The fanciest phones — known as smart phones — will get even more new features this summer. Apple is expected to announce a new iPhone, T-Mobile's Google Android is getting a face-lift, and there's a lot of buzz about the soon-to-be-released Palm Pre.
Soon your phone may be smarter than you are. Well, not quite, but phones are getting fancier. They have music, e-mail, video and countless other features. Then there are application stores that let you download everything from games to financial planners.
Go into the store of any carrier, and the number of features and phones can be overwhelming. I visited a Verizon store on Market Street in San Francisco and pretended to be a soccer mom in need of a new phone with personalized features.
"Where do you plan on using the phone?" asked salesperson Muki Lok. "Take me through a day of how a cell phone might benefit you."
I tell him I want to be able to text-message my kids and e-mail my friends.
"Do you want to be able to open attachments for e-mails?" Lok asked.
If I had said yes, he would have directed me to one set of phones. If I had said no, he would have suggested a different set.
The number of fancy mobile phones sold in the U.S. has exploded in the past two years. Ramon Llamas, an analyst with research firm IDC, says the release of the iPhone two years ago was the catalyst. Its high-end features and sleek design helped change the way people thought about a phone.
Llamas says the revolutionary touch-screen technology spawned dozens of imitators. "A lot of people said I like that touch screen," he says. He points out that there are now dozens of other phones with touch screens that are capturing the hearts and imaginations of a lot of phone users.
Palm, which hasn't been on top of the game since its Pilot dominated the market 10 years ago, is hoping its new Pre is going to be as revolutionary as the iPhone. Matt Crowley, a product line manager at Palm, showed off the compact-sized device at the company's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif.
"The overall design of the Palm Pre was really based on a polished river stone," Crowly says. He holds it out and turns it over as if it is a gemstone.
The Pre takes into account one of the biggest criticisms of the iPhone: its touch-screen keyboard. Crowley slides open the device to reveal a keyboard with tactile buttons.
Among the Pre's other nice features is that several programs can be open at once. So, it's possible to type an e-mail while looking at your calendar.
The Pre is getting praise. "It's so slick and so intuitive that people can say, 'You know what? That's kind of what I really want my device to do,' " Llamas says.
Although the market for smart phones is getting crowded, Palm does have a shot at toppling both market leaders Apple and BlackBerry if an informal survey of customers at Coffee Bar, a cafe in San Francisco, is any indication.
"I don't really like it," Jasper Gregory says of his iPhone. "It seems too breakable. I keep it tucked away so it won't be stolen. I never hear it, so I'm not as connected anymore."
Another customer, Sara Skikney, says her BlackBerry isn't very user-friendly. "I can't figure out how to set up certain things that I think should be more accessible," Skikney says. "Like, you have to dig through several lists to find different functionalities."
The attitude of the people in this cafe is nothing like the way people in Europe and Asia feel about their phones, Llamas says. He says there, a phone is a personal statement.
"I kind of liken it to people bringing home a puppy or a cat," Llamas says. "Oh, look at my new device. It's so cute. Check it out. Do you want to hold it? You want to pet it?"
One thing is certain: There is a huge potential market for fancier phones in the U.S. Last year, fewer than 14 percent of people who purchased phones got a smart phone.