U.S. a Late Adopter of 'Smart Phones'

When it comes to cell phones that do more than just make calls, the United States is at a disadvantage. While consumers in many European and Asian countries routinely use their phones to dart around the Internet, Americans are still catching up.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

As rapidly as cell phones are changing in America, they have changed even faster in Asia and Europe. It's often said that foreigners have better phones when it comes to using phones to search the Internet or just find your way around. And the inevitable question arises: Why is the United States behind?

We put that question to NPR's John McChesney for our series on the changing phone.

JOHN McCHESNEY: We have some pretty smart phones in this country. But check what this Japanese phone will do.

Patrick Bray, a GPS company representative in Tokyo twists open the sizeable screen on a brand-new model, and with a few clicks is watching live broadcast television: a soccer game.

Mr. PATRICK BRAY (Representative, GeoVector): What's cool about this is people just do this all day. You see people who work at bars and people who work at restaurants or places where they can sit down. And they've all got their little TVs up and running. It's a kick in a butt. And you can see the quality, it's excellent.

(Soundbite of a soccer game)

McCHESNEY: The phone also has a high-quality, five megapixel camera. Most photo phones we have are only one or two megapixels. There is also photo editing software on board and built-in GPS. Point it at a hotel or a restaurant and you can get reviews or menus. Put it in a cradle overnight and download videos or music into the eight gigabytes of storage.

Mr. BRAY: I use this as my electronic wallet - my phone also. I put, you know, 100 bucks or so on it. And I walk up to (unintelligible) coffee, and I just charge my coffee by pulling out my cell phone. I don't worry about pennies or change or yen, as it is here, not penny.

McCHESNEY: Bray walks over to the convenience store and buys a package of gum.

Mr. BRAY: I walk up and there is a little place next to the cash register, and you just lay your phone up there gently. And the little bell rings when the money has been withdrawn.

McCHESNEY: And you can use it to buy subway tickets. The phone records your departure station and calculates your fare when you pass it over the sensor at your destination.

Mr. CHETAN SHARMA (President, Chetan Sharma Consulting, Seattle): It's definitely true that in Japan and Korea, the quality of handsets is much better compared to U.S. and even to Europe.

McCHESNEY: Chetan Sharma is a mobile phone industry consultant based in Seattle.

Mr. SHARMA: The reason is the quality of the network, which allows you to do broadband activities on these devices.

McCHESNEY: So the network drives the hardware. And in Japan and Europe, they launched broadband mobile wireless back in 2001, while we only got around to it in 2005.

Mr. SHARMA: Both in Japan and Korea, people are already accustomed to using Internet on these devices.

McCHESNEY: In fact, the big difference between the United States and Asia is that in Asia, the cell phone is a primary Internet connection device.

Michael Kleeman, a senior fellow at the University of California, San Diego, says there's a reason for that.

Mr. MICHAEL KLEEMAN (Senior Fellow, California Institute of Telecommunications and Internet Technology, University of California, San Diego): Long commute times, first of all. Not a lot of space. And so if I have got a two or three-hour commute time, most of my free time is going to be spent nowhere near a laptop.

McCHESNEY: In Europe, which also got a four-year jump on the United States with wireless broadband, the phones all use the same system called GSM. Again, Michael Kleeman.

Mr. KLEEMAN: My cell phone that I buy in London can talk to any network in Europe because they are all GSMs. So that meant that the cell phone manufacturers didn't have to make three and four flavors of cell phone.

McCHESNEY: That economy of scale allowed phone makers to concentrate on innovation in Europe. Here in the United States, carriers use several communication standards so the phone makers have had to make phones for each one of them. But, gadget-lovers, things are looking up here in the United States. There is the Apple iPhone and Verizon has just launched its Voyager smart phone.

(Soundbite of music)

McCHESNEY: Verizon's Heidi Flato flips open a sleek Voyager and the tiny stereo speakers are, well, they're not hi-fi, but you can buy and download music directly into the phone. The Voyager has a touch screen, but when you flip it open, it has another screen you can use with a full (unintelligible) keyboard. So, how does it compare with its Japanese cousin - two megapixel camera, instead of five, same amount of storage, eight gigs, no credit card capability and broadcast television?

Ms. HEIDI FLATO (Public Relations Manager, Verizon): Mobile TV is definitely - it's coming. It's the next big thing. And we've actually launched V Cast mobile TV in several markets across the U.S.

McCHESNEY: And you get full Internet access, but it's limited by the fact that most Web sites haven't tailored their pages to that small screen. But America's smart phone market may explode soon. Again, Michael Kleeman.

Mr. KLEEMAN: We have an opportunity to leapfrog. There's a lot of money looking for the next big success. Everyone I know in the valley believes that mobile applications have a potential to create phenomenal values. 80 percent of Americans have mobile phones now.

McCHESNEY: But only about 20 percent of Americans have a smart phone with broadband access, and therein lies the potential for explosive growth. The voracious appetite for Apple's iPhone and new phones like Verizon's Voyager are signals of things to come.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.