For once the Orangery in London’s Holland Park was empty of the latest conceptual painter’s work or a display of modernist sculpture.
On a tropical Thursday last week, as the heavens opened after a day of 25 degree heat, London’s champagne-sipping brigade of trendsetters gathered for the launch not of a new album by some up-and-coming band, but of a mobile phone.
In a savvy piece of marketing, Nokia had teamed up with iconic fashion photographer, Rankin. The highly acclaimed British fashion photographer was given an advance trial of Nokia’s latest and highest-resolution cameraphone, the 7610. With it, he crafted six huge A2 sized photographs and 60 other shots, inspired by the legendary Cottingley fairy photographs. By running the images through software filters, the former co-founder of the legendary Dazed & Confused magazine managed to conjure up incredibly sharp images of beautiful women posed as woodland fairies.
All this from a one-megapixel cameraphone with 4 x digital zoom, and a very sharp colour display.
As Rankin said himself, assistants could send him back pictures and even ten minutes of video footage of possible location for the fairy shoot, as well as images of models who might be used: “I draw inspiration for my work from the environment around me and being able to capture my ideas in vivid detail, using the Nokia 7610… allows me to instantly share my ideas with the rest of the team.”
That such a well regarded photographer – more used to shooting Tony Blair, Madonna and Kylie with thousands of pounds worth of equipment – would heap such praise on a cameraphone goes to show how far mobiles have come.
Last week it became clear that they are about to start invading just about every aspect of our lives.
The key to this new invasion is the usefulness of the devices and their convergence with the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).
Back in the mid-1990s Apple Macintosh pioneered the field of PDAs with the Newton device. The half-A4-sized black brick featured a digital diary, word processing, hand-writing recognition and even voice recording. But it was too big and too far ahead of its time.
Then along came Palm. They produced simple devices that could carry notes and a calendar easily. Suddenly the PDA, which unlike the paper Filofax stayed the same size no matter how much data you crammed into it, seemed like a no-brainer. In the dotcom-fuelled late 1990s, IT executives cooed over eachothers PDAs and beamed business cards to eachother as if pen and paper were suddenly no more. Predictably, Microsoft got into the act with its a cut-down version of Windows, since optimised for the mobile phone market.
Around that time a plucky British PDA company, Psion, produced a highly advanced operating system called Symbian. But unable to compete with a huge American firm like Palm, they took Symbian and moved into the mobile phone market. Symbian is now used in Sony Ericsson phones.
But as the PDA market stayed resolutely business-oriented, trying to act like mini-PCs, mobile phones took off like wildfire. Pretty soon mobiles could do simple calendaring and other PDA-like functions, if on a smaller screen. PDAs started to be caught in a pincer movement between smaller, more powerful laptops which could access wireless networks and ‘smarter’ mobiles – the Smartphone was born.
Last week the die was cast as Nokia, the world’s leader in mobile phones, overtook the world’s leader in PDAs, PalmOne. Consumers now chose smartphones over handheld computers to organise their lives.
Finland’s Nokia increased its worldwide sales to over 28% of the market, up from 22% in the first quarter of 2003, while U.S.-based PalmOne saw its share dwindle to 17% from 26%, according to British research group Canalys. Nokia sold 1.67 million advanced phones, up from 900,000 a year earlier. Two out of every three mobile devices sold in Asia and Europe were smartphones, versus just one in three last year. While global shipments of smartphones doubled, sales of handheld computers made by the likes of PalmOne and Hewlett-Packard remained virtually flat, if not falling.
It’s a remarkable turnaround. Until about 18 months ago, Nokia only offered the bulky Communicator smartphone, but its advanced Series 60 software has since been installed into smaller and lighter models.
The Nokia 7610 used by Rankin is just the latest phone to push the boundaries of what phones can do. Other handset makers are getting in on the act.
When it arrives this summer, the new Motorola MPx mobile will offer a 1.3 mega pixel camera with a flash as well as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless networking. The dual-hinged tri-band mobile has a full QWERTY keyboard for easy emailing. It runs the Microsoft Windows Mobile software with Windows Media Player on a 16-bit colour display.
The massive increase in the power of the mobile put the nail in the coffin last week of Sony’s desire to capture the PDA market with its PalmOS-based Clie range. It is to pull out of the PDA business everywhere except for Japan and has already closed production of low resolution digital cameras, ceding the market to cameraphones. Luckily, it’s Sony Ericsson venture is tied to the fortunes of Symbian, the rival smarketphone software which looks like dividing the world with Nokia’s Series 60.
Mobile phones can now organise our lives, tell us where we are and what’s around us, take pictures and send and receive messages as well as connect us via voice and – in some cases – video, with our friends. If you are thinking of buying a PDA in the near future, here’s some advice: don’t bother, your phone will soon do it all for you.
(First published in the Irish Times)