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More than just a phone

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 8, 2007
(Issue 2523, Games Gone Wild)

When I was about nine or 10, I guess, my uncle came home from Vietnam and resumed his hobby with radios. In addition to his ham (for which he'd built a tall aerial that served mostly as a lightning target after he moved out of my grandmother's) he also had a radio phone in his car. I can remember riding in the car with him and being allowed to call my grandmother's house to tell my mom we were on our way back.

In 1970, that was pretty cool.

It was also still two decades before the Internet would be opened up to the public and cell phones would become common.

Of course, "Dick Tracy" was in the comic pages every day with his wristwatch phone, and Spock and Kirk were in re-runs flipping their communicators open to request Scotty to beam them up.

Thirty years on, sci fi has become reality. The current generation of cell phones is a mix between the communicators of "Star Trek" and Dick Tracy's wristwatch.

I don't have the latest and greatest, not by a long shot, but when my last phone died and it was time to upgrade, I found myself far closer to the cutting edge than I was before upgrading.

It's a phone and an MP3 player and a ...

I have a Motorola RAZR now. Not only does it look cool, with its Star Trek-like flip-top design, but it features built-in e-mail and Web browsing capability, an MP3 player, and even a free demo version of PacMan.

Oh, yeah – I can also make telephone calls with it.

While my cell phone provider has disabled some of my RAZR's capabilities – like the ability to plug into my PC with the USB port and download MP3s from my computer – I can subscribe to an online music service and download songs to play through my cell phone. I'd need a set of Bluetooth headphones, and I'm not sure how hi-fi the results would be, but the option exists.

I can also purchase and play video games on the phone from my provider. I haven't done that yet, either, but I have played the free demo versions of PacMan and Tetris. The screen is smaller than that on a first-generation Game Boy, but the resolution is a lot better and the colors are as crisp and clear as my old Atari 800 produced on its clone of the PacMac arcade game.

You can also purchase and download new ringtones, and even music to play while callers wait for you to pick up. I did splurge here, and buy four new ringtones to I can identify my kids and wife by favorite songs. The Who, Nancy Sinatra, Count Basie and B.B. King were the artists I ended up going with, but the selection was pretty darn broad.

And as I wrote above, this is hardly a cutting edge phone.

A good friend has one that opens up in half lengthwise, giving him a real – if very small – keyboard to use when sending text messages or e-mails.

Online all the time

Ah, yes, the other feature I've not been willing to pay for. Yet.

My cell phone plan allows me to browse the Web or retrieve e-mail for an additional charge. I haven't gone there yet, but the other night while serving in my role as a merit badge counselor for the Boy Scouts, I was going over one scout's Citizenship in the Nation merit badge. He didn't know who his congressional representative was and complained he didn't know how to find out. I asked if he had Internet access at home, he said yes, I handed him his packet back and told him to find out and I'd sign off his badge.

Not 10 minutes later he was back – seems he used his mom's cell phone to go online and found out that Rep. Brian Bilbray was his rep. (He'd already memorized the names of Sens. Boxer and Feinstein.)

Today, if you're with one of the larger, dominant cell phone providers, you have access to the Internet from almost anywhere.

And if you're somewhere you can't get cell phone service, there are always the (admittedly pricier) satellite telephone services. The North County Times used one of these services a few years back when we sent a reporter and photographer to Iraq with a local Marine unit to cover the war. (It wasn't just a cell phone, though; we used a satellite phone modem in a laptop so they could send their stories and photos electronically. Still, you can get satellite phone service if you do a lot of ocean sailing and stay in touch that way.)

Dick Tracy and Capt. Kirk would both feel at home.