Get ready for color-screen cell phones

Nextel unveils a mobile phone with a color screen--the first in the United States. It won't be the last: Two other wireless carriers are set to shun the old gray or green backgrounds.

Nextel Communications debuted its first full color-screen cell phone on Monday, and two more U.S. wireless carriers are about to do the same.

Color-screen phones have been selling in overseas markets for at least two years, but Nextel's product, the Motorola i95cl, is new for U.S. consumers who are used to the gray, green or blue background colors. A representative for T-Mobile U.S., also known as VoiceStream Wireless, says its first color-screen phone should be reaching store shelves now. Cingular Wireless is expected to unveil its first color-screen phone "very soon," a representative said Monday.

But don't expect carriers to paint a huge swath onto their product lines. Most U.S. wireless carriers plan to release a single color-screen phone, then monitor sales to decide whether to unleash more. Possible sticker shock--the i95cl costs $400 before rebates, for instance--is just one reason why.

"This is sort of our first foray into this market, so we'll see how it goes," said Nextel spokeswoman Kelly Mullins. Nextel doesn't plan to introduce any more color-screen phones for the rest of the year.

"The color screen is very new to the United States market," said T-Mobile spokeswoman Kim Thompson, which is selling one color-screen phone, the SonyEricsson T68. "It'll be interesting to see where these handsets go."

Over the cell-phone rainbow
Although Sprint PCS debuted the first color phone elsewhere nearly two years ago, most carriers waited until this year to unleash their first color-screen phones in the United States.

Color screens are common in Asia, being included in about 90 percent of the handsets in those countries, says Gartner wireless analyst Bryan Prohm. It took a relatively short time--two years--to reach that saturation level, he said.

nexteli95cl Prohm doesn't think color will spread as quickly in the United States because U.S. cell phone owners don't replace their handsets as frequently as people overseas.

Color screens are common in Asia, gracing about 90 percent of the handsets in those countries, said Gartner wireless analyst Bryan Prohm. It took a relative short time--two years--to reach that saturation level, he said.

"In the back half of the year, you'll start seeing some more color phones roll out," he said, perhaps to get products on store shelves for the holiday buying season. "Let's go red and green for Christmas."

Most likely to add more color are Verizon Wireless, which now sells the Sharp Z800 color phone, and Sprint PCS, which intends to launch a new cell phone network this summer, Prohm said. They use a cell phone standard called Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), which is used by many Korean and Japanese carriers already selling color phones.

AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile will probably follow with more color-screen phones about six to nine months later, Prohm believes. AT&T Wireless is already selling the T68.

The new color-screen Nextel phone also uses a version of Java, which allows it to download software for new games or business programs.