10 features every cellphone should have

Nearly 252 million people in the U.S. have a cellphone, according to the cellphone industry group CTIA. This ubiquitous pocket plaything is increasingly capable of wondrous and heretofore unthinkable technological feats both frivolous and necessary. Just a couple of years ago, we thought that no cellphone could successfully morph into a music device, much less a video viewer, game player, Internet device, et al. The iPhone has given us a glimpse of what cellphones is capable of, but not even Steve Jobs' minions have managed to wring all the possibilities out of arguably the most revolutionary gadget since the PC. There is even more stuff that cellphones should be able to do to truly become indispensable — click Continue to see the features that every cellphone needs.

1. Real Web Browser
Apple has proved, kind of, that you can put a real Web browser on a cellphone. The iPhone's problem is that it operates of AT&T's glacial EDGE network (473.6 kbit/s theoretical top speed). But new Mobile Windows 6 devices can connect to EV-DO and even faster EV-DO Revision A (2.4 Mbit/s vs. 3.1 Mbit/s at theoretical top speed) 3G networks from Sprint and Verizon and AT&T Wireless has several phones that run on its growing HSDPA 3G network (theoretical top speed of 3.6 Mbit/s). The rumor mill says iPhone with 3G will appear sometime in mid-to-late 2008. Now's the time to lose Pocket Explorer and other crippled browsers and get real Web browsers in these swift-but-could-be-smarter phones.

2. Alkaline Battery Power
With all that cellphones can do now, talk time is often cut down to a couple of conversations, then you're scrambling for a recharge — if you can find an outlet and if you remembered to bring your charger. Why should you have to search or scramble? Other than shorter battery life, gearheads at the handset makers tell us there is no technical reason why there couldn't be a cellie that runs on a couple of AA Duracells. Your phone would be bigger and more costly — you'd have to replace the batteries far more frequently. But why isn't there an alkaline choice for users who don't use their phones that frequently, especially one that they could leave in their car's glove box for emergency use?

3. Cellphone as Wallet
This wish-list capability will actually come true in about a year thanks to a two-way technology called Near Field Communication (NFC). Similar to RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), NFC is designed to replace one-way magnetic strips. The main is idea is, you wave your NFC-enabled cellphone past a terminal on the counter top and your goods are paid for. No credit/debit card or cash needed. Trials are underway in several countries such as Spain, Austria, Finland, China, Great Britain and Canada, and Nokia has introduced the first NFC-equipped phone, the 6131.

NFC apps aren't limited to simply being cash replacement, either. NFC can replace your house keys, concert tickets and even Java-based apps (like Google Maps or chat rooms). Considering all the potential applications, NFC could become more important than talking, texting or e-mailing. ABI Research, a market-research firm, agrees: It forecasts 20% of all cellphones — an estimated 292 million — will be NFC-enabled by 2012. We want one now.

4. GPS Child Locator
Want to know where your kids are? Fire up your Web browser and find their cellphone on a map. Disney Mobile actually pioneered this feature, but they just went out of business. Verizon is continuing the service through its Chaperone plan ($9.99/month), but there's a bit of hoop jumping: "You have to have a family share account with at least your primary line of service with the Chaperone subscription and at least one secondary line of service with a Chaperone Child mobile device." We think all handsets from all carriers should have a Chaperone-like GPS locator service.

5. Glass Camera Lenses with H.264 VGA Video Recording
Cellphone cameras and camcorders are typically awful. Boosting the number of pixels just makes your awful pictures larger. What's necessary are real glass lenses, like the ones Sony uses on its Cyber-shot cellphones. On the video side, even the best 2MP cameras offer 320 x 240-pixel video resolution, mainly because it's assumed that you'll want to use MMS to transmit your short clips to friends and relatives. But increasingly cellphones can send thicker video files via e-mail, are off-loaded for desktop e-mail transmission, or uploaded to YouTube-like sites. It's time for full VGA recording capabilities.

6. 3.5mm Stereo Headphone Jack
Thank you, cellphone makers, for finally making MicroUSB the standard connector for future cellphone chargers. Soon, any charger will be able to charge any phone. Could you hurry with that, by the way? Now is also the time to get rid of the 2.5mm headset jack and put standard 3.5mm stereo jacks on all phones that offer music playback, which is slowly but surely becoming the norm. 3.5mm jacks would prompt premium headphone makers such as Shure, Etymotics, Ultimate Ears, Koss and others to apply their sound expertise to cellphones.

7. Retractable Earphone
No one is quite sure whether there's a direct cause and effect between cellphones and brain cancer. But if you're worried (or a hypochondriac), potential exposure is mitigated by an earpiece. Except you have to carry them, untangle them, plug them in — that's way too much work. Your solution is to look like a self-important idiot just keep your earphone plugged in all the time (ooh, look at me, I get calls so often I might as well just keep this thing in my ear!)… unless handset makers made phones with retractable earpieces. An earpiece on a string might or might not make a phone phatter (check out the skinny Jawbone earpiece) but you'd never have to worry about having or untying one. Even if you didn't use the earpiece, imagine all the nervous energy you could expend by pulling it out and watching it zip back in.

8. Unlocked as Standard
Anywhere else in the world other than the U.S., you can buy a phone without having to first sign away your first born to a carrier. You can stroll into a store, buy a phone, plug your SIM card into it, and your new phone works. Of course, for this to happen in America, Verizon, Sprint and other CDMA carriers would have to create phones that use SIM cards like AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile and other GSM carriers do. Aside from the CDMA SIM-card issue, the argument against an unlocked phone environment in the U.S. is that without carrier subsidies, cellphones would be too expensive. Except gadget history tells the opposite story … competition promotes lower prices.

But like NFC, unlocked phones in the U.S. are closer than we think. The iPhone has proven to carriers that maybe handset makers know what they're doing. Verizon has announced it would open its network to unlocked phones sometime in late 2008 and Google's Android open-source cellphone OS has the potential to create an even larger market for unlocked handsets.

9. Speech to Text
Many phones have voice dialing; some have voice command. A couple of Samsung models even have speech-to-text capabilities. But if handset makers really want to solve the text-input problem, they ought to seek a solution such as Nuance, speech-to-text software available for Blackberry, Treos and Windows Mobile-enabled phones and, soon, Symbian phones. Nuance, from the same folks who make the PC-based Dragon speech-to-text programs, do voice dialing and voice commands, natch, but also speech-to-text e-mails and text messages, contact location, Web searches, driving directions, song search and play … in essence, anything you previously had to find and use and compose via menu drilling or screen touching. Okay, when can I get this smart input technology for a stupid phone so I can just tell it what to do?

10. Video Telephony
We have MobiTV and Slingbox plug-ins and newer technologies such as movy.tv to watch streaming TV, so why can't we see who we're talking to? With speedy broadband HSDPA and EV-DO networks, there's no technical reason why we can't add some face time to our voice or text time. There are, of course, ergonomic roadblocks … camera lenses on most cellphones are on the opposite side of the screen. A swivel lens would do the trick.