DoCoMo's betting on the all-in-one gizmo

Kenji Hall
15 Dec 2006

Packing every possible whiz-bang feature into an ultra-thin, portable, electronic device seems to be the standard business model for cell phone makers.

These days your handset can do everything from sending e-mail and surfing the Web to watching videos and pinpointing your location on the planet. And yet it's hardly the ideal all-in-one gizmo, and some say it never will be.

Don't mention that notion around Takeshi Natsuno. The 41-year-old vice-president at NTT DoCoMo, Japan's No. 1 wireless carrier, is on a mission to create the ultimate, all-purpose, mobile device. His strategy is to give consumers just about every technology imaginable in a palm-sized phone. 'There's no single killer application. Some will want games, others music,' he says. 'That's why you have to offer as much as possible.'

The almighty tool

It's hard to dismiss Natsuno. He was behind DoCoMo's groundbreaking i-mode data service for cell phones, which has been licensed to telcos in 16 countries. It was Natsuno who pressed Sony to make its FeliCa technology"”a tiny radio on a chip"”available for phones.

That has turned handsets in Japan into contact-free commuter passes, credit cards, and even keys to open the front door at home. In the not-too-distant future, projectors for virtual displays and keyboards could replace the real thing, making for a more compact package. 'I'm trying to make the phone into the almighty tool,' he says.

In the tech world, those are fighting words. Most tech makers will tell you that there's no way to create one portable device that doesn't cut corners. In fact, most people are used to toting around more than one "”a cell phone or PDA, a music player, and maybe a laptop. That's not likely to change, says Pieter Knook, Microsoft's senior vice-president in charge of mobile and embedded devices. 'The single device that does it all will always have a compromise in its capabilities,' he says.

Staying specialized

Researchers at Hewlett-Packard would agree. They envision a future in which we rely on a handful of devices that each do one thing well, not an all-in-one solution. The key is what Philip McKinney calls a 'personal wireless gateway device.' About the size of a thin stack of business cards, the gateway would contain every radio and antenna you would need to connect to any short- or long-range wireless network found around the globe. And it would fit easily into a pocket.

The upshot: 'If I take radios out of devices I can get PCs and laptops to be unbelievably small because I take a huge amount of complexity out of it and I get much longer battery life,' says McKinney, who is vice-president and chief technical officer of HP's personal-systems group. The same goes for other devices such as flexible displays for watching movies or playing games and e-checkbooks for paying bills and storing grocery lists.

How many devices are consumers willing to carry‾ In HP's scenario, the magic number is three. In DoCoMo's, that's two too many. 'I want to consolidate everything into one. If you have three things, five things, you'll forget something,' Natsuno says.

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