If you still think a BlackBerry is a fruit, it’s time for a technology tune-up!

My, my, how far we've come since the basic concept of cellular phones began in 1947. To understand cellular technology better, it's helpful to know what has happened across the United States in the past two decades.

Cellular service started in 1985 as analog transmission, according to Marc Judge, Market Manager of Basic Communications. By the mid-'90s, service (the tower networks and the phones) began to migrate from analog to digital. However, there were several types of digital that were deployed in the country: CDMA, TDMA, GSM and iDEN.

At that time, many wireless service providers across the country chose CDMA digital. In Northwest Michigan, only one carrier, Sprint, chose CDMA, with limited tower deployment. CellularOne and CenturyTel chose TDMA. The new startup company, NPI, chose GSM, and iDen is a proprietary network to Nextel.

As a result, cellular phones in this area have gone through some migrations over the last couple of years.

"The consequence of choosing TDMA was TDMA digital technology did not have data transmission capabilities and therefore became the 'BetaMax' of digital networks, it became obsolete," Judge said.

In the last several years, both CenturyTel, through its merger with Alltel (which chose CDMA originally in other parts of the U.S) and CellularOne, which has just switched to GSM, merging with NPI Wireless, have migrated out of TDMA.

"This all means to wireless consumers two things: One, new capabilities in terms of camera phones, Internet web-services, and other data capabilities became available," Judge explained. "And, two, as the carrier migrated from one digital type to another, there could be coverage network changes or interruptions."

A device is only as good as the capability of the cellular server. Once high-speed, high-data digital capabilities go into a network area, that area then will be able to utilize the new technology on the market.

"One of the big pushes today is the integration and the convergence of other devices into cell phones," said Russ Simatic, Cellular One's Michigan General Manager. "You're seeing devices coming out with PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) built in, cameras built in and digital audio players (MP3) built in."

The BlackBerry device started at the corporate level five years ago and is just starting to permeate down to the consumer level. The new BlackBerry is aimed specifically at consumers. It's a wireless phone with PDA features, like e-mail, calendar, contacts, calculator, etc. Similar to a Palm Pilot, BlackBerry is used to manage time, contacts and information wirelessly.

"There are several reasons why the BlackBerry has exploded in popularity," Judge pointed out. "Email push technology, this means that as emails hit your computer at home or office, the email also automatically 'pushes' to your BlackBerry. Also, the BlackBerry has an internet browser capability to search HTML websites; and (it) has a built-in QWERTY keypad allowing for easy access to enter data, respond to messages, etc."

Judge adds the BlackBerry is "very secure," has excellent battery life and is very "phone-centric" in terms of quality and durability. The BlackBerry has Bluetooth technology and Global Positioning Service (GPS) capability, real-time driving directions and locating capabilities, as well (only available on Nextel's BlackBerry).

BlackBerry technology is a product by a Canadian company, Research In Motion (RIM). BlackBerry's original partnership was with wireless carrier Nextel's iDEN digital network.

However, recently the BlackBerry has been developed for CDMA and GSM digital networks. BlackBerry is available here in northern Michigan from Nextel and CellularOne, and later this month from Alltel.

"A BlackBerry device is basically a convergence," Simatic said. "It has that mobile wireless device, that ability to make a phone call. But you also have the ability to do e-mail or interface with your computer, (it's the) convergence of voice and data."

PalmOne hasn't been resting on its laurels, either. Like RIM, it has just brought out a new model, the Treo 650, that improves on the mainstay Treo 600. The 650 still looks and works like a phone, but it now features a removable battery, Bluetooth wireless networking, a very high-resolution color screen, a faster processor and a better keyboard. The Treo 650 includes extra 'appliances' not found on the BlackBerry, for example, a digital camera.

The ability to send and receive digital pictures or video clips has been one of the hottest developments in cell phone and PDA segments worldwide. Intel developed Intel Quick Capture Technology, an interface that allows imaging devices to connect to a cell phone or PDA, improving image quality and reducing the overall cost of adding digital image capabilities for mobile devices.

Now, Japanese carrier NTT DoCoMo Inc. (DCM) wants to entrench the cell phone even deeper into the consumer lifestyle by turning it into an electronic wallet.

After introducing handsets last year that double as debit cards, allowing users to pay for small purchases such as soda or coffee from vending machines and convenience stores, the company this year plans to make those phones full-fledged credit cards.

"That would be the next logical step for the Bluetooth technology," commented Steven Philips of Cap Com Paging & Cellular. "I do see it happening in this area once the Bluetooth technology reaches a greater market penetration." BN

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