3G: What will 3G mean to you?

The term '3G' has been bandied around a lot, but what will you actually end up buying and using?

With third-generation networks two years away, manufacturers have yet to announce precise plans for the devices they're planning to ride the 3G wave with. The big three, Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, have been active in whetting our appetites with concept units, even if they'll probably be more expensive than the phones we use today.

So what will we be getting for our money? Consensus suggests a similar array of designs and concepts to today's mobiles -- there will be the fun lifestyle devices, with the usual array of money making, while others will provide more features than today's personal digital assistants (PDAs).

Devices will fall into four categories. "The simplest 3G phones will be used mainly for talking and will store all their information on the network, while the second type of mobile device will support video-streaming, and will provide the user with news and web content," explains Mark Squires, Nokia business manager.

"More sophisticated models will be information centres which let users download information from the Internet and store data on the device. Top-end devices are likely to still contain a keyboard, which might be wireless and detachable, and will offer all the features of today's high-end PDAs."

The more sophisticated 3G devices will contain memory and run either Symbian or another capable operating system.

Even though they will be far more powerful than today's GSM phones, UMTS devices are also likely to be smaller, according to Ben Richardson, online media manager at Orange. "Peripherals such as IBM's miniature hard drive are already available to make very small phones, so 3G phones will be smaller and lighter. However, because a small screen isn't very useful we might find that devices fold up or roll up."

Tim Sheedy, telecommunications analyst at IDC, thinks that users will carry several Bluetooth gadgets wirelessly linked to a single 3G transmitter. "You might have one 3G device attached to your belt or tie, which would transmit information to your Bluetooth headphones and Walkman."

And while all units will include calendar, email and messaging, the function most people are looking forward to is video streaming. This will be supported by those devices able to operate at speeds between 384Kbps and 2Mbps.

Richardson believes voice recognition will have come of age by the time 3G arrives, negating the need for keyboards on units that double up as a PDA. "All of a user's data could be stored on the network, and would be accessed by voice command."Without a keyboard, the more simple devices could be very small indeed," he says.

Dominic Stowbridge, director of Motorola's application development network agrees: "With a voice browser, you'll talk to the Internet and the Internet will talk back. This is theoretically possible today, but with 3G we'll see many technologies developing to make use of the new potential."

As with today's phones, messaging will be a killer application. Rather than just allowing messages of 160 characters, 3G users could attach a picture to create an email postcard. High-end devices will allow video-conferencing and could even employ a tiny digital video camera. Users will have information constantly beamed to their phones, which could include the latest news and sports action. "Rather than simply being told that a goal has been scored, a fan could watch an action replay within seconds," explains Squires.

Orange is already planning to supply personalised news from Ananova within 12-18 months.

3G phones will also be constantly monitored by the network so operators will roughly know a user's location, enabling location-based services. This could help locate a restaurant, for example, or the closest cab company.

Stowbridge believes 3G phones will even have features we haven't considered yet. "People could buy smelly phones, which could attach a scent to an email." This would be a benefit for e-commerce, as well as for personal communications.

Despite the current shortcomings of WAP, companies are confident that users will be impressed with what 3G offers. Peter Bodor, public relations manager at Ericsson, argues the failure of WAP is down to the mismanagement of public expectations, but doesn't see a problem moving forward with 3G.

"WAP's disappointment was caused by industry failure to manage expectations, and the main problem was its slowness. This won't be a problem with 3G. The 3G Internet experience will be as good as surfing from home, with the added benefit of location-based services making the experience more personal."

Stowbridge believes the design of 3G phones will be an important factor in their popularity with users. "Mobiles have gone from being a business tool where appearance didn't matter, to a lifestyle choice where looks are important. It's crucial that users are able to personalise the look, the style and the Internet experience of their 3G device. The service provider that offers this will win!"

Despite the amount of money invested in 3G licences, Stowbridge doesn't believe users will be charged much more for the 3G experience. "People won't be prepared to pay too much more. Manufacturers will have to squeeze their margins and networks offer large subsidies, so as to ensure an attractive price", he said.

Because the phones will always be connected, users can expect to be charged for the amount of data they receive and Sheedy is not convinced 3G will cost the same as GSM.

"Early handsets will come at a premium, but then I expect they'll drop to a level similar to the cost of GSM models in the last year. The market is likely to be segmented, with voice-centric devices available on 'pay-as-you-go' deals. Regular users will probably pay a fixed charge for services, such as £2 per month for traffic reports, £10 per month for video-conferencing, or £30 per month for full, unlimited access and services."

Bodor believes 3G opens up new business models. "Users might choose a service from MTV which would be heavily ad-driven. Perhaps loyalty points collected from a certain petrol station could be used to get free traffic reports," he suggested.

It seems likely that third-generation phones be available sometime in 2002 to coincide with the completion of the UMTS networks. However, technologies like GPRS and Edge, due out soon, will provide greater bandwidth. As Stowbridge points out, "The rollout of third-generation networks will be a progression not a fixed date. 3G phones could be out before the networks are operational, with early applications running through GPRS."

Take a look at ZDNet's groundbreaking 3G gallery.

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The technology of 3G - get technical!

Find out about the security issues.

What will 3G mean for business?

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