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The Waiting Game

Everybody waits: for school to let out, for planes to arrive, for dentists to see us. To the wireless-gaming industry, these unoccupied interludes in an average day are opportunities-minutes waiting to be killed with their creations. “There are plenty of time-saving applications,” says Paul Goode, entertainment platforms group manager for Motorola. “We’re working on the time-wasting ones.”

There’s a reason for this strong corporate interest. An estimated 60 percent of Americans play video games regularly, according to the Washington, DC-based Interactive Digital Software Association. That adds up to 145 million people, including 62 million women. Even the president of the United States confesses to daily bouts of digital solitaire. Despite the dot-com crash, U.S. sales of video games-buoyed by competition between the Sony PlayStation 2 and new home consoles from Microsoft (Xbox) and Nintendo (GameCube)-reached a record $9.4 billion last year. Americans spent more money on games than on movie tickets. Stereotypes aside, the average gamer isn’t a pimply teenager, either: he’s a 28-year-old adult.

Thing is, adults have been largely left out of a sizable piece of this revolution. Nintendo has sold more than 100 million units of its hot handheld platform, the Game Boy. But not, by and large, to adults. The reason? It’s a toy, and adults need to act like adults. They aren’t likely to make room in their briefcases for a Game Boy; if they do, they’re certainly not encouraged to whip out a fuchsia-colored hunk of plastic for a round of Pokmon. Cell phones and personal digital assistants have at least the veneer of business utility.

Enter wireless games-handheld games for grownups. Now cell phones can be toys disguised as tools. You punch up a “games” option on the phone, which connects to a server operated by your wireless carrier or a game publisher. The server transmits the data needed to turn the tiny screen into a playpen. Server-based games allow for frequently updated content and relieve the player of the need to carry game discs or cartridges. The server can also relay data between different players in real time, allowing for multiplayer competition: why play paintball by yourself when you could compete against someone in Japan, live?

Indeed, Japan is the model for a wireless-entertainment culture. NTT DoCoMo, that country’s largest wireless company, has surprised and transformed the nation with a service called “i-mode,” which allows subscribers to access games and other online entertainment wirelessly. The i-mode service requires a special cell phone with a slightly larger than ordinary screen (typically three by four centimeters) plus circuitry and software built in to handle the proprietary i-mode protocol. Users can access only the few thousand Web sites that have been modified to meet i-mode’s technical specifications. But there’s no dialing-up-an i-mode phone is “always on” the Net.

I-mode is phenomenally popular, engendering a “thumb culture” of 30 million subscribers-an estimated 80 percent of people worldwide who currently use wireless devices to connect to the Net. “We’re all looking at DoCoMo,” says Paul Palmieri, director of business development for Verizon Wireless. “Clearly the biggest category within the content is on the game side.”

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