handset's body, blows them away. Available next year in Europe, it has 650,000 pixels, which means it looks more like a flat-screen TV than a cell-phone display. Samsung says the SGH Intenna will sell for close to $500, without subsidies.
Big advances are being made in audio, too. A new software technology from Panasonic replicates the quality of a surround-sound home theater. It can be embedded in a mobile device during the manufacturing process or downloaded by consumers. Designed for use with headphones, the sound quality is so high that even listening to voice is an exciting new experience. And music sounds amazing as well, even over regular headphones. Clearly, wireless handsets are entering a whole new zone. By Steve Rosenbush at ITU Telecom World 2003. Follow BusinessWeek's exclusive telecom coverage, only on BusinessWeek Online