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Movies on Your Phone

But plenty of experts are willing to take a stab at it. Near the top of everyone’s list is the cell phone, which appears to be due for a serious makeover. For starters, says Peter Kastner, chief researcher at the Aberdeen Group, a market research firm in Boston, cell phones will pack in the electronics needed to communicate via a number of different frequencies and data-encoding schemes, so that they can constantly hunt for the channels that will give them the best data transfer rates at the lowest costs.

That means these new phones will receive data 20 or more times faster than today’s mobile phones, without sending service bills through the roof. To handle these data transfer speeds, the phones will operate at frequencies in the two-gigahertz range and above, well beyond the frequency range of most cell phones today. That hasn’t been cost-effective until recently because the analog circuits that process traditional audio and visual signals enlist specialized transistor designs and materials. Analog circuits are also sensitive to the electronic “noise” from digital circuits, meaning they’re usually stuck on separate chips-a costly and inefficient arrangement that limits devices’ ability to handle ultrafast signals. But now, thanks to the performance boost that comes from more densely packed transistors, digital circuits are becoming quick enough to mimic many of the functions of analog circuits, including dealing with fast-changing, high-bandwidth radio signals. “We can take an analog radio signal right off an antenna and quickly move it into digital logic,” says Dennis Buss, vice president of silicon-technology development at Texas Instruments, which is already rolling out integrated, single-chip wireless devices based on the new techniques.

With their near-broadband connections, these new phones will enable fast, high-resolution Web surfing, and even passable real-time video, meaning that they could incorporate video cameras for recording, videoconferencing, and sophisticated game playing-possibly even movie watching. They’ll be smarter, too, assuming more and more of the functions of PDAs and even PCs, including online shopping, e-mail and calendar features, and navigation aids with detailed maps-all accessed via a voice interface. Right now, about half of the transistors in a cell phone go toward interacting with the user rather than processing calls, but Philips’s Claasen says the number of transistors dedicated to the user interface will increase by a factor of 10 over the next several years. That will “drive a new cycle of cell-phone buying,” predicts Kastner.

And it’s not just cell phones that will benefit from microprocessor enhancements. PCs and gadgets will also become friendlier. As devices and the network gain intelligence, they’ll require less attention from you. That’s critical to their acceptance, says James Meindl, director of the Microelectronics Research Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Until now, we haven’t had enough electronics to make the operations of these machines completely simple,” he says.

Take televisions. In the sets Philips is planning, says Claasen, fully 80 percent of the computing power on the main chip will be used, not for image-processing chores, but for an adaptive interface that will assemble content from multiple sources geared to your viewing habits and present you with choices in whatever format you’re most comfortable with. TVs will become so dependent on computing power, says Claasen, that consumers will soon be shopping for them the way they now select PCs: according to processing speeds, memory size, and communications capabilities rather than their functionality, which will be provided by software and will upgrade itself automatically over the Internet.

And say goodbye to annoyances like having to wrestle your way through four screens of menus to get your PDA to cough up the name you’re looking for. Most usability problems will go away, says Aberdeen’s Kastner, when electronics start understanding plain English (or Finnish or Mandarin) commands. Speech recognition is often portrayed as a software problem, he notes, but it can in fact be solved with the vast increases in processing power and memory that will be afforded by the coming generation of chips. Appliances and handheld devices that can handle simple spoken commands are already hitting the shelves, and according to Kastner, machines should be able to engage in rudimentary conversation with us by 2010. “With all that power, you can throw multiple algorithms at the problem,” he explains. “We won’t have all the capabilities of HAL from 2001, but we’ll be a lot closer.”

Patrick Gelsinger, chief technology officer at Intel, says the company has already achieved significant improvements in speech recognition in its labs by using multiple microphones to add directionality to incoming sound information and adding lip-reading capabilities via video camera. “If homes are going to go from having four computers to having 400, we’ve got to make those other 396 a lot easier to use,” he says. That increased user-friendliness, he adds, will result in large part from the improvements in microprocessor speed coming down the pike.

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